It'd be ironic if it weren't sadly indicative of the problem at hand: This Film Is Not Yet Rated, premiering this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, is being released without a rating. No surprise, really, seeing as how this documentary takes a look at exactly who sits on the mystery-cloaked MPAA ratings board and how they arrive at their votes, all the while offering up illustrative clips from many of the films that have butted up against the dreaded NC-17 rating. TVGuide spoke with director Kirby Dick about his illuminating endeavor.
TVGuide.com: What spurred you to tackle this project, which is basically an investigation?
Kirby Dick: I've been an independent filmmaker my whole life, and I've been very upset with the way my fellow filmmakers' films have been unfairly rated, so I decided I wanted to make a film about it.
TVGuide.com: There are so many interesting things to learn watching this film, the first of which is that the MPAA played a role in Hollywood's Black List era?
Dick: The MPAA came into existence in the mid-'40s, and was very closely involved with ensuring that the Black List came into being. When the [House Un-American Activities Committee] first came out with the idea of having the Black List, the MPAA first said they would not give up names of people within the business. Ten days later, they completely reversed themselves and said they would cooperate with this "very American venture" and help "fight Communism." There's a reason they did this: One, to ingratiate themselves with the government, because there were some legal things going on between the MPAA and the government, but more importantly, [it was because] the studios were having a lot of union trouble at the time, and the primary union was the WGA and those are the people who were most closely associated with the Communist party. So, by the MPAA saying, "We'll name names," they made sure the union leaders leading the cause against the studios were kicked out of the business. It was a very self-serving maneuver.
TVGuide.com: Another piece of spin is that if the MPAA ratings board didnt exist, films would be subject to government censorship, that the MPAA is the filmmaker's friend.
Dick: Exactly. [Laughs] Censorship is always the public's friend, right? In fact, there wouldnt have been government censorship thats technically wrong, because of Supreme Court decisions in the '50s and '60s that guaranteed First Amendment protection to films. And when the government has tried to censor film, theyve lost in the courts on every occasion. However, the Supreme Court has allowed ratings boards to exist with the sole purpose of "protecting children." There were some ratings boards sprouting up in the '70s, but even in the most notorious one, which was in Dallas and disbanded in 1991, its most restrictive rating was the equivalent of an R. The MPAA, to prevent the establishment of these ratings boards, set up an even more restrictive process, with the X and then the NC-17 ratings. So it really is a very specious argument.
TVGuide.com: Every sound bite from [onetime MPAA president] Jack Valenti sounds the same: "We're just a group of parents looking out for other parents."
Dick: But see, his only real audience is the 500 or so people in Congress. He's one of America's master lobbyists. His argument that this is for the parents is absolutely not true. Many parent organizations have criticized this ratings system for many, many years because it really doesnt serve parents.
TVGuide.com: One of the former raters you interview says there were no gays on the board.
Dick: Yes, during his five-year tenure, as far as he knew there were no gays or lesbians on the panel. There is a homophobic bias built into the ratings system, which our film documents quite clearly.
TVGuide.com: Yeah, there's this montage where you juxtapose identical scenes from, say, Boys Dont Cry and American Pie, wherein the only difference is gay sex versus straight, yet the former is slapped with an NC-17 while the latter skates by with an R. And you show numerous examples like that.
Dick: I knew there was that bias, but I didnt know it was so pronounced. I was really outraged by that.
TVGuide.com: Matt Stone makes a great point about his experiences with Orgazmo and the South Park movie, where he met with two different benchmarks.
Dick: Exactly. When he comes in as an independent [Orgazmo], he's not given any specific guidelines as to how to cut his film to get an R. So what he's left to do is blindly cut it and hope he's cutting out things the board wants cut out. But when he goes into a studio [for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut], there are these intermediaries who work for the studio and have long-term relationships with people on the board who are able to guide filmmakers through the process. Sometimes even the heads of productions are able to influence the vote.
TVGuide.com: How did you luck into getting Maria Bello as such a forthcoming and effective talking head?
Dick: Maria had spoken out very articulately about her experience when The Cooler got its NC-17, so we felt it was very important to have her in because it's her body on camera and it's her body that was being rated an NC-17.
TVGuide.com: She points out that a Scary Movie madman can carve out a woman's breast implant and get an R, but a glimpse of Maria's pubic hair gets you an NC-17.
Dick: There's such an obsession with sex, and violence tends to get off so easily. It's just the opposite in Europe, of course, where the ratings systems are much more concerned with violence than sex. The reason that violence gets off easy here is because thats the kind of films that studios make, and they want to make sure their films get the least restrictive ratings [so they can reach] the widest possible audience. The competition for the studio films the independent films and foreign films have more sexuality and they get the NC-17 because the MPAA controls the system; they're able to help [studio] films and hurt the competition.
TVGuide.com: What were you most shocked to learn as you put this film together?
Dick: I was shocked at how severe the homophobic bias was. I was shocked at how unprofessional the entire system was. I mean, the ratings board is probably one of the most unprofessional boards operating in this country today. There are no professionally developed standards and essentially no written standards; the raters receive no training and are put into the ratings room the day after they're hired; and there are no experts associated with the boards no media experts or child psychologists. It's absurd. You need to defer to experts in determining whether a film will have a negative impact on a child or adolescent. As you see, when I take [This Film Is Not Rated] to the appeals court, thats when the whole thing becomes a scene out of Alice in Wonderland.
TVGuide.com: Myself, I was most surprised to see that when there is a tie, someone who has already voted breaks it!
Dick: Yes! [Laughs] With 10 raters, a tie is very possible, and if there is a 5-5 tie, the chair gets to vote again and break the tie. And I dont say this in the film, but the appeals process takes a two-thirds vote to overturn [an originally assigned rating]
TVGuide.com: What are the hopes for any MPAA ratings-board reform?
Dick: I know that when people see this film they're shocked at how unprofessional, ineffective and inconsistent the ratings system is, and they really want to see it changed. One of the things people can do is go to the IFC website, where we have a petition that we'll be presenting to the MPAA. But the most important thing they can do is see the film, because Hollywood reads box-office reports. If they see that people have seen this film and are outraged, that will put a lot of pressure on them to change the system.
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