Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How 2001 was a film game-changer IV: Joe Lieberman and the FTC use Columbine to kill the R-rating and (by proxy) mainstream films for adults.

This is one of a handful of essays that will be dealing with the various trends that were kicked off during the 2001 calendar year, and how they still resonate today.

I don't have all that much to say about Colombiana, which I saw this weekend.  It's well-acted (save for one overwrought emotional exposition moment in the third act), and the action sequences are suitably tight and intense.  But the most noteworthy thing about this film is that its PG-13.  Not only do we have yet another adult-themed and relatively violent action picture that has been awarded a PG-13 rating, but you can clearly see and hear the alterations that went into the original product to make it so.  You can see the haphazard editing around the onscreen violence.  You can hear the muffling of gun shots and other sounds of violence (screams, punching, kicking, etc).  Colombiana is an adult film with adult sensibilities.  Yet in this current market, it was considered unwise to release this violent action picture with an R-rating.  It's been over ten years since the Joseph Lieberman-speared committee into the marketing of R-rated pictures effectively put a clamp on the 'for audiences 17 and over or with a parental guardian' rating when it came to mainstream entertainment.  And it's been ten years since we saw the effective end of adult-oriented R-rated fare in mainstream cinemas.

The Columbine school shootings in April, 1999 were the cause for these commissions.  Lieberman, having 'lost' his Vice Presidential bid in 2000, had gone back to doing what he did best: attacking youth-centric pop culture in a manner that would make Dr. Fredric Wertham proud. The core results of the study was that R-rated films were being test-screened and marketed to audiences well-under seventeen years of age.  Ironically, one of the prime examples, Judge Dredd, was a film that star Sylvester Stallone claimed back in 1995 was intended as a PG-13 in the first place.  We may laugh at that notion (as well as the protests of Harrison Ford and Tim Burton, over the respective well-deserved R-ratings for Air Force One and Sleepy Hollow), but as I wrote in 2001, it was a moot point.  The MPAA rating system was intended to be voluntary, and suggestive in nature.  It was not intended to be ironclad law.  So if New Line Cinema wanted to test and/or market Set It Off to thirteen year old kids, that was their right and privilege.  With an adult in tow, children of any age could see a film, so it was plausible that studios would market to such audiences.The studies were done in late 1999 to late 2000, with the results basically being put into action the following year (with the unfortunate help of Senators Hillary Clinton and Robert Byrd).  The intent was to prevent underage audiences from being exposed to R-rated material.  But the result was the removal of truly adult material from nearly all mainstream pictures, while in turn forcing more and more R-rated content into PG-13 films.

Anyway, long story short, the FTC put out a number of restrictions and regulations in regards to marketing R-rated films.  To wit, you generally could not put a trailer for an R-rated film before anything other than another R-rated film.  You generally could not run TV ads for R-rated films before 9pm, or during kid-friendly television shows.  This by itself made it challenging to reach the teen or older teen audience that would otherwise be interested in the latest bawdy comedy or violent action thriller.  Basically the industry was in a bind, not knowing when a governmental watchdog agency (or just a random politician running on a 'social values' campaign) would basically attempt to make a big deal over showing an ad for an R-rated movie before a PG-13 film and/or during a show like Dawson's Creek or Felicity that targeted older teens.  Slowly but surely, R-rated films of all genres dried up, with studios not wanting to spend money on big-budget genre fare that they were unable to market as they please.  Why make a teen-centric R-rated picture when regulations all-but prevented you from marketing that picture to your teen audiences?  But the casualties were not just in the realm of rip-offs of The Matrix or American Pie.  Adult genre films and adult-themed dramas became endangered species as well, to the point where we generally only saw R-rated adult fare during the year-end awards season.

The FTC report and the resulting legislation are not solely responsible for this.  The sea change that saw big-budget fantasy films become the core tentpole of choice was also a prime factor.  The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and the successful big-budget, all-ages PG-13 spectacles that followed (Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, etc) went hand-in-hand with the new difficulties in marketing adult entertainment.  But the result was the same.  Up until just the last year or so, R-rated mainstream films more or less disappeared, while studios became desperate to fit their seemingly R-rated content into the PG-13 box.  We saw a decade of severed heads flying over castle walls (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), men having their eyes pecked-out by birds (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), innocent civilians being executed at point-black range and blown to pieces by terrorists (Vantage Point), and Catholic Cardinals being brutally and graphically tortured to death (Angels and Demons)... all under the 'appropriate for kids 13-and-up guise of that magical PG-13 rating.  We now have a mainstream rating system that allows obviously R-rated content and sensibilities into theoretically kid-friendly films as long as there is not too much blood or 'hard' profanity.

