Unrated...and Unwanted

by Bill Gibron

6 October 2010

AMC's decision to pull Hatchet II from its theaters was purely a business move made on a ballsy original choice that more or less ended up backfiring. End of story...right?
cover art

Hatchet II

Director: Adam Green
Cast: Danielle Harris, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Tom Holland, Alexis Peters, Ed Ackerman

(Dark Sky Films)
US theatrical: 1 Oct 2010 (General release)

We’ve all heard of a play closing while in tryouts, or even worse, the day after opening night and TV shows can frequently be cancelled after a single airing. But when was the last time you heard of a movie being pulled from theaters after only three days? Back in the old days of studio controlled and owned venues, the practice was common. Executives, afraid their latest musical or magnum opus was tanking, would quickly yank a feature from release, shuttle it into the editing room, and come back a few weeks later with a ‘new’ and “improved” version. But in the case of Hatchet II, Adam Green’s goofball slasher exploitation film, the sudden departure from the AMC chain is doubly disturbing. Not only does it argue for an unsubtle censorship, there’s even a suggestion that the MPAA is somehow involved.

Let’s go back for a moment and review the facts. Green, who directed the wildly effective 2010 thriller Frozen, conceived the original Hatchet as a throwback to the days of masked serial killers and slice and dice plotting. With over the top gore effects and a decidedly tongue in cheek approach to the terror, his crazy little creepshow earned a decided cult on home video. Given the opportunity to make a sequel, he spun the legend of Victor Crowley into a repeat of gore and splatter slapstick. Mandated to do so if he hoped for a wide general release, he turned his efforts over to those paragons of misguided movie virtue, the Motion Picture Association of America. Without pause, they plastered an NC-17 on the buoyant blood feast. Nonplused, Dark Sky Films struck a deal with AMC to show the film Unrated in 70 of its theaters around North America. While not a major opening, it was an apparent victory.
With a PR push that saw studio reps really trying to sell the seasonal scarefest and talent such as Green and star Kane Hodder making the rounds to as many genre-oriented websites as they could, it looked like Hatchet II could buck the trend and make a minor name for itself. Of course, no one thought it would be for becoming one of the few films in the post-modern era ever to be unceremoniously yanked from distribution. For their part, AMC is claiming finances. In their mind, the film’s poor performance at the box office (estimates have it at about $70,000) did not validate the lack of advertising (no commercials or preview possibilities) and the stress on staff (carding and verifying ID at the door, manning theaters for any potential underage attendees). Purely a business decision on a ballsy original choice that more or less ended up backfiring.

End of story…right?

Not exactly. It seems that Green is clamoring further because of requisites and restrictions placed on theaters by none other than the MPAA. Newspapers won’t advertise your film without the organizations R-to-G rubber stamp, and some chains won’t even look at anything not given the group’s seal - and even then, there are further limits. Oddly enough, the much heralded answer to the “adult” alternative, NC-17, turns 20 this year, and yet for all the promised progress the rating would bring, the same sort of stigma is attached to any film falling under said category. Had Green accepted the MPAA’s most notorious label, he would have faced a similar uphill struggle. No ads. Limited screen space. And the undeniable air of being involved with something so far outside the mainstream that it barely warrants consideration by the average film fan.

It’s true that much of the debate is semantic. Green made his body part covered bed and needs to learn to lie in it. Unrated films have rarely, if ever, gotten wide distribution, and to think that AMC wouldn’t balk under some sort of pressure - industry or more grass roots - is ridiculous. Anchor Bay is facing a similar struggle with their MPAA hated remake of I Spit on Your Grave. In Florida, for example, the unrated revenge thriller is being marketed to Miami first. If the film shows some legs there, and a lack of Hatchet II like internal hoopla, it hopes to move slowly across the state. It’s the same for other markets around the country - one or two theaters, under the radar, expand if there is a clear response from moviegoers.

It seems odd that in this day of easy self distribution, simple social networking, alternative outlets, cable/satellite possibilities, and fan friendly film festivals that Green would argue over such an old school screen strategies. Taken at face value, it looks almost petty. But when you dig deeper, the director seems to suggest that the MPAA’s power - which is voluntary and arbitrary by all accounts - is too great. In Constitutional Law, such underhanded censorship would be called “the chilling effect.” By their various orders and decrees, by the silly stranglehold they have on Hollywood and its product, the so-called parental guidance group can dictate content. Of course, they would argue that all edits are merely “optional ” and that a filmmaker can feel free to release their film without MPAA approval.

Green now knows firsthand how successful that can be.

It’s all part of a bigger motion picture joke. A regular PG comedy will get slapped with an Unrated label for DVD release if the director or distributor add an additional line of dialogue or two - even if said conversation is as conservative as a teabagger. It’s the dirty little secret that retailers and home video marketers don’t want you to know about. Indeed, if a film is altered in anyway - say an especially brutal scene of arterial spray is REMOVED from a title between theatrical and digital release - and the MPAA has not had a chance to approve the “new” version, it goes out Unrated. In a rather bizarre twist, there’s little complaint about such a strategy from places like Amazon and Netflix (Blockbuster used to ban the rental of anything over an R - and you see where that got them…).

Sadly, it seems that the idea that the MPAA somehow “protects” us - and by us, we mean the always vulnerable children of an increasingly disconnected parental base - has translated into an abuse of almost unlimited power. Names such as Kevin Smith and Kirby Dick (whose absolutely brilliant This Film is Not Yet Rated MUST be seen by all cinephiles) have long argued that the political lobbying branch of the motion picture industry - for that is what the MPAA really is - has become an unwieldy arbiter of taste and content acceptability. They would argue against such a statement is false- and thus the circular ridiculousness of the situation continues.

It’s clear that Green and Dark Sky will use the circumstances to their advantage (one can already see the blood-red “Banned from Theaters” plastered across the DVD cover art) and, for a film that got little pre-release publicity outside of the critical community, many in Messageboard Nation now know of its infamy. The cynical could suggest that this was the plan all along - test the waters of the real world before causing a stink and slinking back into the always open arms of the indie arena. Oddly enough, when he was trying to get a wide release for his undead chicken opus Poultrygeist, longtime champion of cinematic art Lloyd Kaufman argued that an MPAA led cabal was keeping his unrated effort from wider distribution. With Troma’s crackpot repute, the argument seemed specious. Now…

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