JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

 

 

Major censorship: MPAA and
the demotion of foreign films
in the home video era

Given their egregious effect on the movie, MGM’s cuts to ­the R-rated Y tu mamá también may seem like an unprecedented disruption of the movie’s art and politics. However, the studio’s excisions are only the latest development in the contentious relationship between foreign films and the U.S. studios’ industrial organization, the MPAA. Film critics and distributors have long accused the MPAA and its Classifications and Rating Administration (CARA) of censoring international movies and of doing so to protect the market interests of their member studios (Vaughn 197, Segrave 180). Yet the nature of that censorship has changed in the video era.

The home entertainment branches of the Hollywood studios now use CARA to exploit the commercial potential of video-only censorship by releasing edited versions of international films that conform to the major video retailers’ “decency policies.” If this multi-edition censorship does not stand out in the contemporary video marketplace, it is only because it mimics a parallel trend in domestic video distribution. Many U.S. movies are now available for home exhibition in additional versions marked as unrated or Collector’s editions or as Director’s Cuts. These English-language multi-version releases usually feature bonus material not included in the theatrical release (such as scenes deleted to facilitate a more marketable rating or running time). Both of these marketing strategies are made possible by video’s famed economy of scale (i.e., video’s cheaper distribution platform facilitates a greater variety of product); however, only foreign films lose footage in the deal.

Thus the censorship of Julio and Tenoch’s love scene matters not only because it garbles Cuarón’s movie but also because it exemplifies the latest challenge to foreign film distribution in the United States. The U.S. film industry has always sought to marginalize foreign sexuality, particularly foreign-language depictions of queer sexuality. However, today several economic factors directly related to the rise of home video have diminished foreign films’ box office share to less than .5% and left it dependent on domestic distribution and thus prey to domestic censorship (Corliss 3).[13][open endnotes in new window] In the past, foreign films relied on the U.S. art house and repertory circuit for most of their cinematic exposure, but these venues suffered terribly from the rise of the VCR and video rental outlets (Gomery 195, Wasser 135-137). Wheeler Winston Dixon claims that

“now [that] that circuit has shrunk to a few theaters in a few major metropolitan centers… foreign films no longer get international theatrical distribution” (357).[14]

Meanwhile most theater chains do not want to exhibit foreign films, because the average foreign-language release takes in less than $1 million at the box office (Kaufman 1).[15] New York Times reporter Larry Rohter observes that

“since the mid-1980s, the centralization of cinema ownership in the hands of a few giant national chains, often affiliated with Hollywood studios, has resulted in fewer and fewer movies screened in more and more houses at the same time, ‘a situation that does not favor foreign-language films’” (qtd. in Segrave 168).

For these reasons, even the majors’ specialty labels are reducing their involvement in foreign-language distribution. As fellow New York Times reporter Anthony Kaufman discovers, the

“Sony [Picture Classics] unit, in the past a mainstay of the foreign-language market, has cut its subtitled offerings to between one-half and one-third of its slate, down from two-thirds in the past” (1).

Sony’s decision reflects the poor gamble foreign-language films now represent to distributors, since, in the words of Meyer Gottlieb, the former president of Samuel Goldwyn Films,

“you have to throw a bomb at a paper to get them to pay attention to foreign films” (qtd. in Kaufman 1).

These dire box office trends might make home video seem like a perfect alternative to the high-cost, low-return ratio of foreign-language cinema, but in fact the video store may present an even more hostile environment for foreign productions. Richard Corliss claims that “foreign-films may be dying in theaters, but they are surviving, thriving, soaring on DVD” and cites the success of the Criterion Collection, the DVD distributor that used to be Janus Films, as an exemplum of niche marketing for foreign and art movies (4). However, Criterion regularly bolsters its bottom line with titles like The Beastie Boys Video Anthology (dir. Evan Bernard et. al., 2000), Chasing Amy (dir. Kevin Smith, 1997), and The Rock (dir. Michael Bay, 1996). More to the point, foreign-language videos simply do not rent well; currently, they make up less than six percent of Netflix’s annual rentals — and Netflix specifically sells itself to film connoisseurs (Kaufman 1, “About Netflix”). Other video outlets hesitate even to stock foreign-language movies. According to a recent study by Judith McCourt, the director of research for Video Store Magazine,

“the average video store dedicated just 1.2 percent of its space to foreign titles”(qtd. in Segrave 192).

