Kirby Dick Unrated: Taking on the Motion Picture Ratings System

Filmmaker Kirby Dick talks to an audience about his film This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated has been on the “must-see” list for many film fans. Ripping down the veil of secrecy that hides the process by which films are rated for content, Dick exposes the anonymous employees of the Motion Picture Association of America that sit in judgment of virtually every film that is released in the United States and the favorable treatment that many mainstream films get over movies produced by smaller, independent companies.

All film studios and nearly all independent filmmakers submit their product to the MPAA to have the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings bestowed on them based on their content. But as the many directors interviewed for the documentary maintain, it is a deeply flawed system that contains no transparency or accountability.

From the moment Jack Valenti was named head of the MPAA when it was founded in 1968, he would time and again state in public forums that the ratings board was made up of ordinary, average parents with children between the ages of five and seventeen. Kirby’s film challenges this notion, with the director hiring a private investigator to ferret out the ratings board member’s names.

“These are people that are performing a job that’s in the public interest,” says Kirby to an audience at the 15th annual Philadelphia Film Festival who has just finished screening the film. “The public has every right to know who these people are.”

The results of the investigation are damning, with it being revealed that five of the nine board members have children over that age range Valenti claimed, while a sixth member has no children at all.

“What you have is a group of parents with really no training,” Kirby explains. “They don’t work from any standards. They just make it up.”

For years, filmmakers have complained about the rating process, charging that films with certain themes- mostly related to sexuality – will receive more restrictive ratings than films with violent content. Independent films also seem to have a harder time with the ratings board than films from the major studios, which coincidentally are the financers of the MPAA. Since most newspapers won’t accept advertising for an NC-17 film and most theatre chains won’t exhibit an NC-17 film, Dick’s film argues that a certain amount of economic blackmail is being practiced against films that may deal with sex or violence in a realistic or mature fashion, forcing filmmakers to water down their work.

“There’s self-censorship that happens,” Kirby states. “The investor, be it a studio or whoever puts money into a film, when it gets to the ratings stage, they’re not going to want to endanger their bottom line.”

“One of the things that struck me is that all the filmmakers I interviewed thought they had R rated films,” Kirby elaborates. “They were all stunned. Why can’t there be some good guideline in advance for these filmmakers?”

While Dick concedes that one could probably sue the MPAA over their practices, it’s not a very prudent thing to do in the closed economic bubble of Hollywood.

“You could argue ‘Restraint of trade’,” he says of any potential lawsuit. “But nobody would really want to do it because everybody does business with the studio. All you’re going to do is piss off people that you’re going to turn around and do business with.”

But the MPAA’s ratings board isn’t always the final word on a movie’s rating. If a filmmaker feels he has been unjustly awarded a rating, he can file an appeal with a second board within the MPAA made up of various studio and distributor officials. However, filing an appeal doesn’t necessarily mean an over turning of the rating, but the process does again seem weighted towards product from the major studios and against films from smaller, independent companies.

“One of the things that the MPAA does is that they don’t keep records,” states Dick. “There are no records as to how many ratings they overturn [on appeal]. We had to go back through the Hollywood Reporter week by week to try and find any and we could only go back to `02. What we found out was that studio films were three times as likely to be overturned then independent films. Independent films were maybe overturned 10 to 20 per cent of the time while studio films were about 50 per cent.”

In the weeks following the film’s Sundance Festival premier, Dick found himself in a rather ironic turn of events when he discovered that the MPAA, who also do much work in preventing the illegal copying of films, may have made an unauthorized copy of his film.

“A few days before I submitted the film I thought, ’They’re not going to want to give this film back once they see it,’” explained Dick. “So I called them and said, ‘Look, I’m really worried about piracy and I just want to make sure that nobody’s going to make copies.’ ‘Oh no, no, don’t worry. We don’t need to see it, only the raters see it,’ they said. I found out when I was talking to Greg Getman their attorney, I casually asked him if he had seen it. There was a pause…‘Yes.’ I didn’t say anything, I just let it go.

“Later I was talking to [rating’s board chairperson] Joan Graves and asked “Oh by the way has [current MPAA head] Dan Glickman seen it?’ and she said ‘Yes,’” Dick continued. “I started asking her, ‘Well, if Dan Glickman lives in Washington, how did he see it?’ And she said ‘Well he saw part of it,’ and was really evasive. So I asked ‘Was a copy made?’ and she said ‘Not to my knowledge.’

“A few days later, Greg Getman called back and said, ‘I have to tell you this, we have a copy. But don’t worry it’s safe in my office,’” concludes Dick, laughing. “And they won’t give it back! This is the organization that has that ridiculous anti-piracy campaign.”

While people have been lobbying for ratings reform for a long time, the MPAA has been slow to affect any change. Still Dick is helpful that his film will change that tide.

“There are four things I focus on,” says Dick. “One is that the whole process is open. Two is that there is some sort of standards. Three is that there are some experts on the board. Four is that there is some training. The whole process needs to be fixed so it’s a process that everybody can understand and everybody can respect.

“For 25 years they’ve been barraged by everyone from Roger Ebert to major filmmakers, all different kinds of groups,” states Dick. “But they’ve just ignored it. Hopefully, this will put enough pressure on them that they’ll at least be a little more responsive.”

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About Rich Drees 7219 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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