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How The MPAA Really Works And How to Get The Rating You Want

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire July 2, 2014 at 11:28AM

Howard Fridkin and Barry Freeman left the MPAA after over 25 years and started their own consulting company (Film Rating Advisors) aimed at helping filmmakers get the rating they want without sacrificing their film's integrity.
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18 NC-17 Films

A PG-13 vs. an R rating can mean the difference between millions of dollars at the box office. Similarly, films branded with the dreaded NC-17 rating aren't welcome at many theater chains and rental stores and therefore, don't have the same commercial prospects as an R-rated film. The MPAA Ratings Board governs the ratings without much transparency for filmmakers who are left to navigate the seemingly arbitrary system on their own. Now two longtime MPAA raters, Barry Freeman and Howard Fridkin, have ventured out on their own and started Film Ratings Advisors, a consulting company launched this month that is aimed at helping filmmakers get the rating they want without sacrificing their film's integrity.

During their combined 23 years of experience as MPAA raters, Fridkin and Freeman screened and rated more than 15,000 films. Through their new venture, they plan to assess a film's potential ratings issues in detail and then work closely with the filmmaker to adjust the scenes to prevent substantial edits that might occur due to an unexpected rating.

"It could be a serial killer film but they still want a PG-13."

"Often, filmmakers are completely surprised by the MPAA and their opinion on what constitutes suitable material for a particular age group," said Fridkin. "The need to re-shoot can be cost prohibitive, while these suggested edits can detract from the director’s vision. However, Barry and I, having been longtime raters, are able to catch these ‘issues’ early on. We can prevent the need for heavy-handed editing as a result of what the filmmaker perceives as a mis-rated film."

The company will also provide other services including script rating analysis, on-location consulting, MPAA submissions and appeals. "There is no limit to whom and how we can help," said Freeman. "From the script concept stage to the editing room and rating acceptance, we see our clients’ objectives through to completion. Whether it is a major studio picture, a foreign film, a documentary, or a filmmaker’s first endeavor, Film Rating Advisors can step in at any point in the production process to ensure that both the filmmaker and the MPAA are satisfied. We fill a major industry void while continuing our passion for film."

READ MORE: Expert Crowdfunding Advice for Filmmakers from Indiegogo, Kickstarter and Seed&Spark

Indiewire recently spoke with Fridkin and Freeman about their new venture and what they learned about the ratings system during their time at the MPAA. Here are the highlights:

How is what you're doing different than what the MPAA provides filmmakers?

Howard Fridkin: The MPAA is mostly looking out for the parents and Barry and I, we started the company based on looking out for the filmmaker and trying to find a happy balanace where we work with the criteria that the MPAA has as far as ratings. So we try to balance it where everybody is happy as far as the parents and the filmmakers get much more in their scenes than they would have before.

Has the MPAA gotten more vigilant about sexual content in film compared to violence over the past 20 years? Have you noticed that change during your time there?

HF: I think it depends on each film individually. It's all based on context. If it's a Spring Break type film or aimed towards teenagers or young college kids, the MPAA might take a much more conservative view of it because do they want to make it a "How To" film with drugs and alcohol? Whereas, if it's a down-to-earth, maybe family-oriented film where alcoholism is affecting one of the family members, that might be put into a lower rating because it's much more reality-based and may not be diluted with constant alcohol scenes one right after the other. I think it's an individual case. Parents are much more sensitive when it comes to sexual material vs. violence. So it's open to discussion with each and every film that the MPAA sees....We've definitely seen a much more conservative view. The MPAA has knowledge of certain polls that represent parents' feelings about drugs, sexuality and language. And for some reason, they have become much more sensitive about those issues over, at least, the number of years Barry and I have been there. So, they probably do lean more to the conservative side if there's a questionable scene - whether it's a PG-13 or an R. So, sometimes, they err on the side of caution and go with the R.

Wedding Crashers

At what stage of the process do you prefer to begin working with filmmakers?

Barry Freeman: The closest to the beginning of the process the better it is. If a filmmaker is the scriptwriting stage, even though we can’t necessarily translate the script into a rating when it’s on film, we can still sense the tone and some of the ingredients in the scriptwriting to put the filmmaker in the right direction. So, we prefer at the script stage and certainly before they submit to the MPAA, at the very least, we’d like to look at that film and analyze it before it’s been submitted, so we can cut down additional post-production and editing after the fact, so the filmmaker can make the movie they want to make.

Are your services financially viable for indie filmmakers? Do you have special rates?

BF: When you look at our rates compared to what [filmmakers may] have to pay for overshooting or doing more work than you have to, you’re better off checking us out at the beginning and we can explain to you how we can save you money. Our fees are also on a sliding scale depending on the total cost of the film.
 
HF: Just to give you an example of how we could really help first-time filmmakers is that if they’re working on a shoestring budget or maxing out their credit card, and they bring their film into the MPAA and it gets saddled with an R and they need a PG-13. Many times when we’ve been in the room where they give the R to the filmmaker and he goes nuts because doesn’t have a dime to go ahead and start re-editing or re-shooting or whatever he has to do in order to get those problem scenes down and he’s stuck. The only thing he can hope for is to sell it to another distributor, who’ll go ahead and have some other ideas to get it to the market. But with his original plan, it’s not going to come into fruition because that’s what they were contracted for. So, had he come to us, we would have told him off the bat that you’re going have a problem with this, this and this, go ahead and start working with us and we’ll tell you exactly how to cut it or camouflage it or whatever we decide would be the best way to go with the scene and he would probably, in the end, have absolutely no problem and get the rating that he wants.

Do filmmakers generally have the most issues trying to get down to a PG-13 from an R or from an NC-17 to an R?

BF: If you look at the numbers in the past few years, PG-13 is the predominant category. The majority of films are PG-13, and that’s of course because that’s the widest variety of audience that will see the film and it normally translates to the biggest box office. One thing that I’ve noticed is the R, the raunchy comedy genre seems to have found an audience. That Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan feel such as "Bridesmaids," "Wedding Crashers," "40 Year-Old Virgin," they seems to have created at little bit of a niche business that seems to have taken off. That wasn’t there. Previously, they had to squeeze those R’s into a PG-13. PG-13 still seems to be the moneymaker. That’s the majority. I think we’re going to see more issues with filmmakers wanting to get that PG-13 as opposed to going down from a NC-17 to an R.

Is there any advice you’d give filmmakers even before they sit down to write the script or start shooting the movie?

HF: It all depends on what film they’re making. It could be a serial killer film but they still want a PG-13. So, obviously, you have to be very careful as to what they’re going to be showing. It could be a crude comedy – again, what do they want to pack into the scenes that would go ahead and get it to the R? It all depends on what they’re after. You could have G animated cartoon for everybody and then throw language in there and all of sudden you’re at a strong R. So, it all depends on sitting down, discussing exactly what category they’re going to be filling all these problem areas and what rating they’re going to get as far as what they’re after. It all depends on what they want to put into whatever picture they’re making.
 

NC-17 seems to have generally disappeared. Do you see that changing?

BF: There’s an interesting dilemma with the NC-17. There's the conception by the public that NC-17 is a bad movie, whereas, the reality is that right now in today’s movie market, it’s an unmarketable movie, but it has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. It’s rated because it's adult and that’s why it’s NC-17. And one change that Howard and I would love to see is that the NC17 make it into the mainstream and, of course, it is a movie that you have to be an adult to see and my experience is that there is some quality work out there in that category and it’s a shame that it’s buried.
 
Find out more about Film Rating Advisors here.


This article is related to: MPAA, Ratings, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution





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