Growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, filmmaker Richard Dutcher always knew R-rated movies were “kind of a taboo.”
He also thought that taboo wasn’t supported by the church’s doctrine.
“If you want to deal with issues of faith in a real-world situation, obviously you’re going to be portraying things” that fall outside the limits of “family-friendly entertainment,” said Dutcher, who kicked off a decade of LDS-oriented moviemaking with his 2000 missionary drama “God’s Army.”
Dutcher said he would tell aspiring Latter-day Saint filmmakers that “it’s better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.”
For many LDS faithful, though, the R rating — which is marking its 50th anniversary this fall — is a line they will not cross.
While the rule is rigid in the minds of many members, its origins come from a handful of comments made by church leaders through the years.
The movie industry’s lobbying arm, the Motion Picture Association of America, introduced the ratings system in 1968 as the industry fought local censorship boards, and filmmakers chafed at the restrictions under the antiquated Hays Code — which, among other things, mandated that married couples on screen sleep in separated twin beds.
The first ratings, implemented Nov. 1, 1968, assigned letter ratings to each movie: G for general audiences, M for mature, R for restricted and X. The M soon was replaced with GP, briefly, and then PG for parental guidance.
PG-13, the rating sought for most action movies, was introduced in 1984 as a middle ground between PG and R. In 1990, the NC-17 rating took over for the X, which was never copyrighted by the MPAA, thus allowing porno theaters to advertise hardcore films as “Triple X.”
As the ratings system became well-known across America — in recent surveys, the MPAA found that 94 percent of adults with children have heard of it — leaders in the LDS Church also took notice.
The first recorded reference by a high-level LDS official to the MPAA system was in the October 1972 LDS General Conference, by Robert L. Simpson, then an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Simpson recommended that parents “make some effort to find out something” about any movie their family might watch. “It goes without saying that all X- and R-rated movies are automatically eliminated,” Simpson wrote.
In that same conference, Hartman Rector Jr., then-president of the First Council of the Seventy, gave a laundry list of barred behaviors for young people. One of them: “Do not attend R- or X-rated movies, and avoid drive-ins.”
Ezra Taft Benson set this notion in stone. In a priesthood talk at General Conference in April 1986, the church’s president and prophet gave a talk, “To the Youth of the Noble Birthright,” that urged young priesthood holders toward a moral life.
“We counsel you, young men, not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards,” Benson said, 23 minutes into the 33-minute talk. “Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive or pornographic. Don’t listen to music that is degrading.”
David Scott, a professor of communication at Utah Valley University, is struck at how the R-rating rule has spread past Benson’s initial audience of young men.
“It is fascinating how people become adults and still carry that belief system with them as a universal standard," Scott said, “rather than one that’s just recommendations for children.”
The mention of the R rating was brief — Benson talked a lot longer about music — but lasting.
For example, at the Megaplex Theatres chain, which operates 16 locations on the Interstate 15 corridor from Logan to Mesquite, Nev., the R rating is strictly enforced. A parent or legal guardian must buy tickets for guests under 17 and stay for the film — and, after 6 p.m., parents cannot bring children under 5 into any R-rated movie.
Filmmaker Andrew James remembers growing up in a Latter-day Saint household where R-rated movies weren’t allowed. Usually.
“My parents wanted me to see ‘Schindler’s List,’ so they broke the rule a few times,” said James, whose documentary “Street Fighting Men” is on the festival circuit.
As a film student at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, James would see foreign movies in the school’s International Cinema program, usually with objectionable material edited out. If he saw a Hollywood movie, it would be at the BYU-owned Varsity Theatre in Provo — which always made a few nips and tucks.
“It felt arbitrary, and I wanted to watch good films,” James said. “I always found it weird they were trusting this arbitrary rating system that was coming from the dreaded Hollywood.”
When the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” came out in 1993, it didn’t screen at the Varsity because director Steven Spielberg refused to let it be edited. The controversy prompted Scott, as his master’s thesis at BYU, to write a study about moviegoing habits, asking customers at a Provo video store whether they would go see “Schindler’s List.”
In his study, Scott found that about half those responding were “situationalists” who would investigate a movie’s content before deciding whether to see it. Another 40 percent were “absolutists” who would refuse to go to any R-rated movie because church leaders told them not to. The final 10 percent, Scott said, were “escapists,” who avoided nudity and language but were OK with violence in films — and separated movie watching from their religious lives.
The conclusion of that 1990s study, Scott said, is “that Mormons aren’t all one-minded, at least at the college-age level.”
The view that movies could be cut up for Latter-day Saint consumption, James said, was a large factor in the rise of edited-video services, a booming business in Utah in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The boom was short-lived after courts ruled that such editing violated the copyrights of the movie studios that produced the films.
James and co-director Joshua Ligairi detailed the phenomenon in the documentary “Cleanflix,” which premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opened with video of Benson’s 1986 sermon.
It wasn’t an R-rated movie but the PG-13, 1997 megahit “Titanic” that got the edited-video businesses rolling, James said. The single seminude scene of Kate Winslet’s Rose posing for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack became so controversial that an American Fork video store offered a new service: splicing the scene from customers’ VHS copies.
“They were outraged. They saw it as a moral decay,” James said. “They felt entitled, in a way, to fix it. And it grew from there.”
The motivation for such businesses was, as James put it, that people said “we want to experience the cultural zeitgeist of ‘The Matrix’ but without the violence or the sex.”
That mindset, Dutcher said, reveals “a cultural immaturity. … The vast majority of Mormons don’t see filmmaking as an art form.”
Scott said that in the media studies courses he teaches at UVU, Latter-day Saint students are shifting away from the old R-rated standard as they’re inundated with more media — much of it without any kind of ratings system.
While some still follow the rigid rule, Scott said, “the vast majority have let that go.”
Dutcher ran headlong into the admonition against R-rated movies when he made his 2008 urban drama “Falling,” in which he played a freelance Los Angeles videographer wrestling with his LDS faith when he witnesses a murder in the streets. The movie got an R rating for violence and language.
Dutcher confronted the ratings issue head-on, putting up a billboard on Interstate 15 marketing “Falling” as “the first R-rated Mormon movie.”
“Maybe not the smartest thing to do, but I had fun doing it,” Dutcher said. “It’s a Mormon film that, because it was R-rated, the target audience didn’t even go to see.”