box office ratings systemSundance Selects

Three of the films that opened this weekend provide interesting case studies for whether the ratings system is actually doing its job -- that is, protecting kids from seeing content that's too mature for them while freeing filmmakers to make whatever movies they like without fear of censorship.

There was this weekend's box office winner, "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa," whose R-rating was only an enticement for the teens and young adults who were the target market for Johnny Knoxville's gleefully juvenile slapstick. There was the "The Counselor," an R-rated drama that flopped -- but which might have done better if the rating had truly indicated that it was a movie strictly for grown-ups. And there was "Blue Is the Warmest Color," a lesbian romance whose NC-17 rating failed to take into account differing community standards across the U.S.

"Jackass" seems to illustrate the principle that, the more puerile the humor, the more likely the film is to earn a rating that restricts people under 17 from seeing it. Or it would, if the R-rating actually kept minors out. A recent Federal Trade Commission study found that one in four kids under 17 who tried to buy an R-rated ticket at a movie theater were able to do so, but a more informal survey at KidsPickFlicks found that an additional 18 percent of kids have successfully snuck into an R-rated screening (not hard to do in an understaffed multiplex). Given the tremendous estimated debut of $32 million for "Bad Grandpa," it seems unlikely that only folks 17 and older went to see it.

As for "The Counselor," it drew just $8 million in sales, having failed to attract the intended audience of grown-ups to its tale of a lawyer who gets in over his head when he gets into drug trafficking. Poor reviews and weak word-of-mouth didn't help, but neither did the R-rating, which doesn't tell the whole story. Certainly, the movie deserves at least an R under the current ratings system, given its violence, profanity, and sexuality. But there's still a mature audience out there that reads "R" as an indication that a movie is for older teens and young adults, a la "Jackass." There's an audience of seniors, for instance, that might have gone had the movie been rated PG-13. That would be an indication that the movie has no gratuitous nudity or profanity, just grown-up storytelling. (Think of a Liam Neeson thriller.)

Or the movie could have gone in the other direction. The screenwriter, novelist Cormac McCarthy, is known for baroque violence. If he'd really gone all out with the violence, the movie would have been rated NC-17. But that, too, would have stymied adult viewers, who would have assumed it got the rating for sexual content. Plus, few theaters would have been willing to book it because theater owners (and many viewers) still assume NC-17 means porn.

That's the conundrum facing "Blue Is the Warmest Color." It's a three-hour art film from France that won the top prize, the Palme D'Or, at Cannes this year, but it also contains a few minutes of fairly explicit lesbian sex scenes. Those shots were enough to earn the movie an NC-17 rating. But that rating is creating controversy in two very different American cities: Boise and New York. In the Idaho capital, the local art-house theater, The Flicks, announced it wouldn't book the film because of an Idaho law that prohibits sexually explicit entertainment at an establishment with a liquor license. (Which makes one wonder: does Flicks also avoid R-rated movies with heterosexual sex scenes? And are all the strip clubs in Boise dry?)

In New York, however, not only did the IFC Film Center book the movie, but it also announced it would only selectively enforce the NC-17 rating. After all, rating enforcement isn't a legal issue, only a voluntary agreement among cinemas that belong to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). Most movie houses are NATO members, but the IFC Film Center is not. And its management decided that the lesbian romance was neither pornographic nor unsuitable for older high schoolers. Therefore, it announced that it would and would therefore allow older teens to see "Blue."

The ratings are handed out by a board of California parents selected by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the lobbying arm of the major Hollywood studios. The parents' decisions are supposed to reflect the decisions parents nationwide would make on whether or not a film is suitable for their children, but it's clear from the Boise and New York cases that parents in different cities may not agree on whether certain topics, like lesbian love, are suitable for their kids. A movie like "Blue" would make more sense as an "R" -- no one under 17 allowed unless accompanied by a parent or guardian -- a rating that takes different parental standards into account.

In fact, "Blue" did very well for a movie that opened in just four theaters, not to mention one that's three hours long (and can therefore have fewer screenings per day) and is in a foreign language. It debuted with an estimated $101,000, for a per-screen average of $25,250, the highest of any movie playing this weekend. It's not clear whether a disproportionate amount came from the IFC Film Center, or whether many kids took advantage of the movie house's flouting of the NC-17 restrictions, but the film's earnings do suggest that only under exceptional conditions is the NC-17 not an automatic guarantee of commercial failure.

The ratings system has been a success, over the last 45 years, at keeping local censorship boards from determining the content of mainstream commercial movies. (Though perhaps there's still some work to be done on that front in Idaho.) But its ratings have come to mean the opposite of their stated meaning. As a result, it seems clear that, not only are kids not being protected, but films are still not reaching their intended audiences. Now that there's growing evidence of that at the box office, you'd think Hollywood might take notice.
Blue Is the Warmest Color - Trailer No. 1