The MPAA Must Die (and How You Can Help Make That Happen)

By  · Published on February 1st, 2012

The Motion Picture Association of America must die. It’s a monopolistic behemoth that poisons creativity and commerce while hiding behind the failed task of educating parents about film content, and the time has come to call for its dissolution.

The above logo is what we, as movie fans, are most familiar with when it comes to the MPAA because we see it on trailers and home video, but that symbol is really a trick of PR. The goal of the MPAA is not to rate movies, even if that’s the product we know and loathe best. The MPAA’s founding, fundamental aim is to maintain the corporate dominance of its members ‐ the six largest studios.

It does not serve fans. It does not serve families. It does not serve filmmakers.

A Too-Quick History

Unfortunately, it’s always been this way. In 1922, Famous Players-Lasky (the Adolph Zukor-led studio behind the first Best Picture winner, Wings), Metro-Goldwyn, and First National (which would merge with Warner Bros. 6 years later) banded together to create a trade association called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. It’s also always had a history of questionable practices. When the organization was 3 years old, it rightfully came under attack from independent filmmakers and the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America. Their problem? The studios had created a trust to help each other hold tight to profits. An extensive report was filed with the Federal Trade Commission, a few changes were made, but nothing was done to stop the MPPDA’s domination.

In 1930, the Big Three, with former Post Master General Will Hays as their head, created the Hays Code which detailed what was acceptable and not acceptable in movies. It was a restraining self-censorship that affected the films being made and being seen by the public. This became their public image ‐ a morality police for moving art. It just so happened that they owned the studios, so if your movie wasn’t made by their specifications, it didn’t get played.

It wasn’t until 1948, after a name change to how we know them now, that the ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. applied the Sherman Antitrust Law to break up the monopoly by making it illegal for the film studios to also own the distribution houses. The decision is a vital one, and it injured the industry by taking away an unfair market blocking tool. It should have changed everything, but it didn’t.

A Legal Monopoly

The accusations of 1948 still hold true at their core today. Instead of owning the theaters, the studios create pressures that force the theaters to abide by their rulings (specifically how the revenue will be split between them). This relationship hasn’t been all that public until the massive push-back from the National Theater Owners Association when Universal proclaimed it would make Tower Heist available on Video On Demand just two weeks after opening in theaters. It took that atomic threat to rally NATO together, and it worked, but they are still very much at the mercy of the studios by virtue of the business structure. Without movies, they have nothing to lure people into their high-priced popcorn trap. Legally, the studios are playing by the book, but it’s understood that studios can still survive on home video sales and new platforms (if they figure out how) while movie theaters are at risk of disappearing or at least diminishing significantly. To add pressure, the Blockbuster Mentality delivers a few movies into theaters every year that are must-haves. Imagine if your income depended on making sure your relationship with Warners was solid so you could get reels of The Dark Knight Rises. The lesson? Play nice or perish.

Part of playing nice involves abiding by the MPAA ratings. By and large, the big theater chains agree not to show unrated movies, the studios stay happy, and the control continues. That control also extends out to filmmakers. The MPAA has always maintained that their ratings system is voluntary, but filmmakers submit their movies voluntarily the same way someone getting mugged hands over their money. It’s a simple equation: The MPAA controls the ratings, the big movie chains won’t play anything that’s unrated, so if you want your movie to screen in a bigger market, you’ve got to knock on the MPAA’s door and submit to their judgement.

And who controls the MPAA? The studios. According to the MPAA website, its purpose is to:

“champion the creative and artistic freedoms of filmmakers, while working to rally public and private institutions around the world to the cause of safeguarding intellectual property rights, advancing technology-driven innovation, and opening markets to the uniquely powerful and increasingly global medium of film.

Throughout its history and into the modern era, MPAA’s core mission has remained the same ‐ to advance the business and the art of filmmaking and its enjoyment around the world.”

Just below those flowery words? The logos of Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warners. This isn’t a true representation of filmmakers ‐ it’s a representation of the biggest and wealthiest that works stridently to protect those economic interests through market-controlling tactics. It’s not that the studios have the MPAA in their pockets. It’s that the studios are the MPAA. It’s the schoolboy writing the questions on the exam. When an outside filmmaker knocks on that door for a rating, they’re knocking on a door financed by six studios that have a vested interest in quelling competition.

