If you’ve ever watched a film and wondered why it received the rating that it did, then you’re probably as puzzled as the people who made it. Filmmaker Kirby Dick attempts to shed light on the shadowy process of America’s voluntary movie ratings system in his latest documentary,
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
. In the process, he exposes the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as a secretive, inconsistent and often corrupt organization that has no accountability to the public it claims to serve.
The MPAA was founded in 1922 as the trade association of the American film industry with a mandate to stem criticism of American movies, which were then silent, and to restore a more favorable public image for the motion picture business, according to the MPAA’s Web site. The MPAA’s monopoly on the American movie ratings system began in 1968, when a public outcry against indecency led studios and exhibitors to self-regulate their output rather than have a more restrictive system forced on them by the government. The original ratings—G (suggested for general audiences), M (suggested for mature audiences) and R (admittance restricted to persons 16 years of age and older)—have been replaced by G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17, but what do those letters mean? Not much, according to Dick.
[The MPAA] has been so good at putting a positive spin on the rating system, he says. It claims to be in service of parents and it absolutely isn’t. There are no standards. They don’t have experts on the board, people who understand the effects of media on children. That’s the only reason to have ratings. Adults are fully capable of making up their own minds about what they should and shouldn’t see.
They’ve been resistant over decades to giving detailed descriptions of what’s in a film, Dick continues. They were dragged kicking and screaming into a system that added simple descriptors after the one-letter ratings, but even those are such shorthand. There’s no reason they can’t be more detailed. They have no standards, no referenced guidelines to work from. The reason for the secrecy is so that the MPAA can keep control of the entire process.
As Dick and Producer Eddie Schmidt were pitching the project, they approached several documentary funding sources that were interested in funding the project but eventually couldn’t because they were too closely associated with the MPAA, Dick explains. Then IFC came onboard. Highlighting the effects of increasing media conglomeration, Dick points out, If a studio had owned IFC, this critique of the industry would have never been made. Fortunately, [IFC] never asked us to back down. In fact, the opposite was true; they said, ‘Make it as strong as you can.’
Dick and Schmidt wanted the film to include a strong investigative thread. Eddie and I came up with that approach when we decided to make this film, says Dick. Though he figured a documentary interviewing filmmakers about their experiences would make a good clip film, Dick wanted the film to have a narrative, vérité element, so he hired a pair of detectives, Becky Altringer and Cheryl Howell, to infiltrate the MPAA. In the process, Dick added an unplanned element to the film: interweaving the personal stories of the detectives, who are both business and life partners, with the politically charged question of how the MPAA deals with female versus male sexuality and heterosexual versus homosexual romantic content.
I didn’t know they were lesbians at first, says Dick. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I definitely liked that they were women. Also, they were so atypical as PIs, and Becky was so irrepressible. Her enthusiasm about this project was great. I knew it would be a long, drawn-out process, and I wanted somebody who really wanted to be a part of the process. She’s so vivacious and lively. She makes a wonderful character.
Beginning in late 2004 and shooting on and off over a six-month period, the detectives managed to discover the names of the ratings board members, which the MPAA keeps under wraps—ostensibly so that the raters remain free from undue influence. Dick documented the process using a Sony DSR-PD150 (DVCAM) camcorder and, later, a Sony HVR-Z1U (HDV). Though he was concerned that the footage might not match, Dick says, My experience with film is that as long as the film is compelling, people aren’t distracted by those elements. If we had a choice, we would have shot it all on the Z1U.
The film was edited by Matthew Clarke, who has now worked with Dick on five films. I look for an assistant editor whose judgment of material I trust as much as my own, says Dick. Before Clarke began editing, Associate Editor Christine Khalafian logged the footage; nobody knows exactly how much was recorded, but it was more than 100 hours—less than the 200 or so for
Twist of Fait
and the 600-800 hours for
It’s pretty straightforward, says Clarke. We meet and talk about the material. I work with it. [Kirby] gives me a lot of creative freedom. Working out of the Chain Camera production company office in Silverlake, Clarke kept editing as Dick reviewed the footage, looking at new bits and suggesting changes.
Editing on Avid Xpress Pro and onlining on Avid Nitris, Clarke and Dick finished a cut of the film only a few days before it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The third act of
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
, somewhat ironically, consists of Dick’s trials and tribulations as he submits the film for a rating. It yields one of the film’s most darkly comic moments, when Dick and his producer go before the MPAA’s ratings appeals board. In the Kafka-esque Q&A session, Dick is not allowed legal counsel, is forbidden from knowing the names of his inquisitors and is not told what portions of the film have earned it an NC-17 rating. Perhaps the most startling revelation of the film is that the MPAA’s ratings appeals board is composed almost entirely of high-ranking employees of studios, distribution companies and theater chains. The other two members represent national Catholic and Protestant religious organizations.
The third act also contains the film’s most clever visual trick. Dick recorded his initial phone conversation with Joan Graves, chair of the MPAA’s ratings board. For subsequent conversations, Graves did not give her consent to have her side of the conversation recorded. Dick’s side of the calls were filmed, however, so Dick had voiceover actors re-enact Graves’ side of the calls. The final image is a split-screen, with the actual video footage of Dick talking on the phone on one side and a
-style animated version of Joan Graves on the other. The animation was created by designer Bil White, who also crafted the title sequence and inter-titles and animated the
-style graphics that appear throughout the film.
It’s a fine line to walk between exposing the practices of the MPAA ratings board and making its members look ridiculous. Editor Clarke admits it was something he and Dick were concerned about. We weren’t able to get the raters’ side of the argument because of the nature of the film, he says. We couldn’t go out and get those interviews without alerting people to what we were doing. The raters would not have been allowed to speak anyway because they all sign confidentiality agreements; however, Dick and his producers made several attempts to interview former MPAA head Jack Valenti, current MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman and Joan Graves.
It was difficult to balance, says Dick. Now that the movie and photos are out there, I think the MPAA is laying low and waiting for this to disappear.