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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Should Movie Studios "Lawyer Up?": The Implications of the MPAA Allowing Precedent in the Movie Rating Appeal Process

The Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) created the movie ratings (G, PG, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17), and the MPAA-created Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) watches films and assigns one of the ratings to a film based upon the amount of sex, violence, language, etc. in it. 

Until earlier this year, filmmakers appealing the rating given to their film could not cite prior precedent.  In other words, a filmmaker seeking to have his film's rating changed from R to PG-13 could not cite to a prior film with a similar amount of sex/violence/language which was rated PG-13 as support for his argument.  The ban on precedent led many courts to determine that the MPAA ratings lacked any legal authority. 

For instance, in Motion Picture Association of American v. Specter, 315 F.Supp. 824 (E.D. Pa. 1970), the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that CARA had "no defined standards  or criteria against which to measure its ratings."  I went into an analysis of the flaws and history of the MPAA ratings in my article A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, 6 Vand. J. Ent. L. & Prac. 265 (2004).

As noted, earlier this year, based upon attacks on the application of the MPAA ratings and the appeals process, the MPAA changed the rules and now allows filmmakers to cite precedent in appealing the ratings given to their films.  For me, this raises the question of whether lawyers will or should have a bigger role in the process. 

Obviously, the stakes are high.  Studies have found that PG-13 rated movies make significantly more money than R rated movies, and NC-17 rated movies are even more financially limited because thery are subject to stringent advertising restrictions (as are R-rated movies to a lesser degree) and certain theater chains won't show them.

Furthermore, it would seem that with the MPAA now allowing the use of precedent, movie studios would have more of an interest in having lawyers involved in appeals because the process now somewhat resembles the legal process.

Despite this fact, I'm not aware of any push to have lawyers (more) involved in the process.  In fact, when CARA recently saddled Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" with an NC-17 rating, distributor Focus Features decided against appealing the rating. 

It seems to me that movie studios would be interested in spending a comparatively small amount of money to have an attorney challenge a rating when millions of dollars are potentially at stake. 

-CM 

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