Sure, Live Free or Die Hard was every bit as violent as the previous Die Hard films, but as long as the blood was digitally erased, it was considered a more kid-friendly film.  And yes Colombiana was absolutely intended as an adult action thriller, but so difficult would it have been to market the film with its intended R-rating that Sony made the choice to basically gut the film in order to get that lower rating.  Thus we have an entire industry of PG-13 entertainments that are actually R-rated adult films in disguise (they made the same call earlier this year with Priest, a variation of The Searchers as a horror film that absolutely should have been R-rated).  Other casualties of this problem include The Transporter, Sucker Punch, Salt (a 90s throwback that absolutely would have gone out as R in 1996), and, I would argue, the Bourne franchise.   The R-rated action film is all-but nonexistent in this day and age.  With the exception of occasional Jason Statham vehicles, pretty much every big-studio action picture is now whittled down to a more 'all-audiences friendly' PG-13.  Yes, we've seen a resurgence of R-rated comedies over the past few years, but I'd wager that's purely because they are relatively cheap and their R-rated content (usually limited to raunchy dialogue) can be easily looped during the foreign translations, depending on the cultural mores of a given nation. But the genre films aimed at older audiences, the dark thrillers and dramas, the kind of star vehicles that Paramount excelled at in the 1990s (Who would have thought Double Jeopardy would be an artifact of a by-gone time?), are all-but nonexistent.

This was surely not the intent of Lieberman, his various co-sponsors, and the FTC back in 2001.  But the disappearance of truly adult films with adult content and adult sensibilities is indeed what occurred.  It is part of why the relative successes of The Town and The Lincoln Lawyer were so important.  It is why, despite my misgivings over the project, the David Fincher remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is so important.  It is literally the first big-budget would-be franchise to go out R-rated and aimed at adults since The Matrix trilogy back in 1999.  Ironically, it was The Matrix, released just a month before Columbine and held up as everything wrong with mainstream entertainment (pundits, politicians, and moral arbitrators mistakenly believed that Klebold and Harris dressed like Neo and basically tried to emulate the film's third-act lobby shooting spree), that paved the way for the downfall of big-budget R-rated cinema.  If the Daniel Craig/Rooney Mara thriller is a big enough hit to justify sequels and/or its $90 million budget, we may see a return to a time when adult films actually come with adult ratings.  Because ten years is a long time to go without such a basic concept.

Scott Mendelson              


Brandon said...

I think you should change "misgivings over the source material" to "misgivings over the Swedish film" as last I knew, you hadn't read the book yet (which is the Source material) :)

Scott Mendelson said...

Picky, picky... Fair point. It will be changed soon.

Collin said...

Aah double jeopardy, great film been half suspecting a remake in the last couple of years. hopefully it never happens

MikeS said...

What a selective memory!
Interesting ideas... but flawed by an equivocating use of "adult" or "truly adult" in order to twist the concept to fit your thesis. Some could argue that action films by their nature are childish, regardless of the rating or amount of blood seen. Why just think of action films? What about the "Saw" and "Hostel" horror/thriller films that had R ratings? Lack of adult dramas? Silly. You leave the door open for simply saying that "No Country for Old Men" or "Crash" or whatever were not truly dramas, were not truly adult... although numerous PG-13 films were "obviously" adult. You need a consistent definition for these things, if you really still think the idea is worth arguing. Back in the 1970s we had a period in which tons of great adult drama (as well as tons of unrealistic action films) were released with a PG rating, back in a time when the PG could accommodate levels of violence and nudity that today are given an R. I would propose that "Adult" films are not defined by their MPAA ratings, nor by the inclusion of violence, sex, etc. Rather, "adult" films should be defined by taking an intelligent, literate, sophisticated approach to subject matter, without worrying about whether children would be bored.


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