Interview: Kirby Dick on "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/15/06 13:42:45

Controversial documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick, who takes on the MPAA in his latest film, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," tells a tale filled with hypocricy, inequity and even a little piracy.

Ever since the Motion Picture Association of America formed a board in 1968 in order to rate and classify movies being released in this country, there have been complaints from filmmakers from all over the world about the secretive and often contradictory process by which a film is granted a “G,” “PG,” “PG-13,” “R” or “NC-17.” The problem stems from the fact that the latter is a commercial kiss of death in this country because the public equates it with pornography, many theaters are contractually barred from showing them, major video chains and superstores won’t stock them and studios are unable to run advertisements for them on television or in many newspapers. Over the years, a growing number of filmmakers have complained about what they perceive as being blatant inequities in the system: according to them, the MPAA looks more favorably towards films with violent content while frowning on any depiction of sexuality (especially gay sexuality) and they display a more favorable bias towards the products of the big studios (whom the MPAA also work for as a lobbying group in Washington) while condemning independent films that feature essentially the same kind of material. Alas, there is little that they can do because all of the major studios and nearly all of the independent distributors are signatories to the organization and if they want to get their films made and distributed, they have to play by those rules.

Thanks to Kirby Dick, the filmmaker behind such provocative documentaries as “Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan” and “Twist of Faith,” the shroud of secrecy covering the organization has been lifted in the startling new film “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” In the film, he exposes the hypocrisy, homophobia and blatant favoritism of the group in a variety of way. He interviews an array of filmmakers (including John Waters, Kimberly Pierce, Jamie Babbit, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan and Matt Stone) who tell their horror stories of what happened when their work was slapped with the dreaded NC-17. He deftly provides side-by-side comparisons of scenes from indie films that were given the “NC-17" with similar clips from studio films that received an “R” to show how the system favors one over the other–the most damning here being one that shows similar masturbation scenes from the indie film “But I’m A Cheerleader” and the studio effort “American Beauty.” (Incidentally, filmmakers trying to overturn such restrictive ratings are forbidden from offering such comparisons during their appeals process.) He hires a private detective to track down who the top-secret members of the ratings board are in order to see if the match the MPAA’s description of them as ordinary parents of young children with no ties to the industry. (Guess what–most of them don’t!) In his nerviest point of attack, he submits the film itself to the ratings board in order to get a first-hand look at the process. (I won’t tell you how it turns out but the title alone should give you some idea of how it turns out.)

I sat down recently with Dick to talk about his film, the dangers of an increasingly consolidated media, the inequities of the current rating system and what, if anything, he feels can be done to change it in a way that gives all filmmakers an equal playing field.

When did you first become interested in the MPAA and their policies towards the classification of feature films as the subject for a documentary?

It was something that I have been interested in for a long time. I had been looking at the notes I had taken for over a decade and tried to figure out what kind of film I could make out of it. Once my producer and I hit upon this idea of hiring a private investigator, that was when I could finally see it as a film because I now had a dramatic arc.

Considering that nearly every one of the top independent distributors are now owned by the major studios, and therefore signatories to the MPAA and presumably unwilling to release a film that calls their entire existence into question, how difficult was it to find financing and distribution for “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”?

I actually went to a number of companies who wanted to work with me but couldn’t because they were owned by MPAA companies. For a while, I thought it was never going to get made and it wasn’t until I went to IFC, which isn’t an MPAA-related company because they are owned by CableVision. This is one of the themes of the film–media consolidation. These MPAA companies own 95% of the film business and their corporate parents own 90% of all media–this is why you are seeing a lot of critique about the media being stifled today. If IFC had been owned by a studio, I don’t think that this film would have been made or if it had, it would have been made by credit card.

It kind of went in two stages. In the fall of 2004, we got a little money from IFC to do a kind of promo. When we do those things, we really do them all out–if I get money to do a promo, my feeling is that I am doing the film now even though it is just a little bit of money. I went out and interviewed Jamie Babbit and Matt Stone and shot some other stuff that did end up in the film. This was the time when we interviewed all of the private investigators as well.

In terms of the interviews, did you have trouble getting filmmakers who had tussled in the past with the MPAA to speak on camera for fear that their speaking out might come back to haunt them the next time one of their films goes before the board?

