The dispute over what the appropriate rating should be for the new film Bully can be used to illustrate why not only should we scrap the movie rating system, but problems when people and institutions become overly reliant on ratings including credit and/or bond ratings. Since the financial meltdown with AAA mortgage bonds defaulting or losing large parts of their values, a lot of blame is focused on that the issuer pays the rating agency, so it is not independent. But the core problem as exemplified in movie ratings and there are conflicts of interest here also as the ratings are a product of something controlled by the MPAA which is the umbrella lobbying organisation for major movie studios., is not conflicts of interests but they are OPINIONS – ratings are not as accurate as determining temperature in degrees, they are more like asking people in the same room if they feel cold or hot and you will get different answers depending who you ask.
Bully received an R rating from the MPAA. In Canada which has a similar rating system except each province has its own ratings most of the Canadian provinces gave it a PG rating, but Quebec rated it a G. So we now have a situation where a 16 year old in New York cannot see a movie without a guardian that an 8 year old can see by themselves over the border in Quebec. I should point out that the producer can opt not to use the rating and release it unrated. But most movie theatres will not show an unrated film just like many mutual funds will not buy an unrated bond without an regard to the underlying facts and circumstances. AMC has said it will show the film, but will require children to be accompanied by a parent or have a note from a parent. This is the first time I know of a theatre chain accepting a note – children will not even need to forge the whole note, because AMC is making a standard note available on their website – they only have to forge their parent’s signature, actually they don’t even need to forge one – any signature from that says John Smith will do because the theatres have no idea who the kid’s parents are or what their real signature looks like. So it reality, AMC thinks the film should be exhibited for all to see, but wants the fig leaf to make believe they have involved parents in the process.
The dispute over the Bully rating has good arguments on both sides. On the side of the PG13 rating is that this is not a fiction movie, but a documentary showing real students in real life. That is because “bullying” is seen a social problem amongst children, it is children who will be most helped by seeing the consequences of bullying. Then there is the long standing criticism of the MPAA ratings system that is puts too much weight on sex and the use of certain words like the F-bomb than on violence. The core issue for the R rating on Bully is language. The other side of the argument is that ratings are simply advisory – theatre chains do not have to follow them. Distributors can opt to release unrated as is the case here and parents who want their kids to see the film, can take them.
Here is another analogy between bond ratings and movie ratings – most mutual fund managers can buy unrated bonds if in their view the bond has a credit quality that they believe would get say some minimum rating like B+ if it were rated in their opinion, but most bond fund managers will not bother to court controversy and put themselves on the line this way. Similarly, movie theatre chains and most parents are not going to spend the time to independently assesses the suitability of a film for children, it is just easier to say no.
The reason why the movie rating system should be scrapped is because it is a lie. In most places, teenagers can find some adult on the line who will walk them in, I did it when I was a kid. The kids who don’t see the film are the same ones who would not see it even if the theatre would let them in because they respect their parent’s wishes. But the bigger issue is the ratings are misleading. Most parents are unaware that there are programs on prime time television that they might find more objectionable than a film like Bully. Take the hit show Criminal Minds which deals with people committing the sickest, most twisted violent crimes imaginable – but they don’t visually depict those, they just describe them verbally in graphic detail and this is considered OK, but the F-bomb would still be censored on prime time while a detailed discussion of necrophilia (sex with corpses) would not be and this makes sense to people?
The MPAA ratings has long been criticised for being more lenient with major studios than with independents. Who can forget the lobbying over the rating of Scarface in the 1980’s which three times was given a X rating (today would be NC-17), but made some very small cuts, still had tons of coarse language and managed to get an R rating. Why? Because the studio had $23 million invested in the film. Long time film critic Roger Ebert has criticised the system as have others for treating sex and language more harshly than violence. In some cases, the rating might be determined simply on the number of times the F-word is used. Here is something Roger Ebert wrote on the ratings system recently and he has written many others. As Ebert points out there are now websites that provide better information to parents about film suitability than the MPAA ratings.
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