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Cuomo’s Letter on “Fahrenheit” Rating Hearing

Cuomo's Letter on "Fahrenheit" Rating Hearing

Today, a public relations rep for “Fahrenheit 9/11 released a copy of a letter sent by Mario Cuomo to Tom Ortenberg (Lions Gate Films) and Jonathan Sehring (IFC Films). Apparently the MPAA will not allow Cuomo to argue on behalf of the film; Ortenberg himself will be arguing before the MPAA tomorrow to change the film’s rating from ‘R’ to ‘PG-13’.

June 18th, 2004

Tom Ortenberg
President, Lions Gate Films
Lions Gate Entertainment
2700 Colorado Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Jonathan Sehring
President, IFC Entertainment
11 Penn Plaza
New York, NY 10001


I was surprised and disappointed by the MPAA’s decision to prevent me from arguing our appeal in person. Nothing in their written regulations specifically prohibits the use of counsel at the hearing and the Chairperson of the Rating Board appeared to be quite comfortable dealing with me over the past week. In any event, it is too late as a practical matter to make a legal issue of it and I’m sure you will do well making the oral presentation for us.

Here is how I see the matter.

The owners and distributors of “Fahrenheit 9/11” are committed to making this timely documentary available to the largest possible audience in the hope that it will nourish the vital public dialogue and debate. Surely a vigorous airing of the questions it raises can only benefit our country by helping us to make thoughtful choices with respect to the individuals and the issues contending for our support. Without such a debate, the political discussion would continue to be dominated by millions of dollars of 28-second commercials, unchallenged speeches delivered to captive audiences and one-or-two televised face-to-face encounters by the candidates for President that will hardly scratch the surface of all the complex issues facing us.

Considerable resources have already been devoted to the advertising and promotion of the film, which will be shown for the first time in more than seven hundred of the country’s theatres on June 25th.

The issue of the film’s rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, while not crucial to the film’s success, is a significant one because it has the potential for discouraging attendance. That danger is heightened by the apparent confusion in the minds of many Americans as to precisely what the ratings represent. Most people appear to assume incorrectly that an “R”-for “Restricted”-denotes a picture that is unsuitable for children under any circumstances, instead of merely serving as a suggestion to parents that they investigate the film’s suitability because of the existence of some characteristics they might consider undesirable. As a result, Lions Gate estimates that the “R” rating reduces the potential audience by 10 to 20%, compared to what the film would draw with a “PG 13” rating that is generally considered closer to innocuous.

Aware of that, I contacted Joan Graves, Chairperson of the Ratings Board and entered into discussions with her to ascertain exactly what the raters insist we would have to alter in order to replace the “R” rating with a “PG 13.” You participated in one of these discussions with me.

Ms. Graves was forthcoming and cooperative. She described for us the precise meaning of each of the ratings in question and why the raters decided on an “R.” She informed us that the rating was based on: the use of the term “mother____” by an American soldier, twice in repeating the words of a favorite song of the American soldiers in Iraq, and then twice again in his conversation immediately following the description of the song. Later in the film there are several graphic images of victims of war and abusive behavior by some of our troops.

Altogether the hard language and graphic pictures consume about 3 minutes in a film lasting 120 minutes.

The raters agree that there was nothing else in the film that required any cautionary notice to parents: no nudity, sexual conduct, inappropriate theme, or illicit drug use. I think it’s fair to say that given the common uninstructed interpretation by the public of the “R” rating, many of the viewers of the film would be surprised to see so few of the undesirable characteristics they expected to find in an “R” rated film.
Why then should the film not be rated a “PG 13” as was “The Lord of the Rings,” a film that is saturated with slaughter, butchery and corpses-human and extraterrestrial?
Does the extended depiction of fictional and fantastic mayhem threaten children less than one or two fleeting scenes of real life violence, death and crassness? Are the raters competent to make that judgment as psychiatrists or child psychologists? Wouldn’t it be enough, in view of the brief exposure to the uncomfortably graphic scenes in our film, to warn parents that they should consider the vulnerability of children under thirteen with a “PG 13,” instead of the more restricted “R”?

Or does the brief reiteration of the common but still crude “mother” expletive make the crucial difference? Would the “R” be dropped if there were just one utterance instead of four? Or just two?

We commend the Motion Picture Association of America and its highly respected leader Jack Valenti for the service they have rendered to the viewing public with their rating system, a pro bono effort that helps parents make judgments about films they want their children to see or not to see. By doing so the ratings help protect all of us against the threat of government censorship that would make the judgments for us instead of leaving them to parents.

We agree that parents should take a lively interest in what films their children see, and should be made aware of the limited amount of hard language and graphic images in our film.

But we also believe that the raters and the parents should keep in mind that this film is not a fantasy or dramatic fiction. It is a documentary, which strives to describe as honestly and effectively as possible the bitter realities of the struggle against terrorism and the war in Iraq. The images in the film in many cases have already been seen by much of the world. To conceal them, in our opinion, would be to mask the brutal destruction and ugliness which, in the opinion of the filmmakers, were created by a war that was unnecessarily and perhaps even cynically begun by our nation.

That truth we consider too important to be surrendered.

Indeed, when it was suggested to us that we eliminate the few minutes of material the raters had focused on in exchange for a “PG 13,” we had to reject the offer because, in addition to being entertaining, the film is an attempt to help educate and inform a troubled nation as we struggle to make vital decisions as to what our course of action should be in the next four years, and who should guide us. The few minutes in question are vital to the description of the level of crassness to which some of our own young people have been reduced by this war. They are a vivid reminder of why we should all despise war unless it is-beyond a reasonable doubt-necessary to engage in it.
This instruction is especially important to the 14, 15 and 16 year olds who are among those who might be excluded from seeing this film by the effect of an “R” rating on a parent or theater owner. These are the same young people who might be fighting for us in this war, or even the next one, just a few years from now.

As far as possible we should protect our young people from harmful and corrupting experiences. But we should not prevent them from learning the unpleasant but vital truths they need to be aware of, in order to protect themselves in a world we adults have failed to make as safe as it should be.

For these reasons we ask the Appeal Board respectfully, that it change its rating of Fahrenheit 9/11 to a “PG 13.”


Mario Cuomo

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