This Film Is Not Yet Rated: Rating Issues

“It is important that this film be seen by as many people as possible, as it deals with an insidious form of censorship resulting from a ratings process that has been kept secret for more than 30 years–Kirby Dick

“This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” the breakthrough film from Oscar-nominated director Kirby Dick (“Twist of Faith”) is an unprecedented investigation into the MPAA film ratings system and its profound impact on American culture. The MPAA, a lobbying organization for the movie industry, maintains a ratings system first implemented in 1968 by longtime president Jack Valenti.

This system, with its age based content classification using letter grades G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 (formerly X), has become a cultural icon. But behind its simple faade is a censoring process kept entirely secret. Board members are anonymous; deliberations are private; standards are seemingly arbitrary. Thus, the trade organization for the largest media corporations in America also keeps a trademarked lock on content regulation over our most unique and popular art form.

“This Film” asks whether Hollywood movies and independent films are rated equally for comparable content; whether sexual content in gay-themed movies are given harsher ratings penalties than their heterosexual counterparts; whether it makes sense that extreme violence is given an R rating while sexuality is banished to the cutting room floor; whether Hollywood studios receive detailed directions as to how to change an NC-17 film into an R while independent film producers are left guessing; and finally, whether keeping the raters and the rating process secret leave the MPAA entirely unaccountable for its decisions.

Filmmakers who speak candidly include John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Matt Stone (South Park), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Dont Cry), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), Mary Harron (American Psycho), actress Maria Bello (The Cooler) and distributor Bingham Ray (co-founder, October Films and former President, United Artists).

In “This Film,” director Dick also examines the most controversial ratings decisions in recent history, as well as the MPAAs efforts to protect copyright and control culture in the name of piracy and profit. Ultimately, Dick tries to uncover Hollywoods best-kept secret: the identities of the ratings board members themselves. The result is a movie about movies unlike any other movie ever made.

From “Sick” to “Derrida,” to the Oscar-nominated “Twist of Faith,” Dick has always made independent films. Over the last 15 years, Dick has closely followed the motion picture ratings system. He has been struck by how many major filmmakers have had their visions censored by the ratings board, which is part of the MPAA, or Motion Picture Association of America, the trade organization of the six major film studios that control more than 95% of the U.S. film business. Filmmakers, academics, and critics have made numerous attempts to encourage the ratings system, which operates behind closed doors, to change. But the MPAA has been entirely unresponsive.

I felt it was time to step forward and examine a secretive process that impacts the entire culture, says Dick. So Dick and his longtime producer Eddie Schmidt developed a project that would do just that. But they were surprised to find that many financiers, even those known for producing edgy films, were reluctant to back something critical of an institution supported by the major studios.

Eventually, the documentary found an enthusiastic home at IFC. I have to give IFC, especially Alison Bourke and Evan Shapiro, a lot of credit, says Dick. They always understood what we wanted to do, and they put their full support behind it.”Dick, together with Schmidt, had previously tackled another secretive, powerful organization – the Catholic Church – with their Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith. When they teamed up again to take on the film industrys sacred cow, they knew they could not investigate the MPAA alone. So they came up with an inspired and cinematic narrative device to help them: a private investigator.

The filmmakers chose Becky Altringer of Ariel Investigations, located an hour outside of Los Angeles. Becky runs her agency with her partner, Cheryl. Cheryls daughter, Lindsey, is Beckys junior PI out in the field. We chose Becky because she is extremely likable and really good at what she does, Schmidt says. Shes so friendly and approachable, she could be your neighbor. No one would expect her to be a PI.

Becky and Lindsey began their investigation staking out the MPAA for several weeks. They logged the license plates of every car that entered and exited the building. They followed suspected raters to lunch and listened in on their conversations for clues. Eventually, the investigation became frustrating. After many weeks, they still had not cracked the case.

