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The 'Unrated' Conspiracy

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Sunday, Nov 25, 2007


It’s the dirty little secret that the DVD industry doesn’t want you to know about, the scam that gives them more than one crack at your entertainment dollar while conning you into thinking you’re getting more cinematic bang for your beleaguered buck. It used to be, when a studio or distributor wanted to fleece you, they simple added on some mindless bonus features, changed the title’s cover art, and labeled the release a “special” or “collectors” or “anniversary” edition. And they still do that, reworking a favored film over and over again until there’s dozens of double dip versions begging for your already stretched greenback. This latest cabal, however, requires the cooperation of the theatrical print, a single sensationalized word, and a public gullible enough to think they’re privy to an unexpurgated version of an artist’s vision.


The term, of course, is “unrated”. Technically, it means that a film or movie has not been resubmitted to the MPAA for determination. While it may seem like a purely semantic point, follow the logic. When a studio prepares to release a motion picture, they have two choices – submit it to the noted industry watchdog and await their G – NC-17 verdict, or put it out in the marketplace without a rating. Under the terms of the MPAA guidelines, this title is now “Not Rated”. It was never given to the group for review, and no age-appropriate determination was made. Older films, released before the advent of the organization, are typically presented this way. The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Vertigo are examples of this concept. However, if they eventually have a theatrical release or revival, a new MPAA score is mandated (the Hitchcock classic earned a PG when it was submitted for its 1983 run). 


Unrated, on the other hand, means the movie has already been reviewed once, with an existing mark on the record. Let’s stick with Vertigo for the time being. Now, let’s say that the Master of Suspense’s estate discovered some rare deleted scenes that the director demanded be included in the film (for some reason, the studio had refused to allow them to be part of the final cut). In planning a new DVD release, the distributor has two options: they can reincorporate the footage, reapply for a rating, and see what happens…OR, they can doctor the existing print, avoid the MPAA all together, and release the new version on home video. By law, the rating would have to switch from “PG” to “Unrated”. Imagine the controversy when the studio announces, the new, “Unrated” edition of such a fabled masterwork. Tongues would be wagging while cash registers ring and ring and ring…


There’s a caveat, of course. Unrated does not mean ‘uncensored’. Unrated also doesn’t mean loaded with nudity, gore, foul language, or excessive sex. All the term means is that the product being presented to the public did not pass through the Association’s review process a second time. By law, it must be labeled ‘unrated’. If a single sentence in a line of dialogue is altered, the MPAA wants everyone to know it did not approve it. It can make for some rather surreal consequences. A director can actually remove blood or bare breasts and wind up with an unrated release. Even more awkward, insignificant elements not originally part of the production (updated CGI, reshot second unit footage) can all result in the fabled label. Naturally, most movie companies go through the motions, assured that their PG-13 will stay that way. But some sly studios take the opposite approach – and they do so because of the craven nature of the consumer.


The horror genre is probably the most blatant abuser of this ballsy bait and switch – and with good reason. The MPAA has been notoriously hard on the fright film, demanding that excess arterial spray and sensationalized sexuality be severely trimmed from most of these movies (the validity of such implied censorship is an entry for another day). Some filmmakers have avoided the fuss all together – George Romero released his classic zombie epic Dawn of the Dead without a rating, as did Sam Raimi with his equally masterful Evil Dead. But when major leaguers dabble in the scary stuff, they usually mandate an MPAA review (the studios support and fund the lobbying group, after all), thereby ensuring that the objectionable is sanitized and moderated for greater mainstream acceptance.


Before DVD, this cutting room floor fodder was typically thrown away. After all, VHS wasn’t going to accommodate its inclusion, and laserdisc was seen as too elitist and limited. But when the added storage space of the CD like aluminum disc was championed, the ability to reincorporate excised content was seen as a selling point. Soon, the so-called “director’s cuts” and “special editions” were clogging up shelf space, making the decision on what to buy all the more difficult. It didn’t help that some studios and distributors took this concept to the extreme. Both Romero and Raimi have seen their unrated gems reconfigured several times for maximum cash grabbing.


But the unrated conspiracy is far more insidious. Let’s look at a typical terror title from last year – Saw III. When it was release in theaters (October of 2006) it was one of the bloodiest, most gore driven fright flicks ever. There was so much splatter on the screen that audiences couldn’t imagine there was additional sluice to be experienced. Well, they were wrong. Not one, but TWO different DVD versions of the film have touted themselves as unrated and uncut…with the second term being far more important. When director Darren Lynn Bousman wanted to rework some of the ending material, he instantly ran into the unrated rule. So Lionsgate, the studio that produced the film, decided to add to the ballyhoo by reinserting some of the edited gore. It’s a tasty trick – give those who love their blood and guts something to cheer, while increasing the marketability of the movie post-box office.


