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August 23rd 2006
Independent Filmmakers Alliance Newsletter
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In this issue, the IFA's Lisa Johnson talks with Kirby Dick, director of the Indie flick, This Film Is Not Yet Rated and the bizzare world of the MPAA rating system that can decide the fate of many films.

The Rating Game
by Lisa Johnson


Above: Canadian director Atom Egoyan and Kirby Dick in This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Kirby Dick is mad as hell and heís not gonna take it anymore. The Oscar-Nominated Director, (Twist of Faith) found the MPAA ratings system, first implemented in 1968 by longtime president Jack Valenti, to be biased, absurd, and, most puzzling of all, absolutely secret Ė almost sacred. So Dick decided to investigate, and make a documentary about it.

He called upon fellow filmmakers who also questioned the ratings system to weigh in. They include 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), Mary Harron (American Psycho), actress Maria Bello (The Cooler) and distributor Bingham Ray (co-founder, October Films and former President, United Artists).

He also hired a private investigator to find out exactly who the ratings board members are, and just what is it they do. But he didnít stop there. He also investigated the appeals process, and sent his own film in to be rated. The result is one of the yearís best documentaries, a stunning eye opener that every film-goer should see. At least every film-goer over 17. The film, after all, did get an NC-17 rating.

Kirby talked with IFA about his experience.

IFA: What was it that inspired you to make this film in the first place?

Kirby: Well, Iíve been upset with the ratings system for so many years, like so many filmmakers. I was angry with the biases in the ratings system, particularly against independent films, and also against films with gay sexuality. I was also very upset with the secrecy around the whole system, and around the process. In fact, for nearly 30 years, no one has actually been able to figure out who the film raters are.
So what I did was hire a private investigator, and I went with her for many months as she tracked down these people and got their names, and we got shots of them. In my mind, this information should be open to the public. If itís a system thatís for the public, which the MPAA says it is, it should be public. So this is one of the things that this film does Ė it shows not only the film raters, but this very secretive process that no one has really been able to determine how it works. And this film finally opens that up.

IFA: How long did it take to find the identities of these people and bring the system to light?

Kirby: It took many, many months, because the MPAA is a very secretive organization. In fact, their headquarters in Encino is like a fortress. If you donít have official business, you canít even get on the property. Itís not like you can walk into a lobby and thereís a reception desk there. When I first told my P.I. about this, she said, ďdonít worry, Iím good, Iíll get them,Ē and then when she went and cased it out, she came back and she said, ďthis is going to be really hard.Ē They are so secretive, and theyíve kept it this way for so long. And the reason for that is, if no one knows how it works, no one can really criticize it.

IFA: Why do you think no one has exposed them up to this point?

Kirby: I think thereís a great deal of fear in Hollywood. I certainly found that in making my film. Initially, I thought that so many filmmakers had been impacted by this, that everyone would talk to me. That wasnít the case. Even with independent filmmakers, many were unwilling to go on camera, even though they were very supportive of the film, because they were concerned that their next film would be rated more harshly. Or they were afraid that they would be blacklisted in Hollywood. Itís a small town, and your reputation and relationships are really all you have.

IFA: How has the MPAA responded to your film?

Kirby: We actually submitted our film for a rating about three quarters of the way through the process, and they rated it NC-17, which in some ways isnít a surprise, because we have many clips from other films that gave those films NC-17 ratings. But the reason we submitted it is because we wanted to get inside the system, and the only way to do it was to follow our film through the ratings process, and also through the appeals process, which also was surprisingly Kafka-esque. Everything was very secretive and you couldnít refer to other films. It was like a star chamber.

IFA: It was shocking to hear that while the MPAA claims these rating are for families, and they say everyone on the ratings board must have children, but in fact, almost none of them did.

Kirby: Thatís true. They said that all the people on the ratings board must have children between the ages of five and seventeen. Well, in fact, nearly half of them donít. They probably got these people in there on the board when they did have children those ages. But they kept them on, because these were very compliant raters who would follow the ratings that the MPAA and studios wanted to receive. So itís a way of control. I mean, again, no one knew this. Everyone assumed that they were following their own standards, but in fact, they werenít.

IFA: Would you say that the MPAA is heavily swayed toward the middle of the road family films?

Kirby: The MPAA really would prefer that there was no ratings system at all. But if thereís going to be one, they want to keep control of it. And the reason they want to, is they want to make sure that their films get the least restrictive ratings, so they can get them out to the widest audience. Now the kinds of films they make are the kinds of films targeted towards adolescents. And those films have more violence in them. And thatís why you see films with violence getting off very easy. If you look at the major studiosí competition, thatís independent films and foreign films, they tend to make films more with adult sexuality, and those films get harsher ratings. So itís a system thatís set up to help them and their bottom line, AND it hurts their competition.

IFA: Your film points out that in Europe, the ratings are opposite. Theyíre harsher on violence, and more lenient on sexual content.

Kirby: Exactly. In Europe, the focus is much more on violence and concern about that, and sexuality in a film is much less of a concern. Also, in Western Europe, all the ratings processes are open. Everyone knows who the raters are, and it works completely fine. Thereís no reason for secrecy in my mind, unless they have something to hide.

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