The title of Kirby Dick's documentary is catchy, if not quite true. This Film Is Not Yet Rated received an NC-17 rating, but more about that later. First, let's sort out where these movie ratings come from.
The Motion Picture Academy of America was established in 1968, with the lofty goal of staving off censorship by having an anonymous group of parents rate commercially released films. Today, a movie is presented to the MPAA, where it is screened and then receives one of five familiar ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 (which replaced X). In the event of disagreement, a director may cut his film and re-submit it; file an appeal with the MPAA; or choose to release the film as NR, or "not rated," which can be perceived as synonymous with an NC-17.
What the casual viewer might not realize is how important a rating can be to the success of a film. Most battles over ratings are fought in the margins between PG-13 and R, and between R and NC-17. The skirmish isn't just about the director's artistic vision; the economic implications can be devastating. An R rating may keep kids and teens from attending, and that's a lucrative demographic. An NC-17 automatically prohibits all viewers under 18; more importantly, it is the marketing kiss of death. Some media won't run ads for NC-17 features; theaters may not book an NC-17 film; and NC-17 bans by major retailers, such as Blockbuster and some discount stores, impact even future ancillary revenues from home-video release.
Adding to ratings imbroglios is the fact that nobody knows how or why these ratings are derived. The MPAA is not beholden to explain its criteria or its decisions, even to the directors whose films they reject. Throughout his entertaining and frequently funny film, Dick interviews a number of filmmakers who've been in the wars -- John Waters, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky and Kimberley Pierce (Boys Don't Cry) -- and plenty of them are still furious and baffled.
What can be gleaned from squabbles over ratings is that the MPAA considers the depiction of sex, particularly gay sex, worse than violence; such material more often receives a restrictive rating. Yet Saw -- which features gruesome and gratuitous violence, glorifies a psychotic killer, and stoops to depict a child in peril -- netted a R rating, and thus, in theory, is deemed suitable for parents and their children to enjoy together.
Additionally, Dick posits that independent films produced outside of the six major studios were more likely to receive NC-17 ratings, or less help from the MPAA. Button-pushing director Matt Stone (South Park), interviewed in the film, notes that when he submitted his indie sex comedy Orgazmo, he was left to guess what offended the raters. On the Paramount-produced Team America, however, he received specific suggestions how to salvage a desirable R from the NC-17 hair-raiser he turned in.
The MPAA avers that its raters are simply "ordinary" parents, yet refuses to identify them so as to protect them from untoward influence (even though raters often consult with the highly influential studios). To uncover exactly who sits on the MPAA ratings board, Dick, irked, hires a private investigator, Becky Altringer. (Don't count out Altringer's status as an unassuming middle-aged woman -- it turns out to be her best asset.) Once unveiled, the raters don't exactly conform to the fantasy image of concerned-parents-of-young-children the MPAA touts
The MPAA has been quick to point out how useful the ratings are to viewers, and especially to those sensitive families. Much of this defense has come from the group's recently retired head, Jack Valenti -- an overly tanned flack with polished brogans firmly planted in both Congress and the boardrooms of the top studios. Yet without clear and transparent standards, how can any of us know what a R rating really means?
Dick argues that the MPAA's oft-stated mission of representing an "average family" turns out to be a fiction, a cover for industry control under the guise of an independent authority. This is the "protection of public standards" as determined by a private group. Driven largely by the marketability of the product it reviews, ostensibly without influence, the ratings board is a self-serving component of the entertainment conglomerate.
The MPAA has an appeals board whereby a director can make a limited case for a different rating. After receiving an NC-17 rating, Dick takes this documentary before the appeals board, which is even more secretive than the ratings group. Undaunted, Dick sets his private dick on the appeals board as well, and what he uncovers is truly depressing -- a real eye-opener, even as it makes sweet sense to any cynical cultural observer.
For insiders and film obsessives, Dick's film lays out a lot of what we already know or suspect, though the vindication is welcome. (A peevish, middle-aged Republican woman heads the ratings board? Quel surprise.) But everybody should see his informative film: The MPAA ratings affects what all of us get to see on the big screen, and the whole system runs counter to how we like to think our culture operates.
Ultimately, Dick refused the MPAA imprimatur, and his film is being released "not rated." So why did Not Yet Rated originally get slapped with the NC-17 brand? It must have been a no-brainer for the MPAA, since Dick's film excerpts dozens of "offending" scenes that got their respective movies the industry mark of shame. Or at least that's my guess. Naturally, the MPAA refuse to explain its decision. AAA
Starts Fri., Oct. 6. Regent Square