A filmmaker tries to rate the MPAA

Times Staff Writer

DURING his quarter-century as a filmmaker, award-winning director-documentarian Kirby Dick has taken on sex surrogates, freak shows, professional masochist Bob Flanagan, French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Catholic Church -- the last, “Twist of Faith,” was nominated for an Academy Award. In “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” he takes on the Motion Picture Assn. of America, a trade organization that, according to its own website, serves “as the voice and advocate of the American motion picture, home video and television industries.”

Among average filmgoers, the MPAA is best known for its rating system, created in 1968 by then-MPAA president Jack Valenti, and this is precisely what Dick targets in his film. Ratings are determined by a group of anonymous nonprofessionals who, the MPAA says, are all average parents.

Although brief descriptions of what each rating means are available at, there are, according to the organization, no cut and dried standards that make one movie PG, another PG-13. The ratings process itself has never been made public.


In “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Dick, with the aid of a private investigator, goes about trying to discover the identity of the raters while discussing the impact of such ratings, particularly NC-17, with critics, film scholars and filmmakers such as John Waters, Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) and Atom Egoyan (“Where the Truth Lies”).

The final third of the film is about Dick’s own journey through the ratings process -- “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” gets an NC-17, which Dick then appeals.

Although the MPAA does not have an official position on the film, Vice President of Corporate Communications Kori Bernards offered the following response: “The ratings board is for parents by parents. Its purpose is to provide parents with information about movies so they can make decisions about their children’s moviegoing experiences....

“While we haven’t seen the latest cut of Kirby’s movie and don’t agree with the assessments he makes of the ratings system, every filmmaker has a right to tell their stories.”

The filmmaker discussed his latest project while in town for the Los Angeles Film Festival, where the film is screening today.


What motivated you to make this film?

I’m an independent filmmaker, and over the years I’ve watched how my fellow independent filmmakers were treated unfairly by the ratings process. It got to the point that I wanted to do something, and as a filmmaker that would be making a film.

The thing that troubled me the most about the issue was the secretive nature of the process. Once I came up with the element of hiring a private investigator to find out who the raters were, then the movie took shape.


Did you ever try to contact the MPAA and say, “I’m interested in doing a documentary about the ratings process. Can you help me?”

[Laughs] I knew from my research that they were not going to let me speak to the raters. I did try to contact at some point Jack Valenti and [current MPAA president] Dan Glickman, but after some back and forth there was no response.


Was the MPAA aware of what you were doing?

It’s difficult to make a documentary and more difficult when the subject doesn’t know that you’re doing it. We were very strategic, so no, I don’t think they were aware of what we were doing.


How did you re-create the conversations with the various MPAA staff you use toward the end of the film after this film has received its NC-17 rating?

Well, we shot my side of the conversation; the rest I reconstructed from memory. It wasn’t hard.


In the film, you trail and videotape several of the raters without their knowledge. Did you ever hear from them after they saw the film?



Do you know if they kept the same raters after you revealed their identities?

I don’t know. I would think so. See, the MPAA claims the secrecy is to protect the raters from influence, but I think the secrecy makes them more vulnerable to influence.



The people with the most reason to influence them -- the studios -- are in contact with them. The studios all have postproduction people guiding their films through the ratings process. The raters, especially the senior raters, have direct contact with them.


You make the point in the film that the studios receive preferential treatment from the MPAA. How so?

Well, the process itself is geared toward studios. For one thing, independent filmmakers don’t have the money to submit and recut and submit and recut. The MPAA is, after all, the lobbying arm of the motion picture industry.

And studios tend to make films that are more violent, geared toward teens, and the violent films usually get by with an R. Independent filmmakers make films for adults. They tend not to be as violent but have more adult themes, and they get the NC-17 ratings. And when the MPAA gives an independent film an NC-17 rating, they are essentially restricting the films that compete with the studios.


Your film focuses on the NC-17-versus-R debate. What about the other side of the scale? Many people believe there has been a ratings creep -- that what was once R is now P-13, what was once PG-13 is now PG. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely there’s a ratings creep. But because there’s no transparency in the system, no one can ascertain if there is a reason for this. If there were written guidelines about what constitutes a PG and what makes PG-13, people could understand why certain ratings are given or why things have changed. But there aren’t.

All the filmmakers I interviewed who got NC-17 thought they were making R movies because there are no written guidelines. Really, it is so unfair to a filmmaker, since many of them are contractually obligated to turn in an R-rated film and they are working in the dark.

The MPAA says, “It’s for parents,” but there really isn’t enough information to allow parents to make a real decision. There should be greater detail in the descriptors of the movies of what is actually in the film, what sort of sex, what sort of violence, what is the context?


You talk about the European ratings as being more fair, but you never go into detail. Why do you think their system is better?

The European board has child psychologists and experts who know about the impact of violence on child behavior or the effect sexual content might have. The MPAA prides itself on saying it hires nonexperts, so essentially they are all amateurs, which I don’t think is a good thing.

The Europeans tend to be more restrictive of violence and less of sex then Americans.


How old are your kids?

Sixteen and 20, so they pretty much see whatever they want at this point.


Some of the filmmakers who speak out in your film express concern that the MPAA may “punish” their films in the future. Did you encounter filmmakers who were afraid to talk?

Oh, yes.

It was very surprising because mine is certainly not the first critique of this process. But the MPAA strategy has always been to just wait it out and figure it would go away -- they figure they’re that powerful. It’s not unlike the way the Catholic Church dealt with charges of pedophilia.

So I thought because the criticism has been there for so long it would be no problem getting people to talk. But while many supported the project, they were reluctant to speak for fear it would get them stricter ratings. I was pretty horrified.

And in the studios, no one would go on the record. And this just benefits the MPAA, who can say that since no one is speaking out it must mean that everyone supports the system.


You reveal the identities of the raters; did you try to find out their professional backgrounds, how or why they got hired in the first place?

They are not hired for their expertise. There are three qualifications to be a rater: You must be a parent, you must live in L.A., and you cannot work in the film industry. And the parent qualification seems flexible; they claim the raters have children between 5 and 18, but several of the people we found had children who were grown up.


Was this easier or harder to do than the film on the church?

Harder. With “Twist of Faith,” we were focusing on the victim; we weren’t trying to delve into the institution itself. Here it was all about the institution.


Do you think there is a possibility the MPAA will ever change its ratings system?

With Glickman I have some hope. Not a lot, but some. It’s not his system, he has no personal attachment, he may want to put his personal stamp on things.

But right now there is such a benefit to studios that I would think there would be a huge internal struggle if any real change were proposed.