That’s why it’s incorrect to think of the MPAA ratings as self-policing. It’s not an industry looking out for its consumers ‐ it’s a conglomerate of the wealthiest companies deciding what rules everyone in the business has to abide by. It’s rule by the few, and you won’t be seeing the MPAA sending out applications to join them any time soon. Hell, even a powerful force like The Weinstein Company isn’t allowed to play.

But if the MPAA is a trade association, isn’t that legal?

That’s a tricky question. To answer it, here’s attorney James Kopecky: “Trade associations (especially the MPAA) exhibit textbook anti-competitive behavior and should be labelled as trusts that violate trade laws. But, they can skirt by in certain areas that allow them to avoid such labels.”

Those loopholes, according to Kopecky, include:

  1. The MPAA being “separate” from the studios because they’re not direct employees.
  2. Even though the studios are paying for the MPAA, they’re doing so under the auspice of protecting the industry and not individual interests.
  3. The major studios can still consider each other competition.
  4. They aren’t price-fixing or controlling what types of movies are made.

In common sense terms:

  1. Even though the studios give them all their money, the MPAA employees are not paid directly by them.
  2. While the MPAA lobbies the government and represents the interests of the studios, those are somehow also the direct interests of all filmmakers.
  3. The Big Six still face off when they release movies, even while they’re all one team behind the MPAA.
  4. The first part is true, but while they don’t control what gets made, they help control what gets shown in theaters.

Creative Differences

To outline all of the examples where independent filmmakers were slighted by the MPAA while the studios were given preference (since the MPAA is the studios) would take far too many words. Plus, no one can sum up the core problems quite like Matt Stone and Trey Parker talking about South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut:

There are no objective rules, leading to a nebulous ratings system spearheaded by a group of anonymous parents. When Jack Valenti became chairman of the MPAA in 1966, he created the new ratings system as a direct response to the emerging crop of new filmmakers during the New Hollywood era, but that welcomed change has turned out to be a wolf in bureaucrat’s clothing. It’s the movie industry version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ‐ purporting to sidestep a problem of censorship instead of solving it while still placing that regulatory power in the hands of the people the system is meant to regulate.

He also specifically wanted parents to decide how movies would be rated, but there are myriad problems with that set up (even with as democratic as it appears to be). First of all, the anonymous and insular nature of the process means that the MPAA is heavily guarded against real oversight. That’s not to say that there is any malfeasance going on in their hallowed halls, but their structure facilitates the possibility that corruption could be as normal as lunch at noon, and no one from the outside world ‐ that’s greatly effected by the MPAA decisions ‐ would ever know.

Secondly, the ratings board of “normal” parents from Los Angeles is of the same mind considering their track record on judging scenes of homosexual sex and their grand pass on violence. They’re also presumably in the same age range with no one close to be under 40 years old. Perhaps it’s a sampling problem: when you ask for people to come judge the morality of art, you get a certain type of person volunteering. Regardless, it’s yielded some unsavory decisions that ‐ yet again ‐ prove advantageous to the larger studios who trade in mass-market, mostly uncontroversial filmmaking while leaving independent and foreign filmmakers outside of the lobby in the cold.

Examples of the double standard abound and were gracefully explored in Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated. The biggest recent example of obvious bias came with Black Swan (released by Fox Searchlight) and Blue Valentine (an independent distributed by The Weinstein Company). The one with ties to the MPAA got an R-rating. The one without, got an NC-17. This, despite no quantitative difference between two scenes of oral sex. In the end, The Weinstein Company successfully got the MPAA to change the rating, which is great, but also proves that their ratings system is arbitrary to begin with.

This also happened around the same time that David Schwimmer’s Trust was bizarrely slapped with an NC-17 for a scene that involved implied sexuality and zero nudity. Compare that with a movie like, say, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (from MPAA member Universal) which got an R-rating with sexual content and graphic nudity. The argument is not whether each film deserved a certain rating; the argument is that there should be clear guidelines in place that apply evenly to both studio and independent movies. That’s currently not the case, and it’s economically advantageous to the studios.

In general, as the anecdote in that Stone/Parker clip revealed, studios are given an easier time navigating the MPAA because 1) they tend to make the movies the MPAA finds ethically clean and 2) they, you know, own the MPAA.

As a small aside, judging art ethically comes with a peculiar unintended consequence. With the MPAA getting more and more detailed in how they describe the possibly offensive content, they deliver massive spoilers for movies. Landon Palmer recently joked with me about them ruining a key scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by spoiling it right under their rating. The irony in all of this is that we’re supposed to be upset by the scene, but the MPAA recognizes its potential to upset, and publicizes it in an effort to keep viewers “safe.”

