As I describe in an exclusive story today’s Chicago Sun-Times, The Motion Picture Association of America’s Ratings Board made an unannounced change in April of this year that eliminated almost all restrictions on the content of movie trailers, the brief previews of upcoming films that appear before the feature in theaters and in promotional websites. This was done so quietly that my article is the first public notice of the change.
Whether a film is rated G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned), and R (restricted to ages 17 and up), the “green screen” trailers shown in theaters and online were always preceded by a notice on a green background noting that “the following preview has been approved for all audiences.” A movie could have violence, strong language, nudity, drug use, or other mature content was included in the movie, but the trailer would at most imply it.
That is, until April, when the green screen trailer language quietly switched from “approved for all audiences” to “approved for appropriate audiences.”
“Appropriate?” Even with context, that word has almost no content. Without any context, it is positively Orwellian.
This comes as the MPAA has included increasingly more specific descriptors since 1990 to explain the basis for its movie ratings, after pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, public interest groups, and even the movie-makers like the Directors Guild.
The MPAA does not reveal much about its ratings board, even the names of its members. And its processes and the ratings themselves are still often confusing and inconsistent as demonstrated in the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” Material that would get an R in a drama gets a PG-13 in a comedy. The F-word can be used twice in a PG-13 as long as it does not refer to sex. The MPAA has improved its descriptors, especially for tobacco and substance abuse. The raunchy comedy “Land of the Lost” was based on a family-friendly 1970’s television show but it was rated “PG-13 for crude and sexual content, and for language including a drug reference.” “Shorts,” a family film about a wishing stone from Robert Rodriguez is “Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.”
But those descriptors can often be Delphic. You would need a PhD in semiotics to figure out what the often-used “mild thematic elements” is supposed to mean. Last year’s PG-rated “Marley & Me” was marketed to kids as a cute puppy movie, but its “thematic material” included postpartum depression and the very sad death of the dog in the title. A much more kid-friendly pooch movie, “Hotel for Dogs,” is also rated PG for “brief mild thematic elements, language and some crude humor.” “Brief mild thematic elements” in that film presumably refers to the mean foster parents of the orphan characters and some law-breaking by the children.
It used to be that trailers were all essentially rated G. Until this year, there have been basically two categories of MPAA-approved trailers. The “green band” trailers, with the MPAA’s approval on a green background, were approved for audiences of all ages. “Red band” trailers, to be shown in theaters only before R-rated movies, included R-rated material, thus ensuring, the theory went, that they would be seen only by adults who were by definition interested in movies with mature content.
Since the internet has become a key element of movie marketing, however, it has been impossible to limit red band trailers to adult audiences. On the contrary — teenagers are naturally very interested in seeing red band trailers and very good at using the internet to find them. They are also very good at getting around the wispy “restrictions” that at most ask for a name and birth date in order to be able to access the mature material.
“Green band” trailers disclose what the movie’s rating was, but before April of this year, the clips from the movie in the trailer itself would in theory not include anything inappropriate for general audiences. This has had some absurd, even misleading results. The trailer for the raunchy 2001 comedy “Saving Silverman” (“Rated R for sexual content and language”) put CGI underpants on actor Steve Zahn; in the movie itself, he was nude. Despite the “green band” assurance, the trailers often include material that is hardly G-rated. The trailer for the upcoming comedy “Extract” (“Rated R for language, sexual references and some drug use”), which for some inexplicable and inexcusable reason still carries the original green band “approved for all audiences” language, includes references to a part of the male anatomy and marital sexual frustration, and it depicts the main character smoking marijuana.
Now MPAA will make some effort to ensure “appropriate” audiences by matching the content of the trailer to the film it precedes in the theater. However, a trailer for a film rated PG-13 for violence may appear before a movie rated PG-13 for language, so that might not be an “appropriate” audience. And since most young people watch trailers online, there will be no controls whatsoever.
I asked the MPAA about this change. Elizabeth Kaltman, Vice President for
Corporate Communications, acknowledged in an email that they had not made any public announcement of the change, which was “intended to allow motion picture distributors and exhibitors greater freedom to accurately promote motion pictures to appropriate audiences while honoring our pledge to American parents that stronger advertising material will not reach inappropriate younger audiences. Whether a movie is rated G or PG, the appropriate audience tag still maintains that the trailer is appropriate for the viewing audience.”
There are still some glitches in the system. In addition to the PG-13 “Extract,” the trailer for the R-rated horror film “Sorority Girls” mistakenly has the “all audiences” green band but includes some material that is highly inappropriate for children. And it is available to anyone online.
I understand the frustration of the movie studios in trying to convey an accurate and appealing sense of a PG-13 or R-rated movie within the confines of an essentially G-rated trailer. And I recognize the way that the prevalence of almost-universally available red band trailers online has opened the door for previews that provide a more accurate sense of what is in the film. But it is absurd for the MPAA Ratings Board advertising rules to be so obfuscatory and coy with the “appropriate audiences” language. If the material in the trailer is judged to be at the same level of the feature it precedes, there is no reason not to assign a rating and descriptors to the trailer. The “Extract” trailer should begin with a caution that it is rated PG-13 for crude humor, sexual references, and drug use. That is my definition of appropriate.
