10 of the MPAA’s Biggest Rating Mistakes

Movie geeks and horror fans across the internet are up in arms over news that director Guillermo del Toro’s dream project, a film adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness, has been canned by Universal Pictures. Harry Knowles at Ain’t It Cool News fired off one of his barely readable screeds, calling Universal “chickenshit” for cancelling the picture; Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny responded with a reasoned and reasonable essay, noting that Universal has taken on plenty of chancey movies.

So why were they so afraid of this one? “Concerns over the film’s budget and likely R rating,” explains The New Yorker. Basically, the studio feared that the film’s high production costs ($150 million) would require a box office gross that said R rating would preclude it from generating. Commentators like Knowles and McWeeny have taken this news as an opportunity to fire up this year’s model of the art vs. commerce debate. But here’s a more pressing question: why have we allowed an organization as clearly corrupt and incompetent as the MPAA to play such a pivotal role in determining what films get made?

Kirby Dick’s brilliant 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (go watch it, it’s streaming on Netflix) is a sharp, funny, angry examination of the MPAA, the anonymous “group of parents” who determine a movie’s rating. In the course of his feature-length investigation, Dick discovered that most of the members of the review board were parents of adult children, if any. Most damagingly, he demonstrated how independent filmmakers were more likely to be branded with harsher ratings than those working for the big studios (who, incidentally, are the MPAA’s only members), and how studio filmmakers are given guidelines and advice for trims that indie filmmakers are denied. As Slate recently reported, a team of social scientists took a look at the board’s decisions and found that, to no one’s surprise, films distributed by MPAA members are (on average) about seven percent less likely to receive an R rating than films that aren’t. That information certainly goes a long way towards explaining some of the group’s more befuddling decisions — movies that should have been R (or worse) but weren’t, and movies that got an R (or worse) for no good reason. We’ve compiled ten of the MPAA’s most bewildering calls below.

A Film Unfinished (Rated R, 2010)

Yael Hersonski’s riveting documentary (new to DVD) assembles footage from an uncompleted Nazi propaganda film called Das Ghetto and complements it with testimonials from survivors, as well as information about the making of the film and why it was abandoned. It’s a brutal, vital document, full of haunting moments, such as the scene in which a group of horrified Jews are stripped and forced to take a “ritual bath.” The MPAA apparently decided that nude scene was too super-hot for today’s teens and slapped the movie with an R rating. The film’s independent distributor, Oscilloscope Laboratories, appealed the rating, citing the film’s importance as an educational tool and pointing out that the PG-13 rated 1998 documentary The Last Days featured similar scenes. (Key difference: that film’s executive producer was one Steven Spielberg.) Didn’t matter; one of the many delights of the MPAA’s appeals board is its refusal to allow filmmakers to cite precedent. The R rating stood. Oscilloscope released A Film Unfinished unrated.