Yeah, there was a lot of that. I was really surprised of the paranoia that surrounded the idea of people speaking out about the rating system–they were really afraid that their future movies would be rated more harshly. A few were even afraid of being branded as troublemakers in Hollywood. I think there is a real fear of how the ratings board will treat future films and it is a legitimate fear that the MPAA does nothing to dispell. It works in their favor–this fear silences the very people who have had their films impacted by this system so that it limits any criticism of that entire process.

One of the things that you bring up in the film is the MPAA’s claims that if it wasn’t for their rating system, the government would wind up judging the content of films instead. However, there are plenty of other countries in the world that have rating systems, many of them government-run, that allow for adult-oriented films in a way that the American system doesn’t. Why is it that America is unable to have a workable rating system that allows for adult material without the social and economic stigma carried by the NC-17, a rating that automatically means that a film bearing it cannot be shown in many theaters or advertised in most newspapers or on television?

The reason it has happened like that in this country is because the film industry is a more powerful industry in this country than virtually anywhere else in the world. They have the power to gain control of the rating system and once they gain control of it, it becomes an asset and they are going to use it to increase their bottom line, which is their mandate. They do this in any number of ways. One way that they do it is by releasing films that tend to have more violence in them because they have a rating system that gives those type of films less restrictive ratings so that they get out to a wider audience. The films that have more adult sexuality tend to be made by the competition–independent and foreign filmmakers–and it doesn’t hurt the majors to give those films NC-17 ratings. In fact, even though this competition is comparatively small, it actually helps the majors.

It helps them politically on another level to come down on sex, especially gay sex. The ratings board is only a small part of what the MPAA does. A much larger presence is their lobbying efforts for Hollywood and they have been very successful over the last 20 years in passing some very onerous intellectual property laws, such as the ones about extension of copyright–I think the MPAA’s truly frightening impact on the culture is what they are doing in that arena. By coming down hard on sex and especially gay sex, that plays very well in Washington, especially with the right since they are the ones who control Congress, and it helps them in getting their laws passed through. It isn’t a moral system–there are probably a few people on the ratings board who have a conservative morality that does impact the ratings but for the most part, it is a bottom-line-driven system.

Of course, there have been plenty of highly publicized incidents over films that have received the more restrictive ratings because of violent content (“Casino,” “Robocop,” “Scarface” and numerous horror films) or even due to their language (“Clerks”). However, the battles that you cite in the film focus exclusively on films with sexually-oriented material. Why did you decide to limit the focus of the film in this way?

That is a good question. This was a very complex film for me to structure because I was dealing with multiple threads. I had the interviews, the stuff with the PI and the stuff involving my submission of the film. I had to balance the interviews with the PI section because people would feel like I was pulling away from the PI stuff for too long. I chose to limit the focus to how the NC-17 is affecting art filmmakers, which I think is the real significance. This is where gay films and art films are getting censored–that is where the most profound impact is and that is why I kept the focus there.

I think there are other issues that can be explored–the line between an “R” and a “PG-13"–but the secrecy of this organization is so incredible. Up until 1968, you have all kinds of records and notes for the Production Code in the Academy Library in Los Angeles. After 1968, there is not a thing about the rating system–nothing! Again, it is part of this thing where nothing gets out. There were ex-raters that we were in contact with–some of them were people I had personal connections with them through a friend of a friend–and when I would say what the movie was about, the line would get very cold. These people are scared. It wasn’t like “I’m sorry, this isn’t something I feel I should be talking about.” It was more like “I want off of this phone call.”

Another recurring theme in the film is just how arbitrary the system seems to be at times–something that is perfectly acceptable for an “R” in one film can suddenly be deemed worthy of an “NC-17" in another without any coherent explanation of why the one gets an “R” and the other doesn’t. How surprised were you to discover this during the process of making the film?

One thing is that all of the filmmakers that I interviewed whose films initially or finally received an “NC-17" rating thought that they had made an “R”-rated film. To me, that was astounding and that shows how little information there is out there. Again, that plays to the MPAA’s benefit–if there are no written standards, no one can call them on it and say that they can’t give a film an “NC-17" because they gave that another film like it an “R.” This allows them to manipulate the system to their benefit. I think the inconsistencies are there in part because there are no written standards–it is impossible to rate over 300 movies a year without any written standards and not have inconsistencies.

