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The Clever Way Eighth Grade Filmmakers Got Around Their R Rating

Cinema has a rich history of teen movies that were kept away from their target audience by rating agencies and censor boards, dating all the way back to 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and its ban in several countries and U.S. cities. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), known after 2019 simply as the Motion Picture Association, appeared to be operating under a similarly paradoxical mentality when it slapped an R rating on Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham's supremely sensitive 2018 dramedy about the awkward existence of middle school teenager Kayla (Elsie Fisher).

Citing "language and some sexual material" in reference to the film's five F-bombs and momentary discussion of oral sex, the MPAA made it impossible for actual middle schoolers to watch the film in theaters unaccompanied unless Burnham edited out the R-rated content. He refused, telling Salon, "They'd rate kids' lives NC-17 if they could. The truth is, Eighth Grade is R-rated because eighth grade is R-rated. I can promise to parents that this movie is not exposing anything to kids that kids aren't very, very aware of."

Burnham encouraged teens to "buy a ticket for Ocean's 8 and just sneak in," but even so, the rating made it difficult to market Eighth Grade to the very viewers who might see themselves in it. Despite this revenue cap, Burnham and production company A24 still found an unorthodox way to make sure the movie would reach its audience.

A24 did free unrated screenings of Eighth Grade so teens could watch it

According to the Motion Picture Association's guidelines, a film's rating only needs to be enforced in screenings "for paid admission," meaning that free screenings don't have to be rated and can be attended by anyone. With that in mind, shortly after Eighth Grade opened commercially, Bo Burnham announced on his Twitter that there would be free screenings of the movie in every state on August 8, 2018.

Per CNN, A24 arranged for the movie to be shown in at least one theater in each state, with tickets made available one hour before showtime. Buoyed by Burnham's internet popularity as a comedian, the one-time event became an enormous success. The New York Times later reported that "teenagers came out in droves," maxing out theater capacity in at least 15 cities and prompting second screenings to be scheduled in several theaters. At the Archlight in Los Angeles, where Burnham and Elsie Fisher themselves showed up for a Q&A, the audience exceeded 700 patrons.

That alone would have served to demonstrate Eighth Grade's power with young viewers and the arbitrariness of film ratings. But Burnham didn't stop there. Later that year, right after Eighth Grade left theaters, A24 announced that one hundred schools around the country would be selected to host new free screenings of the movie, via Vulture. This commitment to reaching and speaking to a young audience helps explain why we eventually put Eighth Grade on our list of coming-of-age films that should be required viewing.