This film is not yet rated

I recently saw a film entitled This Film is Not Yet Rated, an attack documentary against the MPAA film ratings board. Despite being generally pre-disposed to dislike the MPAA, I found the film thoroughly unconvincing.

The basic problem with the movie is that it doesn’t understand what censorship is. Censorship is not when someone fails to forge the business deals necessary to produce and disseminate his speech. Were that the case, millions of aspiring writers and directors would be being “censored” all the time when no one agrees to produce their movie. No, censorship is when a group of people do forge the consensual business deals necessary to produce and disseminate speech, and a third party comes in to stop it. That third party is typically the government, but of late it has often been Muslim pressure groups bringing threats of violence.

There’s no third party in the MPAA system. If a theater wants to show an NC-17 movie, no one is stopping them, and some do. However, most theaters have voluntarily decided not to show movies rated NC-17, and most advertising media have voluntarily decided not to air commercials for such movies. These companies have made the business decision to trust the MPAA’s ratings, and consequently an unfavorable rating keeps producers from forging the business deals needed to garner a wide audience. This isn’t censorship; it’s free enterprise.

In one astonishing interview, a lawyer who (honest to God) is labeled as a “First Amendment Attorney” says that we would be better off with a government censorship board than the MPAA. At that point it became pretty clear not to take the movie seriously.

The movie does make one allegation that might hold water: it claims that the MPAA is much easier on studio films than independent films. The movie’s evidence is not exactly airtight, but the charge is quite plausible since the studios fund the MPAA. If true, it’s still not censorship, but it is anti-competitive behavior that is probably illegal. But if anyone has ever sued the MPAA over its ratings on anti-trust grounds, I can’t find evidence of it.

But apart from that point,  the whole movie takes a far more indignant tone than it is entitled to. The MPAA reviews movies, and they don’t like the reviews.

The movie does argue convincingly that the MPAA ratings are fairly arbitrary. They also argue that the ratings favor some potentially objectionable material over other (e.g., violence over sex, and heterosexual sex over homosexual sex). Most of those preferences seem unsurprising, since in most cases the raters seem to be reflecting the prevailing social mores.

A summary of the movie would be incomplete if it did not mention the investigation plot. The movie takes issue with the fact that the raters’ identities are unknown, and much of the movie is dedicated to a private investigator’s effort to learn their identities. The effort is successful, and it turns out the demographics of the raters are not precisely what is suggested by the MPAA. (For instance, most of them do not have young children.)

A summary would also be incomplete if it did not mention that parts of the movie are very difficult to watch. The movie is rife with clips from scenes of various movies than earned them NC-17 ratings. The apparent reason for the inclusion of these clips is to ensure that the movie itself received an NC-17 rating. The narrator/director pretends to be upset by this utterly unsurprising development, but without it the film could not have its third act in which he laughably attempts to fight the rating.

At least I can still despise the MPAA for its support of copyright extension and the DMCA.

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