The turning point of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” comes when you submit the film itself to the MPAA for classification for a first-hand look at the entire process. What exactly were they seeing in the version that you submitted?

They saw pretty much everything you see in the film up until the point where I submit the film. That included nearly all of the sex scenes that we showed that you see in the final version of the film.

There was some talk a while ago about how you discovered that the MPAA actually made a copy of the film, in complete violation of their strict views towards piracy, and that you were contemplating legal action. What was that all about?

A few days before I submitted the film, it occurred to me that they were probably going to want to make a copy of it. I called them up and asked if they made copies of the films that they submitted for ratings and was told that only the raters would see it, not even the staff. A few weeks after I submitted it, I heard that Dan Glickman [head of the MPAA] had seen the film. Dan Glickman is in Washington and the ratings board is in Los Angeles, so I called up Joan Graves [chair of the ratings board] and asked if they had made a copy of it. She says, “Um . . .er . . .not to my knowledge.” I think they knew that I was on to them or at least that I had my suspicions. About five days later, Greg Gaffner, who makes an animated appearance as the MPAA lawyer in the film, called up and said “Kirby, I have to tell you that we have made a copy of your film but you don’t have to worry–it is safe in my vault.” You can imagine how reassuring that was. What is incredible is that the MPAA defines piracy as any single unauthorized duplication of a copyrighted work–that is on their own website! That is quite an example of hypocrisy.

Speaking of copyright issues, how were you able to get all of the various clips that you show in the film, especially the ones from films made by major studios that are used to illustrate what they are allowed to get away with?

We employed fair use because this was a critique of the ratings system and the law very clearly allows us to use these clips to critique the system because we need to show them in order to make our argument. In fact, we initially what would be involved in just simply licensing the clips and we found out that there are clauses in studio contracts that say that you cannot license a clip if it is to be used in an “NC-17" movie. We had a strong suspicion that our film would get an “NC-17" because we included the scenes from some films that gave them the “NC-17.” Even more frightening, there are also clauses that say that the clips cannot be used in a film that criticizes the studio or the film industry. Here you have these six corporations controlling 95% of the film business and they are saying that you cannot even pay to use clips in order to critique anything about the film industry and if you do, you will be in breach of contract and you can be sued. Fortunately, there is fair use in this country and that allowed us to use them.<

Were there any legal concerns or worries about the scenes in the film in which you and your detectives track the various members of the ratings board on the street in order to get them on film and identify them?

Everything we did in the film was 100% legal and we worked with an attorney all the way through. It had to be legal because we were putting it all on film and it was going to be up on the screen as evidence. I had no qualms about it because what they are doing is in the public interest, so we have a right to see them. Secondly, we always shot them in public places, so we were within the letter of the law. People have asked me if I had any qualms about following these people around and I say absolutely not. What I feel is wrong is that these people have participated in a system where they have made decisions that are in the public interest yet have agreed to remain anonymous. That, I think, is entirely wrong–if people are making decisions in the public interest, they should either be public people or not participate in that system.

In your view, is there any way that the MPAA can be fixed so that it becomes a more fair and equitable institution for all filmmakers or does it need to be entirely dismantled in order for it to change? For example, if a film like “Showgirls” or “Henry & June,” to name two high-profile “NC-17" releases, had been hits at the box-office or if “Basic Instinct” had taken that rating and succeeded instead of cutting down to an “R,” would we still be having the problems that exist today or would that have made the “NC-17" commercially viable?

The studios are very happy with the “NC-17.” As John Waters said, “The studios would sell spread-eagle-pink if they could.” However, that isn’t where their demographic is and that isn’t where they make the most money–they make that from adolescents. They don’t want to go into that area and they don’t want their filmmakers to go into that area, so the fact that the “NC-17" is considered off-limits actually helps corral filmmakers and keep them making films that are aimed towards adolescents. What can be done? I don’t know. If it was professionalized, and who knows if they will do that, and if it was made transparent, which could change if there was enough pressure, it could make it somewhat more consistent. That would be an improvement. What I want is to initiate a discussion and the more that people see this, the more they will know that people are pissed off and there will be a cumulative pressure to force some change.

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