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Director Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith) takes an unprecedented look into the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) film ratings system and its profound effect on American culture. By examining controversial ratings decisions, Dick asks whether Hollywood movies and independent films are rated equally for comparable content, and whether keeping the raters and the rating process secret leaves the MPAA entirely unaccountable for its decisions. Features candid interviews with critics, attorneys, authors, educators and filmmakers, including John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Matt Stone (South Park), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) and Mary Harron (American Psycho).
 

 This Film Is Not Yet Rated

My first attempt to break through the secrecy of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) film ratings system happened back in 1990. I was on the editorial board of the film magazine Montage, the precursor to Filmmaker. Like my fellow editors, I was upset that independent films were consistently rated more restrictively than studio films, sex was rated more harshly than violence, and any film with gay content almost automatically received an X.

But what everyone agreed was most ridiculous was the MPAA’s insistence on keeping the names of the raters secret—supposedly to protect them from influence. Of course, in this country, the names of judges, school board members, and almost anyone else who makes decisions affecting the general public, are not kept secret and they seem to operate just fine. Likewise for the film raters in every European country, whose names are all known to the public. To penetrate this veil, we hired a photographer to walk into the screening room and snap the first published photo of the secret raters while in the midst of watching a film.

Fast forward 15 years later, through another decade and a half of criticism leveled at the ratings system from filmmakers, critics, academics and parents organizations. The MPAA’s response to all this was to completely ignore it. So I decided to revisit the subject. Perhaps they’d pay attention if I spoke their language—if I made a movie counting the ways they fucked with movies.

But this time, there was no walking into the MPAA building. They had turned their headquarters, an overblown faux Spanish ’80s not-so-mini-mall, into a fortress. So, along with my producer, Eddie Schmidt, I hired a private investigator and followed her on and off over the next six months as she used all the tricks of her trade to find out who the raters were and what actually went on inside their screening room.

I began contacting independent filmmakers about their experiences going up against the ratings board, only to be stunned by the level of paranoia I encountered. Directors whose films had been censored were afraid to speak on camera—fearful the ratings board would retaliate against their next film. A number of brave mavericks did agree to talk—John Waters, Kevin Smith, Mary Harron, Kimberly Pierce, Allison Anders, Jamie Babbit, Darren Aronofsky, Matt Stone, Atom Egoyan—but not one “studio” filmmaker would speak, even though many of them hated the ratings board as much as the independents. It was like The Wizard of Oz—a dozen mild-mannered film raters instilled such fear throughout Hollywood that even major producers and directors were afraid to comment on their own work. Copulation and Expletives and Drug Use, Oh My! Sadly, this kind of rampant paranoia is not conducive to making art.

I edited the footage I had shot and then decided to make things interesting: I submitted my film to the ratings board to get a rating. The MPAA was completely caught off guard, since they had no idea I was making the film at all. I would have loved to have been in that room when the raters screened the film (our attorney forbade us from planting a hidden camera). Not surprisingly, the film received an NC-17, the harshest rating a movie could get. I decided to appeal the rating, and that’s when I stepped into a Kafka novel.

On the day of the appeal, I arrived at the high security screening room accompanied by my attorney, who was immediately refused entrance. Not only that, I was informed that an MPAA attorney was going to chair the appeal and that there would be no written record of the proceedings. But when the appeal began, things got even stranger. Everyone in the room, including myself, was given a badge with only a number on it to identify themselves. It was like something out of The Prisoner.

I introduced myself, then asked for the names of the appeals board members sitting in judgment of my film. Everyone was silent, except the chair, who told me I was out of order. At that point I knew that nothing I said would make any difference. As I was leaving, I was stopped by a very anxious MPAA staffer who insisted I give back my badge. I said I wanted it as a souvenir but she insisted she would face reprisals unless she gathered up every badge. This was taking no record of the proceedings to the extreme.

But the battle wasn’t yet complete. The MPAA and I had one final dustup. Before I submitted my film to the ratings board, they assured me they wouldn’t make a copy of it. A month later, I was contacted by an attorney from the MPAA, fully expecting him to tell me that I was being sued. Instead, he informed me that they had indeed made a copy of This Film Is Not Yet Rated but that I shouldn’t worry, because he said it was “safe in my vault.” Let me tell you, I have never felt safer in my adult life.

As the press gleefully stated, the MPAA, that bastion of God-fearing anti-piracy, had pirated my film. I sent a letter demanding the tape’s return, which, of course, they have yet to respond to. That’s not surprising—the MPAA has been running things their way for 38 years.

But it’s way past time for a change. This Film Is Not Yet Rated is contributing to a national debate about the ratings system that has been bubbling up for years. The MPAA, however, doesn’t listen to criticism—unless it’s loud enough. Perhaps if filmmakers, moviegoers, and the public together speak out against this ridiculous ratings system, the MPAA will finally listen. We all know what the problems are—now let’s push for a solution.