Skip to main content

MPAA Exposed! Kirby Dick Sticks It to the Ratings System

By Taylor Segrest

Private Investigators Lindsey Howell and Becky Altringer, scoping out MPAA board members. From Kirby Dick's 'This Film is Not Yet Rated.'

"There are no secrets in Hollywood." 

- Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, 1968-2004

"Hi. I'm Kirby Dick. What's your name?"

Seems innocent enough, but this greeting struck the Appeals Board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as unruly behavior. Director Kirby Dick ( Twist of Faith, Chain Camera ) wasn't going to be getting any names--not from these board members, anyway.

It was a showdown of attrition. The board members were sitting in judgment of a film that would no doubt be getting the last word. They had already seen a cut of This Film Is Not Yet Rated --a jovial, often hilarious and thoroughly scathing indictment of none other than themselves--so, nervously determined to maintain their longstanding anonymity, the cabal shuttled to and from Dick's appeal hearing in an unmarked van with blacked-out windows. Even Reverend James Wall, one of two clergy members always present at the appeals, whom Dick had already interviewed for the film, would not reveal his name.

"He was just sitting there, slinking back in his chair," Dick recounts. "It had to be one of the most absurd experiences of my life. I didn't expect them to be so childish."

With predictable spite, the board (a cadre of studio and theater chain executives, a Hollywood lawyer and the clergy members) unanimously upheld the documentary's stigmatic NC-17 rating--the aspect of the rating system most in This Film Is Not Yet Rated's crosshairs. Since its creation in 1990, an NC-17 has consistently ensured limited commercial potential, given that so few major theatrical exhibition chains are willing to showcase films with that rating. The list of filmmakers who could not release their films, or had to edit them against their will, because of an NC-17 reads like a who's who of cinematic visionaries.

Giving his film a lightheartedly rebellious mobiüs twist, Dick weaves his submission of the film to the MPAA, including the climactic appeals board showdown, into his final cut, thus negating the rating and enabling This Film Is Not Yet Rated's titular accuracy.

As Dick's longtime producer Eddie Schmidt puts it, "It's the ultimate voyeurs watching a film about themselves."

If you've ever wondered about the mystery behind the ratings system, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is the first film to penetrate that mystery, where a preceding succession of journalistic efforts had either failed or lost the will.

Aided by good-natured private investigators Becky Altringer and Lindsey Howell, Dick and Schmidt set out to uncover the identities of the ratings board members, along with the arcane and often puzzling ratings criteria that the MPAA has been hiding in its 38-year history--including the mythical pelvic thrust factor.

"They have set it up so that films with violence in them--which is much more their product--get through, yet films dealing with sexuality, and particularly adult sexuality, get caught up in this rating system," Dick observes. "And who makes these films? It's the independent and international filmmakers."

As the investigation unfolds, we hear from industry insiders, former raters, scholars, critics, lawyers and many of cinema's firebrands (including John Waters, Allison Anders, Atom Egoyan, Kimberly Pierce, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky and Matt Stone). The most significant voices in the film, however, are those we do not hear--the established filmmakers who, fearing retribution from the MPAA and those affiliated with it, chose not to dissent on camera. "That kind of paranoia is so unfortunate in an art form like this," reflects Dick. "The MPAA uses that fear as a method of control."

Control, Dick's film posits, is the primary function of the MPAA. The firmly entrenched organization serves the financial interests of the studios while masquerading as a moral guardian protecting children from corrupting influences. Ignorance, fear and complacency are among its most valuable resources. "Even though it's supposed to protect children, it's turning us all into children," observes Newsweek's David Ansen.

At the heart of the MPAA's image crusade is the well-propagated myth of the "average American parent," whose interests the association purportedly aspires to represent. Dick handily deconstructs the myth by, among other things, revealing the various ways in which most of the actual raters defy even the MPAA's definition of said parent.

Jack Valenti, the charismatic former president of the MPAA and the father of the modern ratings system, is a looming presence throughout the film, although he did not respond to Dick's invitations to participate in it. This Film Is Not Yet Rated is loaded with amusing animated sequences (the ribald explanation of the ratings system, narrated by Schmidt, is sure to be a crowd-pleaser), spunky graphics and factoids, impressive stock footage and a something-for-everyone grab-bag of salacious film clips (the basis for its NC-17 rating), but the punctuating bits of potent Valenti-isms leave the most unsettling impression. Dick pulls no punches in combating Valenti's savvy PR moves and grandiloquent declarations, adroitly beating him at his own game and exposing the MPAA's ulterior motives.

"You can't underestimate Jack Valenti," says Dick. "One of the most successful lobbyists in history, he's accomplished a great deal. It's just unfortunate that a lot of it has been so much at odds with the interests of American filmgoers."

"If you look at his background," Dick continues, "he comes out of advertising and that explains the spin, and he comes out of the government and that explains the secrecy. Those are the two defining characteristics of the modern ratings system."

After hearing Valenti wax pedagogical about "liberating the screen," it's hard not to side with filmmaker Waters as he articulates the relative harmlessness of a little "sploshing" (the fictional erotic urge to dump food on your private areas) in light of the widely reported trend of 8th grade girls routinely giving blowjobs. "I was very fair about sexuality," says Waters, about his film A Dirty Shame. "I think you ought to hope your children are doing perverted sex acts with food."

Waters goes on to suggest that the board's especially strict treatment of A Dirty Shame may have been influenced by the coinciding release of the Abu Ghraib prison photos. As iconographic images like these flash before us at various points in the film, we are reminded of just how deeply images resonate in the popular psyche, how vital they are for society's self-reflection, and just how much "aberrational" behavior is an endemic obsession in our modern media mainstream.

If directors like Michael Tucker had listened to the MPAA and not appealed the "R" rating of his award-winning Iraq War documentary, Gunner Palace, the American public would be left with its collective head in the sand, rather than having a window onto the ground truth.

"All the soldiers asked was that I tell it like it is. Uncensored," recalls Tucker in This Film Is Not Yet Rated. "When a little girl is running down the road in South Vietnam naked and she's burnt by napalm, is that PG? PG-13? Is it R? You can't rate reality."

In an uncharacteristic reversal, the appeals board, to its credit, granted the film a PG-13.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated presents an enlightening arsenal of often entertaining arguments from all facets of the case against the current ratings system. Of all these alarming criticisms, the most common refrain remains the same: the MPAA is skittish about sex and lax about violence. The need for transparency and accountability is clear. "I advocate a system of information," states Dick.

Even Richard Heffner, the former head of the ratings board, expresses the urgent need to involve experts on issues like teen violence. Of course, there's a snag there: the demographic most susceptible to violent imagery is also the demographic most attracted to it and, as such, is Hollywood 's most reliable cash cow.

While some may criticize the film for its unforgiving bias and playful tone, the contagious irreverence of This Film Is Not Yet Rated seems perfectly appropriate--like a precocious American teenager telling his parents to loosen up when they won't let him see a movie that he knows they want to see just as badly as he does.

Edifying, incendiary and fun for, well, maybe not the whole family, This Film Is Not Yet Rated hits theaters September 1 through IFC Films.


Taylor Segrest is a writer based in Los Angeles.