Digressions notwithstanding, the third problem with having parents decide how movies should be rated is that parents have no idea what might really be harmful to children ‐ at least not on that large a scale. It’s imperative that parents be armed with the tools that will help them decide what content should and should not be seen by their offspring (personal responsibility is key), but does that mean other parents should make the determinations and classifications? Probably not.

To that point, Barbara J. Wilson, PhD makes a strong case for child psychologists and child behavior specialists weighing in on the subject. What would research-guided standards dictate? In several cases, rules that would counter to how the MPAA makes its decisions now. For example, it would consider the context of violence and not simply the amount of it. It’s a more vibrant system which could lead to more nuanced rules that could be converted into a truly workable system that doesn’t depend on the type of day that one of the ratings board members is having.

The Final SOPA Straw

Beyond their monopolistic tendencies of market control and inability to simply provide parents with meaningful content information without 1) de facto dictating it or 2) issuing too-detailed accounts of what’s in the movie before we see the movie, the MPAA and its chairman Chris Dodd overplayed their hand in a way that rightfully incensed the public with their concept for and pressure to create SOPA. It was a bill intentionally designed to injure freedom on the internet so that the major studios could more easily hunt down piracy ‐ a phenomenon which demonstrably hurts indie filmmakers but hasn’t been shown to hurt the bottom line of the Big Six. Now, it’s certainly plausible to theorize that profits are diminished, but it doesn’t help their cause when the MPAA publishes falsified/grossly incorrect data on piracy’s effect on sales.

Dodd’s infantile rant after SOPA and PIPA went down in a flame war should be a clear enough message to everyone that the MPAA has one core principle, and it doesn’t involve expanding creative freedom for artists, it doesn’t involve supporting or growing audiences, and it doesn’t involve aiding anyone who doesn’t pay the light bills in their building.

Possible Solutions to a Difficult Problem

The problem of the MPAA is two-fold.

  1. The group is too closely connected to the major studios.
  2. The ratings system is unfair and used to control market practices in a biased way.

The possible solutions for this are obvious: either dissolve the MPAA and strike it down as an illegal trust or shift control of the ratings system over to an uninterested third party not funded by those who directly benefit from their rulings. It’s simple, but incredibly difficult because we, as movie fans, have zero power over the MPAA or the studios. Which raises a big question.

So What Do We Do Now?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do. That’s the difficult position we’re in. Back to James Kopecky for even worse news:

“Labeling [the MPAA as] a trust is going to be even harder now that Citizen’s United survived Supreme Court review. If a corporation can use the free speech and free expression protections of the First Amendment to donate money to political candidates, then I have to believe they will eventually use the same case to ensure free association protection from the First Amendment as well. If a corporation is a person, and people can freely associate with whoever they chose, provided they don’t explicitly break any laws, then a corporation should be able to do the same thing.”

That’s no good. Plus, since the MPAA is a private entity with no legal ties to the government, they’re untouchable unless a lawsuit is brought against them by 1) someone who has been injured by their practices, and has 2) a discerning lawyer who can gain legal access to the MPAA’s internal documents to show 3) compelling evidence that they’ve severely, disproportionately favored the studios that keep their doors open over independent filmmakers including the one that brings the suit. That’s a tall order.

What we can do is not much, but sometimes your only course of action is the right course of action. Recently, a Texas man named Michael L. started a White House petition to have Dodd investigated for his comments on Fox News regarding political candidates not looking for their large donation checks if they weren’t going to help the entertainment industry on SOPA. It currently has over 31,000 signatures on it with more still coming in.

It’s a fine model to utilize, so we’ve started a petition through the White House system to call for an investigation into the MPAA for violations of anti-trust laws. It makes no sense that an insular group using market pressures and tools like the ratings system to stifle competitors can both purport to speak for the entire filmmaking industry and to claim that it’s a legal trade association.

It’s a wild card move, and it’s a Hail Mary play to be sure, but it’s the only move left on the board for the unwashed masses that simply love watching movies. Even though legally we’re barred from making any real noise, we still have a dog in this fight. The decisions and actions of the MPAA affect us just as they affect the livelihoods and potential growth of independent filmmakers.

If you agree, please sign the petition. Share it with friends. Share with enemies that happen to agree with you on this. Share it with your grandmother. If our voice is loud enough, it might just be heard.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.