Unrated DVDs

August 31, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

One of the biggest marketing scams out there is the existence of "Unrated DVDs." Oh, it's not always a ploy. There are times when a director may have to cut content to allow an NC-17 film to obtain an R rating. In these cases, the director's version may be released on DVD as an "Unrated edition." (Two examples: The War Zone and Requiem for a Dream. There are dozens of others.) Often, video stores that will not carry NC-17 titles will carry "Unrated" ones, so that's a way through the loophole.

More often, however, studios are using the lack of a rating as a marketing tool, typically with raunchy R-rated movies targeted at teenagers and twenty-somethings. The scam goes something like this: take the R-rated movie and add "new, hot" content with "scenes they wouldn't let you see." (I'm not sure who "they" are… Theater owners? The MPAA? Uncle Sam?) The intention is, of course, to apply to the prurient element in all of us. We're expecting nudity and hot sex. And, if it's "Unrated," that means it has to contain content that the MPAA deemed to steamy for an R rating, right? Uh, not quite. The reality is usually different.

Instead of salicious material, we are usually presented with a few short outtakes that were removed from the theatrical version because they weren't good enough to make the final cut. (The term "good" being subjective.) Sometimes, there's a little sex or nudity, but most of the time the material is not as "naughty" as we are led to believe. Those expecting NC-17 "additions" are likely to be disappointed. (Unless, of course, a reliable source has informed you differently.)

Here's how the DVD ratings process works… If a movie is released on DVD with exactly the same content as its theatrical counterpart, it gets the same rating. But if anything is added - even a quick, inoffensive scene - the DVD version has to go before the MPAA for classification. So if a studio alters a theatrical cut and does not re-submit the film to the MPAA, it must be released as "unrated" (even if the content level has not changed). Therein lies the origin of what has become a marketing bonanza.

The key thing to look for is whether the DVD is labeled as an "Unrated Director's Cut" or an "Unrated Longer Cut/Special Edition." In the former case, there's a good chance that the DVD may be "harder" than the theatrical version, since it will contain material the director was forced to eliminate (either because of length or classification concerns). In the latter case, it means that the studio is trying to sucker you into buying or renting something you might otherwise ignore by running the "Unrated" scam.

Even with Director's Cuts, caveat emptor applies. For example, Oliver Stone recently released a re-edited version of Alexander. Among the many changes, approximately 1/3 of Rosario Dawson's nude scene has been eliminated. Admittedly, this is a rarity, but if you buy the new version of Alexander hoping to see "new, hot" content with "scenes they wouldn't let you see," you may find that there's less flesh than you remember from theaters.