To express your concerns about this change and ask that trailers reveal their rating, contact Chairman/CEO Dan Glickman:
1600 Eye St., NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 293-1966 (main)
(202) 296-7410 (fax)
The fans who have been waiting for a new workplace comedy as wickedly on target as Mike Judge’s cult classic “Office Space” will have to keep waiting. Judge’s new film has no red stapler, no TPS reports coversheet problems, and most of all, it has no flair.
This time, Judge has us on the side of the boss. He is Joel (Jason Bateman), who owns a small manufacturing company that makes flavor extracts. His life is flavorless, get it?
Joel has an office with a window that looks down on the assembly line that conveys the little bottles to the boxes and the forklift. And he has to deal with petty and incompetent employees. But no matter where we are on our own corporate totem poles, it is always going to be more difficult for the audience to identify with the guy who gets to tell everyone what to do before he goes home to his big house and his big bank account.
And it turns out that this movie is less about the workplace than it is another weak frustrated married life comedy. On one hand, this is a good thing because the workplace plot line, involving an industrial accident than unmans one of the workers (Clifton Collins, Jr., you can do better than this) and a scheming temp (ditto Mila Kunis) is neither interesting nor original. On the other hand, it is not a good thing because neither is the marital plot line. Joel is frustrated. His friend (Ben Affleck, bearded) advises Joel to entrap his wife into an affair, thus giving himself carte blanche to do the same. This was briefly popular back the days of, what was that again, oh yes, “Love, American Style.” There is a reason that show is no longer on the air. And it’s the same reason this movie should immediately move to the 99 cent bin and stay there.
Somewhere deep inside this movie, like the little tiny pea in the bed of the princess, is an idea that could have been an interesting movie. Unfortunately, as with that bed of the princess, it is smothered in 20 mattresses of awful and 20 more mattresses of just plain dumb. Warning: the screenplay is by Kim Barker, who was also responsible for the execrable “License to Wed.” Two strikes and Barker should be out for good.
Sandra Bullock produced, so she is responsible for both Barker and casting herself in the lead role, plays Mary Magdalene Horowitz, a cruciverbalist (constructor of crossword puzzles) who has gone way past endearingly quirky and well into the land of the annoying oddball. It could be kind of goofily charming that she wears the same red boots all the time. It could be sort of intriguing that she has some of that Adam-style social dyslexia. But instead she is the kind of person who recites endless random arcana and then, when told to be quiet, lists several entirely audible synonyms for silence. As happens so often in this movie, she gets the letter but not the spirit of what people are saying to her.
So, when she sees Bradley Cooper (the title Steve), a news station cameraman, she immediately jumps on him, which he quickly realizes is too good to be true. He scrapes her off like gum off the bottom of his shoe, and she then commits career suicide and follows him to a series of increasingly un-funny news stories he is covering. Even the always-welcome appearances of top character actors like Beth Grant (glammed up for once), Thomas Haden Church (as a cliched self-centered television correspondent), Ken Jeong (relatively calm for once), D.J. Qualls (bringing class to a barely-written role), and the delightful Katy Mixon (doing more than I would have thought humanly possible as a cliched hick) cannot breathe any life into this soggy story. The best that can be said about Cooper is that he escapes unscathed, a tribute to his true talent and star power.
Bullock is producer, too, and once again she seems to gravitate toward roles that run contrary to conventions of romantic comedy, and I respect that. She likes to play characters who are socially clumsy (“Miss Congeniality”) or incapable in relationships (“Forces of Nature”) and she does not always go for the happily ever after pairing off at the end of the movie. But here the story spirals past edgy into disturbing, with comic references to an infant’s deformity (and the idiocy of the public response) and an accident involving deaf children. While the film is making fun of the media circus about the rescue, it commits the same crime it is satirizing in its treatment of one of the children. The problem with this movie is not the cluelessness of Bullock’s character; it is the cluelessness of the script.
It goes to 11.
Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) has made a documentary featuring three generations of guitar gods: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (The White Stripes). But it is not about the musicians. It is about guitars, and passion, and hearing, and sticking it to the man, and art, and music, and the sublime that brings all of those things together. It is a joyous yowl from the depths of existence that soars to the ears of the celestial choirs, where it makes them pause and smile and, if such a thing is possible for angels, envy the humans who get to make such sounds and even those of us who get to listen to them.
We spend time with each of these musicians. The archival clips are surprising and delightful and it is pure pleasure to see these men return to places and instruments that are especially meaningful to them and to listen in as they talk to each other and demonstrate their comments with riffs and techniques. They say that successful musical performers fall into three categories: rock star, performance artist, and musician. These three men are above all musicians. At times they seem to embody music itself, with aural imperatives mortals can only gasp at. Their utter commitment is moving and inspiring. Rock on.