When the news broke on Wednesday that IFC Films was facing possible sanctions from the Motion Picture Association of America for screening an unrated “director’s cut” of enfant terrible filmmaker Lars von Trier’s serial-killer drama The House That Jack Built, reactions generally tended in two directions. There were the inevitable eye-rolls — the Danish director’s bona fides as a provocateur only too capable of stoking outrage, pushing hot buttons, and causing audience members to retreat en masse are by now all too well-established. (Vulture’s Emily Yoshida lamented Jack’s “grotesque violence and displays of human mutilation” as well as its “terminal navel-gazing and reductive, borderline harmful ideas about art.”) But there was a sense of befuddlement, too.
The MPAA’s possible sanctions — revoking Jack’s R rating, halting the rating process for other IFC films, or banning the distributor from the ratings process for 90 days — represent a kind of nuclear option for the trade association. It almost never imposes such punishments on movie companies for violating what is essentially a voluntary agreement to have the association rate their films. So if IFC is facing those consequences, the MPAA must be pretty seriously concerned.
“The effectiveness of the MPAA ratings depends on our ability to maintain the trust and confidence of American parents,” the MPAA said in a statement. “That’s why the rules clearly outline the proper use of the ratings. Failure to comply with the rules can create confusion among parents and undermine the ratings system — and may result in the imposition of sanctions against the film’s submitter.”
Vulture spoke with several executives familiar with the MPAA’s inner workings, and it’s fair to say the association views IFC’s disregard of its rules as an existential threat: a direct challenge to the Seal of Good Housekeeping-esque brand the MPAA has been building with its ratings system for the last half century, and a move that would not only sow confusion at the multiplex but also have the net effect of making moviegoers lose faith in the MPAA.
While many outside observers ascribe a kind of moral superiority to the association’s ratings designations, since 1968, the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration has made their first order of business the provision of guidelines that will help inform consumers — with a particular eye toward parental guidance at the box office. Obviously, if the CARA classified a movie as rated G when it depicts enough sex or violence to merit a PG-13, consumer confidence in the association would go out the window. The perception it hopes to avoid is a dereliction of duty — the sum of all MPAA fears.
The unrated version of The House That Jack Built played for only one night, screening in theaters in more than 100 cities across the country. On December 18, an R-rated version — which features Uma Thurman’s character having her head bashed in with a car jack and Matt Dillon’s serial killer character murdering children with a hunting rifle — will be released in theaters and on streaming platforms. But that limited engagement is in direct conflict with the MPAA clause concerning the “withdrawal period,” which forbids distributors from releasing a different version of a film with a different rating less than 90 days after the earlier version has been released. “The length of the withdrawal period must be sufficient to prevent confusion by the public between the original version and the differently-rated version,” the clause states.
So what’s the big deal if a movie carries a rating or not? In a word: commerciality. While there is no direct correlation between restrictive ratings and ticket sales, most major theater chains make a policy of only programming movies that carry an MPAA rating (although art house cinemas in larger cities across the country regularly play films without them). Furthermore, unrated movies generally arrive on screens with assumptions that they’re unsuitable for minors, further curtailing mass appeal. And IFC’s whole release pipeline could be disrupted if the association delays rating its movies.
According to a source close to the administration, the MPAA will issue notice of its sanctions hearing within the next 24 hours. Then, within ten days of that notice, the MPAA will hear IFC Films’ arguments — and decide how it wants to punish them.