Certainly it all comes down to profit. Promising fans a bit more brazenness works every time. Yet some filmmakers plan this on purpose, and such premeditation seems cheap and rather callous. When they made Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez didn’t make a pair of mini-movies. Each one went out and, on their limited budgets, created the best full length feature they could. When the time came to put together the three hour plus exploitation call back, the self-subscribed scissors came out, and huge chunks of material were removed. Both knew that the Weinstein Group, responsible for the eventual DVD release, was not going to allow both films to fly under a single Special Edition banner. In fact, Tarantino’s Death Proof was being poised for a Cannes run, so separating the pair – at least initially – meant there would be at least two different digital versions of the same material.


Within the last two months, the two disc unrated and uncut (a key phraseology, remember that) DVDS hit stores, and while fans were eager to buy up these new, novel editions, they wondered if they’d ever see Grindhouse the way it was intended. Sure enough, as part of his commentary track on Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez let the creative kitten out of the bag. Indeed, yet another version of the films was being prepared, this time bringing back the fake trailers, the drive-in ads, and the old school theatrical bumpers. While it all seems like standard cinematic operating procedure, remember the set-up. Both filmmakers purposefully created more footage and effects than they knew they could use. The MPAA added another layer of insult to previously intended injury. So they planned on at least two different releases even before the home video version was actually envisioned.


In the worst case scenarios, this means that endless permutations of the same title can be created. It also means that filmmakers can anticipate such strategies. Peter Jackson shot all the footage he wanted for both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. When DVD time rolled around, he offered the theatrical cut, extended versions, and several box set combinations of same. Since we are dealing with movies on an epic scale, these situations don’t appear so crass. But some movies are never ever seen again in their original theatrical state. Hostel has never been released in its original big screen version. The first DVD was unrated, even though it had (by director Eli Roth’s own admission) about “five seconds” of added goo. Just recently, a director’s cut hit stores, and according to reviews, its equally unrated facets include minor trims and additions.


It seems odd that an industry that loves to chide companies for colorization, plagiarizing, and reediting public domain features for one’s own inevitable greed would turn around and embrace this digital deception. When you see a film on the silver screen, you enjoy (or hate) the experience for what was offered then. Rarely will a DVD revamp change your mind. The unrated disc is just a joke, a “you’ve seen it before, so see it again” sort of spiel that sounds promising in the presentation, but almost always winds up failing to fully deliver. About the only example that’s actually paid off on its promise is the unrated version of Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Purposefully dark to avoid MPAA commanded changes, the slightly brightened release allowed the horror of the trapped cave explorers to fully sink in.


This stands as the exception that fuels the rule. Most studios know that they will get you with that single, rather insignificant word. They know you can be tricked into taking a second bite out of the same sour and spoiled apple. If You, Me and Dupree was hackneyed and horrid the first time around, it must have been the ratings board’s fault, right? Imagine how great the unrated version must be, huh? Well, the truth is that most of the alterations will be minor at best, and the elements that made the film faulty in the first place (bad direction, lame characterization, uninspired dialogue) will still be included. In fact, just last week, the fourth Die Hard film (Live Free or Die Hard) made its way onto the format in a highly flaunted “unrated” edition. Fans had indeed been livid over the PG-13 theatrical take, and were hoping that the DVD would deliver the ‘F-bombs and blood’. Wisely, Fox found a way to appease everyone (both cuts are present). 


But the scheme will continue unabated. Studios will continue to underestimate the intelligence of the film fan and hope that a standard statement of non-MPAA involvement will lead to increased sales and customer satisfaction. It doesn‘t really matter if the original film gets a shot at being seen – there’s always cable, and on demand sell through to secure its legacy. No, once “unrated” proved its profitability, there was no turning back –and since we, the viewers, tends to get all antsy when a splatter film finds its way onto DVD without the necessary nastiness, we can’t blame the companies for gilding the lily. We are the suckers PT Barnum loved to laugh at. We are the findings that validate the focus groups. In some ways, we deserve the entire “unrated” DVD conspiracy. And with HD and Blu-Ray waiting for their turn at tricking us, there’s no end in sight.

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