Moreover, Blockbuster stores will not carry foreign-language videos unless they know the movies will be “recognized,” which requires

“having had a U.S. cinema release, magazine and/or newspaper reviews, and famous actors” (Segrave 184).

Foreign productions thus find their U.S. economic prospects diminished as a result of a variety of industrial lobbies and consolidations; however, some foreign-language distributors specifically blame the Motion Picture Association of America for enabling this discrimination. In Miramax Film Co. v. Motion Picture Association of America, Judge Charles E. Ramos observes that CARA is “subject to the powerful economic forces at work within the industry,” and as a result its “rating system censors serious films by force of economic pressure” because “the negative economic impact of not obtaining a satisfactory rating is clear and severe” (Miramax 734, 732). Miramax concerns the particular rating (NC-17) given to one particular foreign film, Pedro Almódovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and argues that the MPAA’s members studios abuse their connection with the North American Theater Owners’ Association to prevent adult, sexually-explicit, and foreign films from reaching most American theaters by unfairly awarding them financially unviable NC-17 ratings. As Jon Lewis explains, the studios believe that

"'soft… American, box office friendly fare' are the only movies they can make money in this consolidated marketplace, in large part because their major exhibitors prefer movies everyone can pay to see" (“Those” 26).

Thus the “MPAA’s best public relations gimmick,” as Jack Valenti once dubbed the rating system, solidifies an alliance between the theater conglomerates and the studios that protects the studios from outside competition and the theaters from films only some audiences will watch. Their mutual loyalty effectively bans adult material from U.S. cinemas, and that ban includes unrated films, since unrated films are often assumed to be X or NC-17 by any other name (Segrave 180). Furthermore, this censorious use of the rating system disproportionately marginalizes foreign productions, since foreign productions compose the majority of unrated films.[16] From 2001-2006, almost sixty-five percent of the unrated movies released in the U.S. were foreign-language films, and that number climbs to seventy-two percent if one includes English-language foreign films (“Unrated”).[17]

Kirby Dick’s recent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) challenges the MPAA’s effective embargo against unrated films, but Dick never mentions that the MPAA and its embargo are structured to protect U.S. filmmakers. Thus his project, although laudable, never investigates how the “unfamiliarity [that] breeds these NC-17s” might be related to unfamiliar tongues. Instead, his documentary, like Ramos’ decision, emphasizes the economic ramifications of independent filmmakers’ alleged freedom to distribute their films without an MPAA rating. Dick proves that unrated films suffer for defying CARA’s volunteerism, as indeed they must for CARA to ensure the visibility and monopoly of its rating system and its alleged control over the morality of motion pictures, but he is more interested in how the MPAA enforces suffering than in who suffers. That said, Dick does hit upon one of the most significant new truths of twenty-first century censorship during a brief interviewer with director John Waters when the director asserts,

“the worst censorship of all, I believe, is Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, all the big chains.”

That is, the real problem for NC-17 films today is that these stores will not carry them and yet have the economic clout to determine which movies can succeed on video (and so succeed at all).

As Waters suggests, the MPAA’s control over U.S. movie distribution is tightest in the video rental and sell-through markets, since many video outlets shy away from carrying movies whose mere rating might alienate their clientele. As independent distributor James Schamus explains,

“we all know that Blockbuster, which is owned by Viacom, has a general policy of not carrying NC-17 films” (257).

Jon Lewis confirms,

“Blockbuster Video and Kmart won’t shelve NC-17 films” (“Those” 26).

Blockbuster pledged not to carry NC-17 titles shortly after the MPAA introduced the rating in January 1991, largely in response to

“protests by religious groups and a boycott by the American Family Association” (Sandler 76).

