What Andrew Sullivan doesn’t understand about the MPAA.

I am, of course, very pleased and thankful to see our Brett and Melanie Kickstarter project get picked up yesterday by Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. We saw an almost instantaneous $125 jump in our funding total for which I am grateful, and inbound traffic to ComstockFilms.com on the search [tony comstock] was up yesterday by about 500%. Thank you Andrew and team.

I was surprised (and maybe a little hurt) to see Sullivan, a conservative, frame this project as an anti-MPAA prank, appending to his post an inter-office memo from Matt Stone regarding changes that were made to Team America South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut to achieve an R-rating.

(Note. Thanks to reader Ryan for the title correction on the memo! I think the larger point about pranking/defying the MPAA in the below passage about Team America stands.)

The Team America story is a familiar one to anyone who pays attention to how exploitation filmmakers arbitrage the R/NC17/NR boundary.

After a publicity generating pre-release dust up about puppet sex, the producers of Team America released the film theatrically with an R-rating, and on an unrated DVD with the stock standard “Uncensored and Unrated” in provocative red stenciling. The inference we’re supposed to draw is clear: by releasing Team America as an unrated DVD, the brave producers have boldly defied the MPAA to present the untrammeled director’s vision, free from the meddling interference of the craven and hypocritical ratings board.

It’s also complete, 100% bullshit; and it’s bullshit for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, there is no difference between level of content you can put in a film/DVD rated NC17 by the MPAA and film/DVD that is released without a rating. Like the X-rating it replaced, the NC17 is the MPAA’s adults only rating, and there is no upper threshold for sex, violence, language, or crudeness. Whatever vulgarity Parker and Stone included in the “Uncensored and Unrated” DVD, that same vulgarity would also have been acceptable in an NC17 rated version.

More importantly, as the fact that Parker and Stone were able to release Team America as an unrated DVD demonstrates, in the US there’s no legal requirement that any film be submitted to the MPAA, or any other ratings or censorship body.

There’s a lot of confusion about film ratings, censorship, and US standards vs standards in other countries, and perhaps one the reasons that Sullivan is confused about this is because in his country of birth, every film that hopes to be released, either theatrically or on DVD, must pass before a government run and legally mandated BBFC ratings board. In the UK there is no option to release an “Uncensored and Unrated” DVD or screen unrated films in theaters.

In fact, because our own films would likely receive the highly restrictive R18+, a rating that would only allow them to be sold in licensed sexshops, rather than in the unlicensed LGBT and feminist book stores in which they are popular, our films are imported and and distributed in the UK (and other countries) in direct defiance of government censors.

And unlike Stone and Parker’s “bold defiance” of their MPAA overlords by releasing Team America on an “Uncensored and Unrated” DVD, the people in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere who import and distribute our DVDs and screen our film risk fines and jail time to do so. (For more on the “The damned MPAA wants to give my film an NC17! Boo hoo! So buy the unrated DVD! That’ll show ‘em!” schtick, please read The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America over at my scholarly blog The IntenttoArouse.com)

So no, the Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl Meets the MPAA is not an anti-MPAA prank. More over, as a conservative, I would think that Andrew Sullivan favor voluntary, opt-in, self-regulation over government mandated, backed up by force of law censorship. Or maybe he does, but he’s just confused about which is which in this case. That’s not surprising. Producers like Parker and Stone, Kirby Dick, and others get a lot of publicity out of stoking anger and ignorance about how movies are rated in the US, and this works against the establishment of a legitimate Adult-Only film-space where grown-up ideas about relationships and sexuality can be explored with frankness and candor. Separating fact from fiction on movie ratings is part of why we’re doing this project.

But it’s not the only reason.

Part one of the project is getting our MPAA rating for Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl. Part two is submitting variously rated versions to places like YouTube, the Apple iTunes and App Store, posting them on Facebook, etc. and finding out what happens. Unlike the MPAA, these places don’t give notes on what needs to be changed to meet their Terms of Service. You just get denied, or you maybe you don’t, until you’ve invested months or years in staking out your digital space, only to wake up one morning to find you’ve been declared in violation and your investment of time and effort is gone.

To me that’s a lot more important that what the MPAA asks us to take out of Brett and Melanie to get an R or an PG13 rating. I’ll explain why in further posts, but for now, I’d just ask you go back and read this post from five years ago, and remember that when you conduct political conversations in a corporate space, you have no First Amendment protections. That’s true if your having your conversation at the mall, or if your having your conversation  in the cloud. And as more and more of our lives are conducted in corporate spaces, understanding who’s permitted to speak (or show movies, or conduct business) and who is silenced is an issue of growing importance.

How I Got Arrested for Loving a Gay Man

That’s why we’re doing the project. That’s why we’re going to the effort and expense of securing a culturally credible rating for Brett and Melanie. That’s why we’re putting Brett and Melanie into the potentially hostile environment of YouTube and the Apple Stores. And that’s why we need your help! So please, become a Kickstarter backer today and help us reach our fundraising goal!

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  1. Ryan
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    One tiny niggle.

    Your whole post is based on Sullivan posting a memo about Team America: World Police. You use that memo as a springboard for this post…but the memo was actually about South Park. I don’t know if the South Park film was released unrated and all that but I figure your points stand nonetheless, I just had to pick a little nit there :)

    One other thing: you put “bold defiance” of trey and matt against the MPAA in quotes. Who are you quoting? Certainly not Sullivan, he never said it. I was unsure if there was a reference I missed somewhere because I’ve never heard Trey and Matt refer to themselves in such a…shall we say, grandiose way?

    Otherwise, great post. I’m very curious to see where this little project ends up. Hopefully it ends up educating the public a little more about the rating system (and the people behind it) in this country. See also the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.

  2. tony
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the correction, Ryan! I suppose my confusion stems from Parker and Stone pulling a variation of the same stunt with “Orgazmo”, originally rated NC17 by the MPAA, then release on DVD as an “Unrated Special Edition. “Unrated” was in censorious red stamp letters, natch.

    So far as I can tell, there is only one version of the South Park Movie, and it is rated R. My bad.

    As to the quote marks, I believe the term is air quotes, or scare quote, often used to denote emphasis, figuratively, or in this case, sarcasm. When Parker and Stone release “unrated” DVDs with censor’s style rubber-stamp lettering they are pranking the MPAA, but even more so, they are pranking the faux “were defying the man” aspirations of their credulous fans.

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