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Movies | NONFICTION FILM

A filmmaker tries to rate the MPAA

Kirby Dick's latest pries into the black box that deals out Rs and fatal NC-17s. The indie director feels the system favors the majors.

July 02, 2006|Mary McNamara | 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 www.mpaa.org, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

No.

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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.

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Why?

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.

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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.

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