In fact, it even promised to destroy those NC-17 titles it had already bought (Wasko 155). This ban affected unrated/NC-17-by-association movies too, and even after Blockbuster resumed carrying unrated movies in 1994, it refused to make them available to all viewers. Instead it supplements the MPAA’s rating system with its own “Youth Restricted Viewing” program (“Blockbuster Reiterates”). Blockbuster attaches an “YRV” label to any NC-17 or unrated video and will not rent these movies to customers under eighteen years old without previous written permission from a parent or guardian. These movies are therefore less profitable for the store and so less widely stocked, less available to either children or adults. Because “Blockbuster controls nearly a third of the rental market” and has “accounted for nearly half of the studios’ rental income from new movies” since 1998, its YRV program effectively guarantees that unrated movies will be less profitable videos (Schamus 258, Epstein “Hollywood” 1).[18] And that, Schamus explains, is “how censorship works these days” (258).

Unrated videos do not fare any better in the sell-through market, moreover, because Blockbuster is also the number one sell-through outlet for DVDs. Since 1992, Blockbuster has been the top video retailer and, along with Kmart and Wal-Mart (who are also in the top four), it refuses to sell unrated and NC-17 videos (Wasko 156).[19] Their policies effectively prevent most adult-oriented movies from reaching most video buyers:

"In January 1991, the nation’s biggest retailer of videos, Blockbuster, announced that it would not carry movies designated for adults only (the chain later considered unrated movies on a case by case basis). By the end of 1992, K-Mart and Wal-Mart had also refused to handle NC-17 films. These two outlets plus Blockbuster accounted for more than half of the videocassette sales in the United States." (Vaughn 220)

Today Wal-Mart contributes over $5 billion to the $20.9 billion the studios receive annually from home video sales, so its moral strictures have very real economic consequences for studios and filmmakers (Epstein “Sex” 1). Now that video revenues constitute fifty-eight percent of Hollywood’s income, the video marketability of any given picture is essentially the most important factor in its financial outlook (Vaughn 257, Goldstein 1). Therefore, Jon Lewis may be right when he claims that “film censorship only incidentally and superficially regards specific film content” (Hollywood 2), but only because the studios care more about marketability. It is the video outlets and lobby groups who convince the MPAA that certain sexual content compromises marketability.

That said, it might only be a coincidence that Y tu mamá también’s castration severs its critique of neoliberalism and transnational corporatism, since, as Jon Lewis points out,

“the political and social utility of film censorship is altogether secondary to its economic function” (Hollywood 6).

“In Hollywood… the political is subsumed by or conflated with the economic,” and therefore any given movie’s censorship must primarily be understood as a financial decision meant to make it as profitable as possible for its distributor (Lewis Hollywood 7). In the case of Y tu mamá también, as Cuarón explains,

“many video stores won’t take a movie that’s not rated, so I had to make the movie an R” (Hirshberg 1).[20]

It would be easy here to accuse MGM and the MPAA of prudery and homophobia; Kirby Dick does so quite convincingly in This Film is Not Yet Rated. However, it might be more useful to return to Jon Lewis’s observation that

“film censorship only incidentally and superficially regards specific film content” (Hollywood 2).

Neither the MPAA nor its member studios really care about homophobic boys having sex together, nor do they care about critiques of NAFTA or the Mexican government. Rather they wish to augment their products’ positioning and playability, to satisfy Blockbuster and WalMart's requirements for family friendly products. In Hollywood, censorship is based on economics, and a new economy breeds new modes and methods of controlling or curtailing movie distribution. When VHS revenues overtook box office receipts in 1986, the movies’ mode of transport changed, and it changed again in 1997 with the arrival of DVD. Video enables the studios to limit the release of sexually explicit foreign films whose very foreignness and political undercurrents hobble their market potential. Not all sex sells, in short, so sometimes censoring sex sells it better. By releasing two Y tu mamá tambiéns, MGM and Blockbuster were able to profit off the notoriety of sex they did not have to show that included political implications they could now avoid promulgating. Thus neoliberalism is not only the subject of Y tu’s (compromised) critique but also the economic force behind its video censorship. Just as NAFTA loosened the borders between Mexico and the U.S. (and Canada) “by changing the formal legal controls on the entry and exit of goods and capital, although notably not of people” (Saldaña-Portillo 753), the MPAA’s video policy turned Y tu mamá también into a better commodity by limiting the movements of its characters.

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