Kirby Dick has the kind of name that would probably draw the wrath of the MPAA – the “voluntary” film rating board in America – even if he hadn’t made This Film is Not Yet Rated. Dick did the unthinkable: he hired a private investigator to discover who the secret members of the MPAA’s ratings board were.
His film follows that investigation and uses it as a way to explain the history of the ratings system in America as well as its basically unfair methods. Filmmakers give their movies to this secret board of raters, who have no written guidelines to follow, and are given a rating. An NC-17 is a rating of death, meaning that almost no newspaper or TV station will accept advertising for the film and that almost no mainstream theater will show it. You can appeal to the MPAA to change the rating, but you can’t bring them precedent. It’s an insane system, shrouded in secrecy and constituting de facto artistic censorship, all in the name of “the children.” Dick also talks to filmmakers who have tussled with the MPAA and they reveal their often surreal experiences of being told that someone’s orgasm goes on for too long – that’s really the sort of thing you hear from the MPAA.
I spoke to Dick on the phone last week, and he had some interesting things to tell me, including how the MPAA – the group that works to pass tougher and more ridiculous anti-piracy laws – pirated his film. Unbelievable, right? I wish it was unbelievable – with this corrupt, outdated and stupid system it seems par for the course.
One of the interesting things that your film reveals is that the MPAA raters aren’t religious right wackos like I thought, but very standard Los Angeles types, and that the appeals board is not just in cahoots with the studios – it’s made up of studio people and exhibition people.
Dick: This is not a moralistic ratings structure, it’s very much bottom-line driven. I think the MPAA, if they had their choice, wouldn’t have any ratings at all. But if there is going to be one they want to control it because they want to make sure their films get out to the widest possible marketplace and to do that they want to make sure their films get the least restrictive ratings. Which explains why violence gets off so easy – their target audience right now is adolescents, and violent films appeal to adolescents. That’s why they make sure those films get off easy in the rating system. But look at their competition, which is independent films and foreign films – they tend to make films with more mature themes and more adult sexuality. It’s those films that get the NC-17 rating.
This is a bottom-line driven system that helps the studio’s bottom-line and hurts the competition’s releases.
When did you get the idea to get a private investigator to find out who these people are?
Dick: I’ve been wanting to do it for more than 10 years. The whole issue of their secrecy was so significant that I didn’t know how to make a film about it until I came up with the idea of hiring a private investigator – not only was it an interesting arc to follow but while following her getting the names, I could make a very strong statement against their secrecy. That, and by the fact that I submitted my film for a rating I knew I could follow my film through the system and get inside that secrecy. Those two elements – it was at that point I knew I should make the film. I knew it would work.
The film has been getting a lot of attention. What has been the reaction from the MPAA, if any?
Dick: Well, basically it’s what their reaction to all criticism is – which is to ignore it as much as possible. I know that they’re not quite very happy with this. I know that shortly before it was released at Sundance they went and hired one of the most expensive and top flight publicity firms to do damage control. It’s not only in response to this film, but I think it’s a part of it.
But they also pirated my film.
That I did not know.
Dick: It’s very interesting. A few days before I submitted my film to get the rating I said, ‘They’re not going to want to make a copy of this film?’, so I called them up and they assured me that only the raters see the film, not even the staff, and they sent me a letter confirming that. Well a few weeks after we submitted the film I heard that Dan Glickman, the head of the MPAA in Washington, had seen it. I thought, ‘He’s in Washington, the ratings board is in LA.’ So I called up Joan Graves [chair of the ratings board] and asked her if they had copied my film and she said, ‘Uh, um, not to my knowledge.’ So I think they knew I was on to something and four or five days later Greg Goeckner [an MPAA attorney in the film] called me up and said, ‘Well Kirby, I have to tell you that we have made a copy of your film, but you don’t have to worry, because it’s safe in my vault.’ He used those very words.
Now, here’s the thing: the MPAA defines piracy as any single unauthorized duplication of a copyrighted work. By their own definition they have pirated my film. I had my attorney send a letter asking for it back, asking who had authorized it, who had done the duplication, how many copies there were and where they are now, and we have to date – it was about eight months ago – we have had no response from them.
Wow. I guess if you’re a fifteen year old kid on the internet it’s bad to copy a movie, but if you’re the MPAA…
Dick: That’s right!
I’m curious about the legal aspects of the film, of having these people on film and showing their faces and names.
