How does one follow-up an Oscar-nominated documentary (2004’s Twist of Faith) about sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church? If you’re Kirby Dick, you deliver another exposé of institutionalized misconduct by taking direct aim at the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). A sensation at Sundance, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a roundhouse blow leveled at the current cinematic evaluation paradigm, dissecting the MPAA’s secretive and hypocritical practices to reveal—with equal doses of humor and outrage—the organization’s collusion with major studios and theater chain owners (all of whom he dubs a “cartel”), as well as the restrictive consequences such relationships have for independent and foreign filmmakers.
Dick illuminates the MPAA’s double-standards regarding violence and sex—and heterosexual and homosexual content—through shrewd juxtapositions and punchy interviews with, among others, John Waters, Kevin Smith and Darren Aronofsky. Yet his doc’s real sizzle comes from offering an inside peek into the halls of cinematic power, the director both employing a private investigator to uncover the carefully guarded identities of ratings board members and also charting his own experience with the unfair and often ridiculous ratings process. Speaking to Slant from Los Angeles, however, Kirby made clear that his present frustration with the MPAA stems less from their slapping of This Film is Not Yet Rated with an NC-17 rating (IFC will release the film unrated), and more with their hypocritical decision to ignore their own anti-piracy statutes.
Have you received any feedback from the MPAA regarding the finished, unrated version of the film?
Well, we did have an interesting interaction with them about our film being copied. A couple of days before I submitted my film for a rating, I thought, “They’re not gonna want to send the DVD that I’ve submitted back.” So I called them up, and they assured me that they would make no copies of the film, because that just isn’t done. So when I went to the appeals hearing and [MPAA ratings board chair] Joan Graves was there, I asked her if [new MPAA president] Dan Glickman had seen the film, and she said yes. I started thinking about that because Dan’s in Washington and they’re in Hollywood, and I called her back and I asked, “Have there been any copies of the film made?” She was kind of evasive, and then hesitated, and then said, “No.”
But about a week later I got a call from their attorney and he said, “Look, Kirby, I have to tell you, we have made a copy of your film, but you don’t have to worry, because it’s safe in my vault.” My attorney then wrote a letter asking for the DVD back, asking for an explanation about where the copy was made and who made the decision to copy the film. No response to that at all. It’s pretty disturbing because here’s an organization that spends all this time on anti-piracy, and their own definition of piracy is “any single unauthorized duplication of a copyrighted work.” Which is, of course, my film. They, by their own definition, have engaged in piracy.
Any plans to take action against the MPAA?
I had to be sort of pragmatic about it. To sue the MPAA is $50,000 just out of the gate. $50,000 I, as an independent filmmaker, don’t have. So even if I’m right on this issue, what do I end up winning? Ultimately, I’ll end up getting back a DVD. There is one slight bit of concern, though. Where was this copy made? Because if the copy was made in a post-production facility, those are often the places where illegal duplications are pirated from. I’m not suggesting this happened, but there’s a possibility that there might be illegal copies somewhere around the world as a result of what they did. I don’t think that’s fair to me. And it’s not enough for me to know that their copy is safe in their “vault.” I want to know the whole process. But they don’t have to [inform me of their process]. They’re too big. Those studios control 95% of the film business. They respond like any cartel responds. Unless you have power, they’re not going to respond.
The film makes clear that the ratings process is shrouded in secrecy. Why do you think the MPAA so diligently avoids making their activities transparent?
If you take a democratic perspective on society, yes, openness benefits everyone. But if you’re looking at it from the position of the power, secrecy benefits the powerful. If it was up to them, the MPAA wouldn’t care whether there was a rating system or not, and they’d probably prefer that there wasn’t one. But if there’s going to be one, they want to be in control of it, because they want to make sure that their [i.e. studio] films get out with less restrictive ratings. And the kinds of films they make are violent films and films targeted toward adolescents—those films get less restrictive ratings. The kind of films their [independent and foreign] competition make—often edgier, often more about adult sexuality—get more restrictive ratings. So the ratings system is set up to help their own films get through while hobbling their competition’s films.
The second thing is that, for example, they make the claim that the raters are anonymous so they can be protected from influence. Well, there are many more important positions in society—judges, school board officials—who make more important decisions that are done completely out in the open. So that’s kind of an absurd argument. But what makes it more absurd is that the only people who have access to these people on the ratings board are people in the studios. Heads of production talk to the raters, post-production supervisors talk to the raters—they have relationships with them over years. Independent and foreign filmmakers do not have that. Because it’s all secretive and nobody knows this, they’ve set up a system where they can actually influence the raters under the guise of protecting them from influence. And I mean, you look to the Bush administration, and secrecy—it’s kind of rampant in this country. And always, of course, for the public’s good.
The majority of directors featured in the film might generally be labeled “independent.” Did you intentionally speak to independent filmmakers rather than those working for studios? Or, given that they’re the ones most hurt by the system, were they simply the people most willing to be vocal with their criticism?
It was interesting—it was both. When I started this process, I thought filmmakers, and particularly independent filmmakers, would rush to be a part of my film. That wasn’t true, and I was really surprised. Everybody was very supportive of the project, but many filmmakers were afraid to go on camera because they were afraid that their future films would be more harshly rated. This applied to studio filmmakers as well [as independents]. And this paranoia is one of the ways they keep critiques from getting out into the public. Fortunately, we ended up getting just a great range of filmmakers—Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, John Waters, Kimberley Peirce—whose films often skewer, through humor, important cultural issues. What we have, though, is a ratings system that’s actually keeping those types of cultural critiques from getting out. When it comes to the studios, no one in the studios would talk to me. Even though there are many people in the studios who don’t like this system and want to see it changed, they were really afraid…