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MPAA Versus IFC: This Is One Lars Von Trier Controversy That Might Be Overblown

Every Lars von Trier movie causes a ruckus. But this time, the MPAA might be out of its league.

Uma Thurman The House That Jack Built

Uma Thurman in “The House That Jack Built”

IFC Films

Every Lars Von Trier movie brings its fair share of controversies, but the latest one might be overblown: When distributor IFC Films released “The House That Jack Built” as an unrated director cut for one night only this past week, the MPAA claimed the company failed to request a special waiver from the ratings board, and threatened sanctions against it. But IFC doesn’t seem too concerned about the complaint.

“IFC Films has not received any written notice from the MPAA regarding sanctions in connection with ‘The House That Jack Built,'” IFC said in a statement. “It has always been IFC Films’ priority to maintain the artistic vision of our filmmakers, and we do not believe that the one day screening of the Director’s Cut unrated version has violated the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Rules.”

With “The House That Jack Built,” which marked von Trier’s return to Cannes after a multi-year suspension for offensive comments about Hitler at a press conference, the filmmaker divided audiences with the movie’s violence scenes featuring Matt Dillon as a serial killer. The American release on December 14 comes with a combination of specialized theater dates and VOD availability, in an R-rated version that runs one minute shorter. That release follows IFC’s special event screening in 140 theaters on November 28, which featured von Trier’s original version. Those showings grossed a respectable $172,131.

The MPAA reaction to this choice, and its close proximity to the release of the MPAA-approved cut, included the possibility of sanctions against IFC (involving possible removal from the ratings process) for a limited period of time. That has never happened before. But IFC’s statement suggests that no action or even official contact has occurred between IFC and MPAA. And there may be a good reason for this.

Why? Because a reading of the MPAA rules regarding screening different versions of one movie makes it sound like IFC followed the rules. The MPAA understandably wants to keep different versions from playing at the same time or close. It could confuse consumers, and lead to distributors putting out R and PG-13 cuts on different theaters, undermining the clarity of the system.

Matt Dillon in Lars von Trier's "The House That Jack Built"

But the rules that look to be in force would not preclude IFC from doing what it has done. In Article 2 of the rules from the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), the division of the MPAA that assigns ratings and monitors enforcement, Article II, Section 1, point B states:

For purposes of these Rules, a motion picture is “exhibited” if it has been made commercially available for screening for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theatre for a run of at least seven consecutive days and has been advertised during that run in a manner considered normal and customary to the industry.

In other words, a one-day showing doesn’t constitute releasing the film for purposes of violating the different versions rule.

Then later in Section 4, point C states:

If the original version has been exhibited in theaters in the United States, and the different version receives a different rating than the exhibited version or is unrated (or if the exhibited version was unrated), that different version may be exhibited, distributed, promoted or advertised in the United States only following the complete withdrawal everywhere in the United States from exhibition and related advertising of the original version (“withdrawal period”).

Within the rules, the MPAA defines the withdrawal period: “A withdrawal period of not less than ninety (90) days will be deemed sufficient to prevent such public confusion.”

But based on the MPAA’s definition of exhibition — seven days — it’s difficult to see how IFC violated any rule or should be subject to sanctions. And even if it was, the rules suggest there can be exceptions:

Upon a showing of good cause by the submitting party, the Chairperson of CARA may determine that a withdrawal period of less than ninety (90) days is sufficient to prevent such public confusion in light of all of the circumstances related to that motion picture.

So a loophole exists, even in the unlikely event that a rule was broken. The details of how exceptions can be made include clarity of advertising, circumstances of the screenings, how widely they were advertised, and similar factors, all of which this could qualify for.

Matt Dillon The House That Jack Built

“The House That Jack Built”

IFC Films

IFC, like all independent companies, is not a member of the MPAA (which consists of the mainline studios). But most independents utilize the rating system as necessary to gain access to many domestic theaters (the major chains, associated with the system with NATO, its parallel trade organization, deal with unrated films on a case-by-case basis) as well as for their non-theatrical play.

“The House That Jack Built” would never have been a wide-release film, and it could have gone out unrated and played most of the theaters without a rating. But IFC often releases top films day-and-date on screen and via VOD, including cable outlets. Many of these will not play an unrated film, particularly if the content is too extreme. So with that business plan in place, getting a R rating was unavoidable. And since one rule is very clear — that the version streamed must be the same as the one in regular release if played at the same time (the seven day or longer dates that will open starting December 14) — that version has to be played theaters as well.

But IFC felt a need to make sure the original version had a chance to be seen, and early. The special event release came with targeted social media outreach, with virtually no print media. IFC did not encourage newspaper reviews (these will appear on or around December 14) and did little to confuse the public about different versions being available. For most potential viewers, the one-day showings were off the radar.

That there could be confusion now seems to be the result of MPAA protests — if indeed this was initiated by the ratings board, the MPAA is responsible for exactly what it claims to take issue with. However, it’s not really in IFC’s interests to point this out. Certain viewers might shun the edited version, and hope that eventually the complete one will be available (which would be possible after a 90-day absence from theaters and streaming). So this doesn’t look like IFC trying to play by The Weinstein Company playbook by firing up a debate.

As for any possible sanctions: If this happened, it doesn’t appear that they would be particularly damaging to IFC. Unlike some years, the company doesn’t seem have awards contenders to release to wider theaters this year, and its release schedule has the usual array of specialized titles that don’t depend as much on major chains (though the impact on VOD play might be more noticeable). Last spring, IFC released “The Death of Stalin” to significant crossover interest, and had that been denied a rating (it was rated R), that could have caused a change of release date. But in an unlikely worse-case situation, it appears the distributor could cope.

The MPAA has some reason to be concerned about this. But it appears the fault is its own for not keeping up with changes in the industry. One day or other event showings are now a common way to release films in theaters. The seven-day rule, which used to be the accepted definition of an engagement, has shifted. And perhaps IFC would have been better off checking with the CARA before doing this to make sure everyone was on the same page (assuming it didn’t, which is unclear).

But unless we learn more, the facts on hand suggest this is much ado about nothing.

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