CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new book on censorship and the ratings system in Hollywood suggests that the U.S. film industry regulates itself not necessarily to avoid government intervention, but to control the billions of dollars shelled out by a movie-going public.
Jon Lewis, a professor of English at Oregon State University, says that Hollywood's rating system would be unconstitutional if mandated. And since it is voluntary, the industry regulates itself.
"Studios self-regulate because it is good for business," Lewis said. "Since the 1970s, Hollywood has used the ratings system as a way to market its films and to limit the impact of independent filmmakers. It has been a brilliant strategy that will not change."
Lewis is the author of "Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry." Published by the New York University Press, it outlines the history of censorship in Hollywood and points to a key moment in film history, when the American film industry "hung in the balance" after 25 years of declining revenues.
The year was 1972 and the two biggest films in the U.S. were "The Godfather" and "Deep Throat." The former was a major studio production that would garner a best picture Oscar; the latter, an independently made "skin flick."
"When the end-of-the-year dollar figures came out, a lot of porno movies were making more money than some of the major studio films," Lewis said. "Producers were saying to themselves: 'What can I do? I can't remake The Godfather. I don't want to leave America. And I don't really want to spend my life making porno films.'
"That's where the ratings system comes in," Lewis added. "It was a strategy that gave control of films directly to the major studios."
The ratings system was all about marketing. Films that were X-rated carried with them a stigma and made advertisement and promotion next to impossible. At first, however, that X-rating helped independent filmmakers and distributors market their films. They did not have to submit them to the Motion Picture Association of America for a rating; they simply self-imposed an X-rating and the audience incorrectly assumed that the MPAA had seen and rated the film.
Then a key Supreme Court decision in 1973 helped the film industry eliminate the competition posed by hard-core films. Miller v. California decided that pornography would be defined by community standards.
Thus, any theater owner showing a film that was questionable risked local action from ambitious district attorneys, to church groups, and local leaders. The threat of jail, Lewis said, was very real.
"The genius of the ratings system is that any film with a rating of G, PG, or R became immune to prosecution because it wasn't X-rated," Lewis said. "And though submitting films for ratings was voluntary, it suddenly became dangerous not to do so. So the studios gained control."
It goes further, Lewis points out.
"Blockbuster, K-Mart and many other chains don't carry unrated films," Lewis said. "It gives protection against litigation. Warner Bros. and most of the other studios say they will not release an NC-17 film. Most mall theaters, many chains, and some theaters in conservative locales will not show an NC-17 film. Showtime, HBO and Cinemax won't show an uncut NC-17 film.
"So you have to cut it," he said. "And once you get into cutting films, or influencing the content, the control and power you wield is tremendous."
Lewis says that some independent filmmakers have had their products slapped with an NC-17 rating that virtually assures them of limited distribution or loss of creative control. Studio projects with similar content may get a desirable R rating.
There are times when studios seek an NC-17 rating, as with the first cut of "Eyes Wide Shut," Lewis pointed out. That generates a ton of advance publicity and gives the studio a chance to edit the film to their liking and reserve the option of distributing a "director's cut" at a future date.
About 40 to 50 percent of studio productions are rated R - a somewhat non-descriptive, catch-all category.
"You get 'Natural Born Killers,' which is two-and-a-half hours of carnage; 'South Park,' which is mostly just naughty language and bathroom humor; 'Requiem for a Dream,' a brilliant, powerful film with adult themes; and a smattering of soft-core trash," Lewis said. "That's what you get from self-regulation." Lewis is the author of two other books on Hollywood: "Francis Ford Coppola and the New Hollywood" and "The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture." Despite his cynical view of Hollywood's self-regulation, he is an unabashed movie-lover.
Television, he says, has an even worse problem with regulation.
"In many ways, what they show on television is more bothersome," Lewis said. "This winking, just-under-the-covers sexuality on TV is incessant. And it runs during all times of the day.
"It's all about money."
Lewis' book, "Hollywood v. Hard Core," is available at bookstores and libraries.