As the Internet continues to buzz, albeit moderately, about the so-called "failure" of Snakes on a Plane, one issue seems to be getting all the attention – New Line's decision to bow to web pressure and change Snakes rating from a kid friendly PG-13 to a far harder R. For those unfamiliar with the story, SoaP was originally going by the title Pacific Air 121, purposefully toning down the violence, and hemming in star Sam Jackson's tendency to break out in badass expletives. When the geek squad got a hold of this information, they promised rebellion. They convinced New Line to ditch the dopey name and unleash Jackson's inner epithet. But it wasn't until the film was finished and the PG-13 version was screened, that all involved knew that such a youth-oriented rating was about to doom the film. So following Internet suggestions, the violence was amped up and the entire tone driven darker, and less dopey.
Naturally, once the less than spectacular box office returns were announced, people started looking for scapegoats. As with most Tinsel Town missteps, the rating became the prime suspect. So-called insiders argued that a PG-13 guaranteed a wider demographic, and allowed the most dollar-oriented film fans, the 14 to 17 years olds to freely attend the film. Parents chimed in, stating that it was a "shame" that their bratlings couldn't attend a movie that they had been interested in since it first became infamous on the web. Unfortunately, all of this fails to address the primary reason Snakes sunk – New Line got stingy and relied on tech dorks to market its movie. Here's betting the brainiac who thought that up is clearing out his or her desk right now.
But the whole PG-13 issue raises a much larger, much broader concern, one that Hollywood doesn't want to really address, outright. In many ways, the studios are practicing a kind of cultural ageism. They figure if you're over 20, single, or married without yet spawning children, and want to see genre offerings like action, horror and thrillers, you better be prepared to sit at the cinematic kids' table. They have no intention of providing adult entertainment for adults – they assume that if you don't want to be part of the juvenile crowd, you can simply buy or rent the DVD a few months down the line. The film biz is more or less convinced that giving everything a PG-13 is the panacea that cures all of the industries box office ills. After all, teens don't have taste – they wait for one of the many style conscious entities (MTV, YouTube) to tell them what's cool, and then they flock to it like proverbial, profit-margin sheep.
Now this is all well and good for the bottom line, but the truth is that such a greenback oriented mentality is corrupting, and even killing, the movie-going experience. More than the emerging technology in home theater, the ADD addled outlook of your average "got to have my Blackberry" film fan, or the sequel/remake strategy that has the weekly premieres feeling like a bad case of déja vu (starring Densel Washington, apparently), this stopgap rating is ruining the integrity of the cinematic aesthetic. The argument is simple to understand – it's kind of like entertainment utilitarianism. Filmmakers are being forced to bend their ideas and vision to provide the greatest marketing good for the greatest number of filmgoers. And aside from the pre and tween set (who aren't prohibited outright, and get a healthy does of hackneyed CGI every few weeks, anyway) PG-13 delivers such a bland universality.
Well, kind of. In essence, PG-13 is as useless as the X. All it really does is tell anyone who's interested that the film they are about to see is not quite an "R". It doesn't define limits the way the original G/PG/R system suggested, and in reality, confused the concept of what content satisfied the "Parental Guidance" standard. Before the arrival of the censorship stopgap, films with a PG rating frequently featured nudity, violence and foul language. Even films like Beetlejuice and Big had the notorious "F" word as part of their almost all-ages aspects. While it's true that time and temperament affects the MPAA as much as actual material (Clerks II barely batted a rating's board eye toward its easy R, while the original got smacked with a still stinging NC-17), the fine line between what mandates the addition of a '13' is so subjective that it's hard to get a handle on.