Some of the suspected raters turned out to be administrators in the ratings department. And others remained unconfirmed. While the PIs worked diligently, Dick and Schmidt pursued filmmakers who had first-hand experiences with the MPAAs often arbitrary and clandestine ratings system. Dick knew he would not have a problem finding stories. The challenge was getting filmmakers to speak on camera.

Many, even the ones whose films had been rated harshly, refused to talk because they were afraid their future projects would be penalized. Not only were these filmmakers being censored, but they were censoring themselves from discussing censorship. And their fears are legitimate. Through persistence, Dick and Schmidt managed to get an array of renowned filmmakers to share their stories on camera.

South Park producer Matt Stone shared personal stories about the preferential treatment the MPAA gives studio films versus independent films. Actor Maria Bello (The Cooler) said she felt the MPAA notoriously comes down on scenes depicting tender sexuality, but it has no compunction about allowing the most brutal violence.

Jamie Babbit, director of But Im a Cheerleader, told Dick she felt discriminated against by the MPAA for making a film about gay teenagers. The one thing all of these filmmakers stories had in common was the extreme secrecy they encountered when dealing with the ratings system, a process largely unchanged since longtime MPAA president Jack Valenti instituted it back in 1968.

As I looked deeper into the system, there were two characteristics that stood out, Dick explains, its secrecy and the way it has been sold to the public as a defender of parental protection. But if you look at Jack Valentis past, it all makes sense. He comes from advertising, so thats where the spin comes from. And he was a politician in Washington, and that explains the secrecy.

Beyond ratings and content, “This Film” examines the MPAAs lobbying efforts in Washington to enforce stringent penalties against the sharing of digital information, even non-profit and academic. Author Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, discussed the profit-motives behind the MPAAs crusade against copyright infringement.

He explained how this war on piracy ultimately inhibits creativity and free speech. While these powerful interviews were shot and put in the can, Becky, Cheryl and Lindsey continued their investigation. Eventually, Becky tracked down several ex-movie raters. When Dick and Schmidt contacted them, all except for two were afraid to speak to them. One former rater who was willing to go on camera told Dick that the raters are forced to sign confidentiality agreements. He also said the raters receive no training and no guidelines. There are no experts on the board, only what Valenti calls average American parents.

Becky and Lindseys persistence eventually paid off with unprecedented results. They uncovered the names of the current raters, something no news organization had been able to do for more than 30 years. Becky is very skilled at what the PI world calls pre-texting, explains Dick. She was able to call the MPAA and get an unsuspecting receptionist to confirm information. She performed nighttime raids of peoples trash, where she found some unbelievable things, things no one has ever seen before that reveal the process up-close.

But Dicks investigation was not over yet. He knew the only way to really get inside the ratings system and understand what his fellow filmmakers experienced was to submit his own film – the very film he was making about the ratings process – for a rating.

This was the most difficult film I have ever made, says Dick. Its hard enough to make a documentary, and its even harder to make one about a subject who doesnt know they are the subject. And then, we submitted the film to the subject and continued to shoot the film. It was a challenge.

The ratings board gave the film an NC-17 for some graphic sexual content. I would have done anything to have been inside that room when the raters watched a film about themselves, Dick says. I think they had their Eternal Sunshine moment, when life folds in on itself, adds Schmidt. The ultimate voyeurs watching a film about themselves, the ultimate voyeurs.

But when Dick tried to determine exactly how his film received its NC-17, the MPAAs notes were just as oblique and arbitrary as they were for Dicks peers. When Dick realized he very well might end up cutting crucial portions of his film in order to guess what the MPAA objected to, he opted to appeal the rating a decision that supplies the film its powerful and perhaps poetic ending.

“This Film” is a fascinating overview of how American culture has been irreparably altered by this institution, and its 38-year dominance of regulatory standards over film content. This eye-opening documentary is poised to spark heated debates about freedom of speech that could not come at a more opportune time in this countrys history. If you want to keep the ratings system free from influence, said Dick, keep it open, for all to see. Thats essential in a democracy.