Essays · Movies

Celebrate 50 Years of MPAA Ratings With Unrestricted ‘Eighth Grade’ Screenings

In a bold move, A24 is making its new coming-of-age movie available to the actual 8th graders of the world.
Eighth Grade
By  · Published on August 7th, 2018

In a bold move, A24 is making its new coming-of-age movie available to the actual 8th graders of the world.

Teenagers of the world, rejoice: you can now see a movie all about yourself without having to pay full price for a ticket or asking your parents to escort you to the box office. In a bold move reminiscent of issue-driven cinema, distributor A24 has decided to celebrate the success of Bo Burnham‘s Eighth Grade by sponsoring unrestricted screenings of the movie across the country and in each state. These screenings, which will take place on August 8th, are framed by A24 as an opportunity for teenagers to enjoy a movie that explicitly speaks to their fears and anxieties. “If you’ve been through 8th Grade,” A24’s website notes, “Eighth Grade is for you.”

On the one hand, this provides access to this movie to many people who may not otherwise be able to afford a movie ticket. On the other, it corrects an egregious wrong by the MPAA. While many critics have joked that Eighth Grade is considerably scarier than any of the years’ biggest horror films — I myself watched the majority of the movie from between my fingers in a failed attempt to create distance between myself and the movie’s heart-pounding anxieties — most agree that the film’s R rating is hardly warranted. An editorial at RottenTomatoes, for example, describes the film as “exactly what [teenagers] need to see right now as they figure out their place in the world.” Similarly, a piece at Vox argues that “it doesn’t take a lot of emotional intelligence to see that this would be a positive example for anyone at the same juncture in life,” making the ridiculous case that, surprise, surprise, eighth graders themselves should be allowed to see a movie about their own experience.

And while it might seem old hat to argue about the maturity of Eighth Grade at this point in the film’s release cycle, it’s important to remember that many audiences are just now getting the opportunity to see Burnham’s film. Eighth Grade only just expanded to 1,084 theaters on August 3rd; with the addition of free public screenings, many families who might not otherwise see the film will have an opportunity to do so. Hopefully, they’ll find themselves agreeing with the points made by both of the aforementioned film critics. Burnham understands the bluster that accompanies modern coming-of-age experiences in a digital world; while the film does include its fair share of profanity and sexual innuendo, to pretend that this is any more far-reaching than the content available via iPhone is disingenuous at best and downright ignorant at worst. This is the kind of movie that can help parents better understand their teenagers and remind teenagers that they are not alone. That is if they are actually allowed to see it.

In a nice bit of synchronicity, the Eighth Grade screenings are also happening within striking distance of the 50th anniversary of the MPAA ratings system. By 1968, the Production Code Administration, the organization tasked with overseeing the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, had effectively lost its teeth as a regulatory body in Hollywood. As a result, the proliferation of violent films in Hollywood became a dangerous political football. Facing an outcry in favor of government regulation in Hollywood, newly appointed MPAA president Jack Valenti introduced a voluntary rating system meant to demonstrate Hollywood’s ability to regulate itself. In the decades since its adoption, the MPAA ratings have withstood the test of time as a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” between the ratings board and the National Association of Theater Owners. Theaters are under no legal obligation to adhere to the ratings system, but it has proven to be a mutually beneficial relationship for all parties involved, especially during repeated attacks on mature content in Hollywood.

These types of agreements can be ignored, however, and over the past decade, one theater, in particular, has waged a public war against overly stringent MPAA ratings. New York City’s IFC Center, an offshoot of the Independent Film Channel and one of New York’s most reliable first-run arthouses, has twice refused to enforce MPAA ratings for recent high-profile releases. In 2013, the IFC Center sparked a considerable amount of controversy by announcing that it would allow high school students to attend screenings of Blue is the Warmest Color. A year later, the IFC Center would again make a splash by ignoring the Restricted rating for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In each case, theater management argued that intelligent teenagers deserved a chance to ingest the films’ messages. “This is not a movie for young children,” the announcement for Blue is the Warmest Color read, “but it is our judgment that it is appropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers, who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.”

And while IFC Center will not be part of the August 8th celebration, the Eighth Grade event website does offer a nice blend of major and minor theater chains. Many of the usual suspects make an appearance — an Arclight location in California, several Alamo Drafthouse venues across the country — but what makes this so impressive is the number of major theatrical chains that are participating. Regals, AMCs, Landmarks, and Bow Ties are all represented in smaller markets with MPAA-free screenings; this is not one venue with a history of ignoring troublesome ratings but an assortment of theaters, big and small, that recognize the value in opening up Eighth Grade for an educational screening.

Violence may no longer be the focal point of the MPAA ratings system — these days, the MPAA is considerably more afraid of sexuality than mass violence in thousands of movie theaters — but the fact that a majority of theater chains allowed A24 to rent out these screens and open them up to thousands speaks to the fact that some movies can still transcend these ratings. It takes a special movie to inspire people to set aside 50 years of restrictions and self-policing; if nothing else can sell you on seeing Eighth Grade this week, maybe that observation will do the trick.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)