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Weinstein’s Battle for “Blue Valentine”: Was it just another publicity stunt?

Until last week, the film Blue Valentine still sat under the “Weekly Ratings Bulletin” on the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) website, with a rating of NC-17, and a note that said, “Intends to appeal to the CARA appeals board.” CARA, which stands for Classification and Ratings Administration, is the division of the MPAA that decides how a film in the U.S. should be rated.

Blue Valentine, owned by The Weinstein Company (TWC), created buzz this year at its first few film festivals, Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, not for the scene deemed sexually explicit by the MPAA’s ratings board, but because it was an honest, raw look at a young couple’s crumbling marriage. You can read an initial review from the film’s premier at Sundance here.

But now, the unfortunate truth is that director Derek Cianfrance’s film, staring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, has become better known for its controversial rating than for its ability to touch audiences with a new portrayal of an age-old story. Some might call Harvey Weinstein’s reaction to the rating this past October just another in a history of clashes he has had with the MPAA over ratings for his films. Some might say Weinstein has perfected the art of drumming up publicity for his films this way.

In Weinstein’s words, as reported by the L.A. Times “…in this case, especially with ‘Blue Valentine,’ the NC-17 rating really jeopardizes the movie’s box office chances, which are really fragile as it is. I’m not hiring big-gun lawyers just for the PR value. I’m looking to them for their brains and thoroughness. My movies’ livelihoods are at stake.”

It’s a dirty job, for sure, but over the years, Weinstein has established himself as an important (and noisy) voice of opposition to a powerful organization that keeps its ratings board members secret.

What TWC will appeal vigorously for to the MPAA is an R rating. The difference between R and NC-17 can seem like a small technicality (children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult to an R film, but children 17 and under are not allowed at all to NC-17 films). But this difference can mean the world to the success of a film, and most filmmakers consider getting “slapped” with an NC-17 a kind of death warrant.

In the 2005 documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian says the difference between an R rating and an NC-17 can be millions of dollars. That’s because filmmakers find it difficult to get advertisers and distributers behind them. And movie chains have a history of steering clear of films rated NC-17 given the stigma attached to a rating that took the place of the scandalous “X.”

The MPAA’s most important partner is the National Organization of Theater Owners (NATO) which makes up more than 30,000 movie screens in the U.S. and they have all promised to uphold the ratings system. This powerful organization is also the main reason why an NC-17 rated is so dreaded by filmmakers.

While NATO denies having a policy of not showing NC-17 films, in practice, it’s their hesitance to screen anything labeled NC-17 that hurts these films. It’s easy to understand when considering the gap between the top grossing NC-17 film and the top grossing R film. The 1995 film Showgirls was the highest grossing NC-17 film bringing in at $20,350,754, while the Passion of the Christ is the highest grossing R rated film at $370,782,930 (sad, I know). It’s a vicious cycle: NC-17 films are not moneymakers because theater owners don’t want to show them. Theater owners don’t want to show them because these films don’t bring in enough money.

The MPAA has a monopoly on movie ratings in the U.S., and in a world where what they say goes, I doubt The Weinstein Company would ever wish a rating of NC-17 on one of its films just for the media attention. But when one of its movies does land such a rating, TWC might as well milk it for all the attention it can. Because once the debate dies down over whether a film like Blue Valentine deserves the NC-17 rating (when Saw 3D got an R rating), people are going to forget about it. If Blue Valentine is able to procure an R rating and gets widely released throughout the tens of thousands of theaters across the U.S., people might remember the debate, be intrigued and make sure to see it. But, on the other hand, if TWC looses its appeal, even people who made a mental note to see the film, might be hard pressed to find an art house theater in their area that’s actually showing it.

What happens with Blue Valentine remains to be seen (though we should know before its release date, December 31st). But, to be sure, the debate over this film is just one more notch in the history of Harvey Weinstein Vs. the MPAA. It was controversy stirred up by films owned by Weinstein in the early 90’s like Tie me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover that instigated the rating change from X to NC-17.

While there is more to be done in changing the U.S. rating system (should the stigmatized NC-17 be done away with altogether?), TWC may need to tread lightly. It was likely Weinstein who caused the introduction of Article IV Section 2(f) in the CARA Rules:

An appeal may not be filed which (1) the Appellant knows is frivolous or lacks a substantial basis under these Rules; or (2) is intended to generate publicity for the motion picture rather than to assert a legitimate dispute with the rating assigned by the Rating Board. In the event of a violation of this rule, the Chairperson of the Appeals Board may apply appropriate sanctions to ensure the fairness and integrity of the appeals process.