Maybe we need “rated P for pot”

I’m kidding, of course, but it’s tempting to suggest just that.

The New York Times reports on what many see as an unfortunate move by the MPAA Ratings Board regarding the rating of the movie “It’s Complicated.” The film is rated R, not for violence, sex, or one too many of the nastier swear words. No, it’s rated R for a scene involving marijuana use.

Quoting the story:

This is an absurd ruling rooted in old cultural thinking,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Universal and Mr. Martin unsuccessfully appealed, seeking a PG-13 rating.

A PG-13 rating is not out of line, especially if history is any guide:

Figuring prominently in the brouhaha are other depictions of marijuana in cinema, particularly the scene in the 1980 comedy “9 to 5” showing Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin getting high and raiding the refrigerator. Its rating was PG.

Everyone about my age remembers at least hearing about “9 to 5.” I will admit I’ve never seen it all the way through. If a movie with pot use was only worth a PG in 1980, why would should a movie get branded with an R rating for the same reason here in 2009?

(Note that there was no PG-13 rating yet at the time of release of “9 to 5.” That was added in the summer of 1984. Under today’s MPAA rating system, “9 to 5” would most likely get a PG-13 instead of a PG, all other things being equal.)

The MPAA needs to get real and be consistent. We are much closer to the legalization of marijuana today than we ever were in 1980. Branding a movie with an R rating needs to be taken seriously, and not done as a purely political move, which is what appears to be the case here. These ratings decisions effectively decide box office returns, whether the MPAA intended this to ever be the case or not.

If you don’t believe me, remember “Kids?” That had to be released unrated, because most theaters would not show an NC-17 film. It turned a profit, but probably would not have were it released with its original NC-17 rating. Even then, Disney’s policy (the corporate parent of Miramax, which bought the distribution rights) was to forbid the release of NC-17 rated movies, forcing the creation of a one-off company to get the film distributed.

While technically optional, there is only one realistic alternative to the MPAA’s rating system, that being the Film Advisory Board, and that one is of dubious utility outside of direct-to-video releases. So in effect, the MPAA’s rating system is a de facto monopoly. The MPAA has the power to brand a movie with an R or NC-17 rating and cost the producers seven- to eight-figure sums. This is almost as bad as the Hays Code (Motion Picture Production Code), in essence. In effect, since most cinema owners and movie rental shops and technically even the likes of Redbox enforce the MPAA ratings, in effect the ratings system is a slightly watered-down version of the Hays Code, where instead of “unapproved” we have “NC-17.”