Unplanned Movie - Legalities of Disputing MPAA Ratings

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MPAA gives Unplanned movie a surprise “R” rating

Before opening day, the Motion Picture Association of America (“MPAA”) informed the filmmakers of Unplanned that they would give the movie an “R” rating due to “some disturbing/bloody images,” unless the filmmakers removed scenes portraying a few abortion procedures. While the MPAA regularly gives “PG-13” ratings to movies with sexual content and graphic violence, the “R” rating for Unplanned came as a surprise. Other “PG-13” rated movies include The Hunger Games, Taken, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. The filmmakers refused to make the changes to the film.

In addition to Unplanned, Pure Flix produced other Christian-theme movies including God’s Not Dead 2 and The Case for Christ. Both of these movies received “PG” ratings. Unplanned’s “R” rating is the first in studio history and that controversial rating could present a problem for a family-friendly studio.

As expected, it did not take long for political action on both sides of the issue to take place. Whether motivated by politics or legitimately deserved, how does a studio challenge an “R” rating by the MPAA?

Can a MPAA rating be disputed legally?

According to the MPAA’s website, “Established in 1968, the film rating system provides parents with the information needed to determine if a film is appropriate for their children.” The ratings board includes less than a dozen voting members, all of them parents, who discuss the film after screening it.

The MPAA apparently has an appeals process that allows filmmakers to challenge their rating, but the process can slow down release of a film and does not guarantee a new rating. In 2017, The Weinstein Company announced that the studio planned to challenge the “R” rating to the film 3 Generations arguing that it should be rated “PG-13” in part so that high school students could see the film. The challenge succeeded as the film was re-rated as “PG-13.”

In addition to the MPAA appeals process, there appears to be the possibility for direct negotiations between the filmmakers and the ratings board. Based on the 3 Generations challenge, political and special interest pressure may also applied to challenge and perhaps change ratings. Success appears to be based on a challenge-by-challenge basis.

Unplanned works around the MPAA. Will that strategy be successful?

Instead of following in The Weinstein Company’s footsteps and directly challenging the MPAA’s controversial rating, which could have delayed the movie’s launch, Abby Johnson reached out to parents directly in an open letter to explain their view of the movie and its MPAA rating:

Abby Johnson's full letter to parents

Dear Parents,

I wanted to take a few minutes before my movie, Unplanned, comes out in theaters to talk to you. Mom-to-mom. Parent-to-parent. As you know, the movie received an R rating from the MPAA, and I imagine that may make you nervous about allowing your children to see it. Setting aside that, it feels a little weird to have a movie made about my life, and even weirder to be told that my life is “rated R.” I want to tell you, as a mother, what you can expect from the film: The movie does not have profanity. The Lord’s Name is not taken in vain or disrespected. There is no nudity, no immodesty, and certainly no sex or “suggestive” moments. None. 

So why the R rating? For two scenes. Two scenes that the movie team was determined to re-create accurately, at my insistence, because they are important for people to see. The first is a CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) recreation of what I saw on the ultrasound screen when I assisted in the abortion procedure that convinced me of the humanity of the unborn. You will see what I saw: a baby on an ultrasound screen in black and white 2D. You will see the abortion instrument, which looks like a big straw in real life and like a dark line on the ultrasound, introduced onto the screen. You will see the baby struggle against it. You will see the baby first slowly, then quickly disappear into the instrument as it does what it is designed to do. It is important for you to know that this was a CGI recreation and NOT footage from a real abortion. But it sure looks like what I saw. I think this scene is so important for teenagers and older children to see because it tells the truth about what our culture keeps trying to insist is a “right” and a “freedom.” No one will be able to see this scene and then say they “don’t know” the truth about abortion.

The second scene that was cited as a reason for the R rating is a scene that re-creates my awful experience with the abortion pill. Ashley, the actress who plays me, did a fantastic job capturing both my physical pain and my fear. I won’t lie to you; that scene shows some blood. In real life I hemorrhaged so badly I thought I was going to die. The movie captures that without being gratuitous or gory. I think the producers walked that line well.

The rest of the film is not as intense as those two scenes. It will make you laugh, make you cringe, gasp, cry, and cheer- all the things a good movie should. The difference with Unplanned is that it has the potential to change and save lives in the process.

So, should you take your kids to see this movie? I can’t decide for you, but I will tell you that my twelve-year-old daughter will see it. I can tell you my friends who have pre-screened the film plan on bringing their 10, 11, and 12-year olds along with their teenagers to see it, and I hope you will do the same. Our children are of the generation who is being lost to abortion. This is personal for them, too. They are likely to hear and see more graphic content in most school health classes! I guess what I’m trying to say is, this movie is authentic. Yes, it’s a movie about abortion, but even more so, it’s a movie about the truth of forgiveness, repentance, and redemption, because that is what the story of my life is really about.

See you at the movies.

Sincerely,
Abby Johnson

More information can be found at the film’s official website.

Whether this direct-to-parents strategy works remains to be seen. Unplanned appears to have beaten box office predictions with a $6M opening weekend.

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