Dick: It’s legal to shoot people in public the way they did. What was obviously at issue here was putting them in the film without a signed release. The reason I could do this is that what they are doing is in the public interest and the public has a right to know who these people are. In fact, the MPAA says this system is for the public. If it’s for the public, they should be public.
I think I was doing what any investigative filmmaker would do – I think this is my journalistic responsibility, to let the public know who are the people who are making important decisions that affect them.
Is this ever going to change? Is the MPAA ever going change? It seems to me that it serves the studio system well enough that there isn’t a lot of impetus for change.
Dick: There isn’t. I’m hopeful that this film will at least put pressure on them at least to make some changes. I think the thing that, in some ways, is most important is that people see this film. Hollywood responds to money; they read box office reports. If they know a lot of people have seen this film they’ll know a lot of people have problems with this system and there will be more pressure for them to address this outrage.
What do you think would be a good system?
Dick: I think what’s most important about a system is that comprehensive and yet concise information about a film is disseminated. I think you need to know what kind of violence, sex, nudity, drug use and semantic content is in a film so that parents can have that information and decide whether they want their children to see that film – and so adults can have that information and make that decision. It should be a transparent system. In Europe all the ratings systems are transparent and everyone knows who the raters are. It should be a professionalized system – this is an incredibly unprofessional system. There are no written standards, the raters receive no training and there are no experts on the board – there are no media experts or child psychologists.
And finally, because the NC-17 is so tainted there should be a new rating, one between NC-17 and R where art filmmakers, making films about human sexuality – or even films that have a lot of violence – those films are rated in such a way that it doesn’t restrict their distribution. It should be up to the audiences if they want to see it.
But wasn’t that the whole point of NC-17 in the first place? To give an alternative to the X?
Dick: It was. You know, the X, when the rating system was found, was not copyrighted, so the pornography industry appropriated it. X became associated with pornography. When Jack Valenti was finally compelled to address this – and it took many years of lobbying – and he made the NC-17, the stigma just passed from the X to the NC-17. He made no effort to disassociate the NC-17 from X. Yes, that was the original concept, but it takes a little bit of the incredible marketing muscle that the MPAA has to inform people of this.
One of the amazing things I only learned recently was that the MPAA doesn’t allow you to cite precedent.
Dick: At the appeals board, right.
On one hand that’s ridiculous, but on the other hand I can understand it – a decapitation in Sleepaway Camp VIII is different from a decapitation in a serious film about the French Revolution.
Dick: It is. Context is important. But context can also be important in precedent. Sure, that’s part of the argument, but that’s the exact argument I would make. Context needs to be part of it. Without precedent there’s no point in making an argument – all you’re doing is going up in front of them and saying, ‘Please change my rating.’ You need precedent to be able to make any kind of argument. You need to be able to say, ‘In this film, which is very similar in context to my film, there’s a very similar shot, and you gave that film a less restrictive rating then you’ve given mine. That’s inconsistent, that’s wrong.’ That’s the kind of argument that should be going on.
You asked some of the directors who participated in the film if they were worried about bringing their next picture to the MPAA after being in this. How about you? I can’t even imagine what will happen the next time you make a movie.
Dick: It should be fun, huh? I – maybe somewhat naively – consider myself somewhat inoculated because there’s been a fair amount of press attention, especially if I have a film that might be rated NC-17. It’s interesting – when I interviewed Kevin Smith he talked about Clerks II and how he thought it would get an NC-17 rating, and it didn’t, and I think it’s in part because my film was coming out and they know that Kevin Smith has a huge following in the theatrical market and if the film had an NC-17 there would be a huge row of publicity which could potentially spill over onto my film and double the amount of publicity around my film. I think they made the decision that it was better to give him an R and keep the controversy under the rug. Hopefully they’ll apply the same kind of thoughtful decision-making process when they view my next film!
Were there any filmmakers who you approached to be in this film who said, ‘Kirby, I love what you’re doing, but there’s no way I’m putting myself out there’?
Dick: Many. Many. Many independents, in fact. I was very surprised at the amount of fear in people around talking about this film. But they were afraid that their future films would be rated more harshly and they were afraid they would be branded as a troublemaker. Being a filmmaker in America is somewhat of a tenuous position, and certainly you don’t want to antagonize the wrong people because it could mean the end of your career.
Within the studios no one would talk to us. I mean, major producers and directors who we knew personally hated the MPAA ratings board found it prudent to keep their mouths shut. People whose films have been impacted by the ratings board are afraid to speak out about the ratings system – that’s a level of paranoia that shouldn’t exist.