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'This Film Is Not Yet Rated'-Uncovering A Hollywood Secret: Who Are The MPAA Ratings Board Members And What Are Their Standards?

Published: October 06, 2006 at 12:00 am

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‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’—

Uncovering A Hollywood Secret: Who Are The MPAA Ratings Board Members And What Are Their Standards?

By Shannon Hicks

The ratings system for movies released in the United States has drawn fire for years from directors, especially when a film receives a rating from The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that the director doesn’t agree with. Too high of a rating (R or NC-17, for instance) may mean that audiences will shy away from the film because they fear too much violence or strong language. A rating that’s too low (G or PG-13) may keep adults away, thinking the film will be to simple for them.


There is also a lot of money at stake when a film receives a higher-than-expected rating, especially NC-17. That rating can be crippling because studios can’t — or won’t — spend money on a film that is restricted to most audiences. Ratings affect a film’s distribution, which affects its success, which in turn affects what kind of movies get made and what the public gets to see at the local movie theater.


Who comes up with the ratings for films? Who are the members of the MPAA ratings board and what are their standards?


Those questions have vexed directors and moviegoers alike since 1922, when the MPAA was founded. Directors have tried to fight the MPAA board to have ratings eased, but have found time and again that in order to meet MPAA’s “suggested rating,” they — the directors — have to reedit their own work. That’s something any director hates to do.


Perhaps even worse is the fact that everything is done is such secrecy. Of movie boards from 30 countries, the MPAA is the only group that does not disclose who its members are. These people are not judges, CIA or FBI agents, nor even undercover police officers. These are ten people who sit in a pink building in Los Angeles that is patrolled and guarded, surrounded by high fences, who decide what should be seen by the rest of the country.


A few years ago, director Kirby Dick and producer Eddie Schmidt — the same team behind the Academy Award-nominated documentary Twist of Faith — decided to do some serious investigating into the MPAA and its ratings system. The result is the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.


A few minutes into the film, the names of directors whose work has been altered or crippled due to the ratings start filling the screen. These are some of the biggest names in filmdom including Peter Jackson, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Craven, Amy Heckerling, Jane Campion and countless others; by the time the names stop filling the screen the words are so small it’s difficult to read all of them. But viewers get the idea: Big or small, directors are affected. The system is broken.


“After Twist of Faith, we wanted to take on something equally important in culture,” Mr Schmidt said this week. The Newtown native will be in Bethel this weekend to introduce his film when it opens at Bethel Cinema. The film opened on September 1 in LA and New York, and has been making its way into more theaters during the past month. Well before its release five weeks ago, there was a lot of buzz about the film. How much information would these guys actually find out about the commission?


“This one, however, has a lot of humor and is a little more outrageous. It’s also entertaining, which it needs to be, since it’s about movies.”


Twist of Faith, released in January 2005, told the story of Tony Comes of Toledo, Ohio, a 34-year old husband, father, firefighter, and loyal Catholic who is forced to face his past when he learns that Father Dennis Gray — a Catholic priest who Comes says abused him as a child — is living five doors away from Mr Comes and his family. The film follows Mr Comes as he goes public with his story, first as John Doe and then with his given name, and the repercussions within his home and the Toledo community of his difficult decision.


Mr Schmidt will introduce the 3:30 screening of This Film Is Not Yet Rated on Saturday, October 7, and then he’ll stick around for a question and answer session following the film.


Director Kirby Dick interviewed filmmakers, critics, attorneys, authors and educators for This Film… Filmmakers who speak candidly 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). The two even managed to find two former MPAA ratings board members to speak on camera.


Mr Schmidt was surprised, he said Tuesday afternoon, at some of the people who declined to be interviewed for their project.


“Both studio people and independent filmmakers who had spoken in the press before, people we thought would be a slam-dunk for the movie, declined because they didn’t want to appear in a film giving their harsh appearance,” he said. Directors who did speak out, however, had plenty to say about the system they feel has censored them.


John Waters called Blockbuster “the worst censorship of all. Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, all the big chains that are probably responsible for 40 percent of all videos sold, DVDs, will not carry NC-17” rated films. In essence, these companies are not allowing their consumers to choose for themselves what they will watch at home.


Matt Stone, one half of the team that has given us South Park and is no stranger to controversy, also had plenty to say about the MPAA, its ratings system and the effect those ratings have on all levels of the film industry.


“They serve the studios,” he says of the ratings board. “That’s who pays their bills, that’s who they are. They are the studios.”


Mr Stone also charges that the MPAA treats big-studio films and their companies better than they treat the independent filmmakers.


“When we submitted Orgazmo [released in 1997 by October Films], we only were told to re-cut and resubmit it. No explanation, no details,” Mr Stone said. “By the time we did South Park [the movie] and were working with Paramount, they gave us a line-by-line description of what to do to achieve an R rating after our first attempt came back NC-17.”


As has been the case with MPAA for decades, when Mr Dick and Mr Kirby attempted to contact members of the Academy and many people associated with studios, they didn’t get a response.


“Nobody in the studio system wanted to talk with us — postproduction supervisors, they did not want to be in the film at all,” Mr Schmidt said. “We tried. We also tried to get Dan Glickman and Jack Valenti to do interviews, and got no response.”


Mr Glickman has been president of the MPAA since September 1, 2004.


Mr Valenti created the MPAA rating system in 1968 and served as the association’s president for more than 34 years, always closely guarding the identities of his ratings board members. A polished advocate for the movie studios, he is still one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.


“Their fears,” Mr Schmidt said, referring again to his fellow filmmakers, “made us want to make the film that much more. If there’s a system within the industry that’s so important, but people are scared of talking about it, that drove our quest even further. It put more gas in the engine: I have to expose this. The greatest filmmakers of our time should not be afraid of the judgment of ten anonymous people.


“If there were an equivalent system in the world of book or fine art, people would be up in arms. It’s only because films are perceived as entertainment — if great paintings had to pass, or be trimmed — people wouldn’t put up with it,” he added.


The Dick-Schmidt team also worked with a private investigator and ultimately manages to uncover one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets.


“We really wanted to open peoples’ minds. This system is bad,” Mr Schmidt said. “It’s been in place for a long time and people just accept it at face value. We thought that parents, and educators, and just filmgoers should know what they’re not seeing, and why, and demand an answer from an anonymous, secretive body that’s making these determinations for them.”


Ironically, the film qualifies for and has been submitted for a Academy Award. It has been released as an unrated film; the MPAA gave it an NC-17 when it was submitted, a process that was followed during the filming of This Film.


“It’s been submitted to the Academy, so we’ll see” if they give the film a nod for a nomination. “Does Hollywood want to send a message to Hollywood? That’s what we’re waiting to see,” said Mr Schmidt. “There are factions that want to let the old guard at the industry know that the ratings board needs to be changed.”


Bethel Cinema is at 269 Greenwood Avenue; telephone 778-3100. This Film Is Not Yet Rated will be screened daily until at least Thursday, October 12.


The film’s website (IFC.com/NotYetRated) offers a synopsis of the film, Mr Schmidt’s blog and even a petition calling for the MPAA to restructure – and publicize – its ratings system.


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