Remember when film ratings were supposed to be a matter of life and death? Harvey Weinstein went to war over the letter-grade assigned to movies like Bully, and used the ensuing controversy to sell them. Anti-smoking activists clamored for an R on every cigarette scene. United States Senators deliberated for days over the shameless selling of violence-rated films to youth.
But suddenly it all seems so quaint, like autumn hayrides or telephone landlines.
Deep in the newly issued Theatrical and Home Entertainment Market Environment report from the Motion Picture Association of America, on page 23, somewhere behind the per-capita attendance by gender numbers (3.7 for males, 3.4 for females), lies a fresh reminder that the film ratings system, while not wholly irrelevant, applies only to a rapidly shrinking portion of the movies released annually in the United States and Canada.
In 2017, reports the MPAA, 563 movies were rated by the Classification and Ratings Administration, down 7 percent from 605 in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of films released in the domestic market rose 8 percent, to 777, from 718 the year before. In other words, the number of films rated was only 72 percent as high as the number released.
In itself, the percentage is not particularly alarming. After all, the top 140 films at the box-office—almost all of them rated—gobbled up 95 percent of the ticket sales. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion from Great India Films, which ranked below No. 100 with $20.2 million in domestic sales, appears to have been unrated. By the MPAA’s count, however, the Top 25 films included 15 rated PG-13, six rated PG, one rated G, and three rated R—a nice, bland mix.
Still, the trend lines speak volumes about a film industry in which an enormous number of films, mostly produced for digital distribution after a moment’s life on a handful of screens, are being liberated from the rigors of a ratings system that was designed years ago to keep government censors at bay.
In 2008, before the digital revolution took hold, 638 films were released, but 896 were rated—a 40 percent surplus, as almost everybody with a shot at theaters went through CARA’s process. But the lines crossed in 2014, when 709 films were released, and 708 rated. Since then, releases have been creeping up, fed almost entirely by a boom among independent distributors that don’t belong to the MPAA, while ratings have fallen.
In fact, if last year’s percentages were duplicated for the next three years—by no means a certainty, but not impossible—the ratings landscape will have been radically altered. Under that scenario, 978 movies will be released in 2020 (allowing for 8 percent annual growth), while only 453 will be rated (reflecting a 7 percent annual decline). So viewers will have access to more than twice as many films as does the ratings board.
The box-office will likely continue to be dominated by rated films. But digital sales and rentals are another matter. At first glance, the MPAA stats seem to say that all 25 of the current top films on the digital sales and rental charts are rated. But, looking again at those numbers on Page 30 of the THEME report, there is a cautionary footnote: The list, it says, “does not include non-participating independent distributors.”
So we don’t know what we don’t know about who’s viewing what on their many digital devices. But we do know that a lot of it isn’t rated by a system that is beginning to look, well, quaint.