The Supreme Court calls this "The Chilling Effect" – the moment where speech of any kind is so hindered by outrageous or ambiguous restriction that the only safe path is none at all. While they've denied it for years, the media has so glorified the importance of the MPAA's approval that newspapers won't print ads for film's featuring too much sex and/or violence, and trailers/movie posters aren't permitted for general audience consumption until the board has had their say. Even worse, theaters and other entertainment outlets (read: national chain video stores) will fail to offer certain films if their rating goes against these moralized marketing strategies. While they make it very clear that no film has to follow its suggestions, the MPAA system is set up in such a way that to ignore them is to commit a kind of professional seppuku. If direct and indirect advertising bans and the inability to book play dates aren't outright suppression, they're pretty damn close.
So most movies and makers contractually pre-determine a rating, using their crack business acumen and any other form of glorified guessing to determine an appropriate approach to a project. Genre usually helps define the parameters, with drama being the most open ended and animation the most closed. In between are conflicting categories, from the always in flux comedy to the growing ever stricter horror film. Yet the cold fact is that most films don't strive for a PG-13: they usually backdoor their way into it. They film the material they want, create the effects and the imagery that they believe works within the context of their movie, and then toss the entire enterprise at the MPAA like a compulsive gambler hoping to avoid another 'snake eyes' washout – and by doing so, they begin the process of amusement micromanagement.
With the buffer of a PG-13, and it's perceived bankability, a kind of cinematic bait and switch beings. As stated before, it occurs with the most frequency in horror films. Unless a hard R is agreed upon and accepted (Hostel, Saw, Silent Hill), most movie macabre is purposefully fashioned to give the ratings system ample editing fodder. Scares are left intact and gore remains plentiful, all in full knowledge that they will be snipped and clipped out of existence later on. The goal is simple – get that 13. A regular PG, once a sign of some amiable adult content, now argues for the random fart joke. It's been Disney-fied and declassified. R, of course, is a no-no, especially in our responsibility shirking society that wants to prevent anyone from understanding the truth about the real world.
No, PG-13 is the ultimate stopgap, a financial safety net that allows for a film to open to the broadest possible audience – and in some manner of backwards logic – to create the quickest connection to a target fanbase. Yet this fails to take into consideration two important elements (1) the needs of the moviegoer and (2) the needs of the genre. Horror cannot survive without the visceral and textural aspects of terror. Eradicating them to fit a non-standardized score robs the genre of its real reason for being. Some say, "No, PG-13 can be just as frightening as an R". Bollocks! By this argument, The Exorcist would be a much better movie without all the probable NC-17 level vileness it offers. Or even better, if we could just clean up the original Night of the Living Dead (and it's sensational sequels) or Tobe Hooper's initial Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we'd have UNIVERSALLY appreciated mainstream classics.
Huh? Gearing material to a specific set of individuals is understandable, but not very intelligent. What if your dream teen demographic is uninterested in vampire/werewolf wars, or the ongoing haunting of a curse-riddled home? Does shaving the story of its more potent scares really make it more acceptable to the disconnected and the inattentive? And worse, what does it do to the film itself? Could we even tolerate the new The Hills Have Eyes had the narrative not wandered over into the nauseating nuclear village sequence, or do we really prefer The Fog remake approach to terror, with all the killings either quick-cut, or occurring off camera to guarantee the MPAA's incredibly mixed blessing. Granted, both sides have valid reasons for why they do what they do, but does using a score as the source of inspiration really help the internal structure of your story - and, doesn't it question outright the capacity of your audience?
Seems like Snakes on a Plane may be more important than anyone on the 'Net even imagined. Aside from all the web log marketing snafus and peer-to-peer pressure, it has laid the seeds of a debate that has been simmering for a while. There are many who feel that the PG-13 rating is a parental godsend, the kind of sage second-handed advice that makes raising kids in the post-millennial mêlée of the nu-media that much less impossible. Others, naturally, despise the notion of art being altered for the sake of a perceived payday. Whatever the rationale, the reality is actually a corrupt combination of the two. The MPAA's PG-13 is a demographic determinate. Sadly, it censures as much as it suggests, pushing us closer and closer to a homogenized version of the cinematic arts. There may come a day when every film is a probable PG-13, whether they began that way or not. Unfortunately, we appear to be closer to that manner of filmic future shock than we care to admit.