This film is still ‘not yet rated’
May 2, 2007
So much depends upon a film rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings Board.
The difference between an R- rated film and an NC-17 rated film can be the difference between box office success and failure. ‘NC-17’ brands certain films as unacceptable for an entire age group, barring anyone under the age of 17 and those films are seldom seen on video store shelves. Thus, big studios, aiming for box office success, often pressure filmmakers to edit their films to receive a lower grade. An R-rated film allows children to see a film if they are accompanied by an adult.
The MPAA developed the G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 rating system and for nearly three decades has remained the most powerful board that rates films in America.
Thursday evening at the Jim Santy Auditorium, the Sundance Institute will host a free screening of 2006 Sundance Film Festival’s "This Film is Not Yet Rated," a movie that uncovers the MPAA’s covert rating process.
The documentary includes interviews with several independent filmmakers, actors, former MPAA raters, and follows a private detective investigation of the ratings board. The filmmakers also submit their documentary to the board’s review and pursue an appeal of its MPAA rating.
Eddie Schmidt, co-writer and producer for "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," is scheduled to speak with the Park City audience in a Q and A after the screening.
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"Really, what parents need most of all and I’m a parent is just information, and I think that’s where the MPAA sort of fails everybody," Schmidt told The Park Record. "It fails filmmakers by not giving them enough guidelines for the ratings, and it fails parents by having ‘catch-all’ letter grades and very little description of what’s actually going to happen in the movie."
Schmidt recalls taking his son to see a PG-rated film, "Bridges to Terabithia" and being surprised by a death of a main character in the film.
"It’s not on camera and it’s not portrayed in a gruesome way, but the death is rendered quite realistically with grief," he said, "and there was nothing in the MPAA’s cheeky descriptor that would indicate the level of emotional weight for a child."
The MPAA was formed in 1968, when the film industry decided to stop censoring and voluntarily rate itself instead. Since that time, a group of unidentified MPAA movie raters representing "the average parent" have convened headquarters in Encino, California to classify films according to their content.
Archived footage of MPAA’s founder Jack Valenti fielding questions by television news reporters is interspersed throughout "This Film is Not Yet Rated." The raters are neither "gods nor fools" he explains in several interviews, and the MPAA has nothing to do with the box office, Valenti insists. If the film is worth seeing, people will see it, Valenti argues.
Yet, "the current rating system is a form of censorship in a fundamental way, because it categorizes films in advance of their release b people whose names we’ll never know," counters John Lewis, author of the book, "Hollywood v. Hardcore," and a film industry authority consulted throughout the documentary.
A handful of Hollywood insiders who braved interviews for "This Film is Not Yet Rated" (others declined fearing the repercussions from the MPAA and studio heads, says Schmidt) appear to agree with Lewis.
The MPAA is primarily a lobbying group that supports moviemakers and moviegoers during legislative sessions in Washington, D.C., yet, the organization’s ratings board arm often falls short of its public service, according to Schmidt.
Gay sex scenes versus straight sex scenes is an example of the ratings bias that "This Film is Not Yet Rated" continually returns to in interviews and film clips. "Boys Don’t Cry," a fictional account about a woman who calls herself Brandon and passes as a man, has several scenes that the MPAA asked studio executives to remove before giving the film an ‘R’ rating, according to the film’s director Kimberly Peirce.
"I was in the editing room when I got a call from production," recalled Peirce in the documentary. "They said the studio won’t release your movie if it has an NC-17 rating."
The studio said that a prolonged orgasm scene and rape scene needed to be edited, she said, but shooting Brandon in the head, was OK. "This Film is Not Yet Rated" lists other filmmakers asked to cut their films to meet MPAA’s tastes, including John Waters, David Lynch, the Wachowski Brothers and Stanley Kubric.
Contentious scenes or themes that MPAA considers ‘NC-17’ typically have to do with sex, according to the film. Schmidt supposes it might have something to do with efforts to lobby on behalf of the film industry in Washington.
The impetus for "This Film is Not Yet Rated" did not come from a personal vendetta, insists Shmidt, but from a journalistic, analytical desire to expose something kept secret. The films Schmidt and director Kirby Dick have collaborated on have never needed to be submitted to the MPAA’s raters they work with the Independent Film Channel, an independent studio.
The documentary is intentionally incendiary said Schmidt. There were several critical books and articles written about the MPAA’s absolute rule over ratings, but no one seemed to "scream loud enough," Schmidt explained.
"They say that they’re trying to protect board members from being influenced," Schmidt said of the MPAA. "It’s pretty ingenious, but not helpful to the public. By keeping [the ratings process] secret, it means the process cannot be held accountable. No one can see how it’s done and until now, no one could question the process."
Schmidt says the documentary’s release prompted two editorials in the New York Times and one in the Los Angeles Times, in support of "This Film is Not Yet Rated."
The response to the film was also, in part, one of the reasons the MPAA announced the amendment of some of their rules, he says.
A January 16 article in the entertainment magazine Variety reported that in addition to offering ratings policies online as a resource for the public will now permit filmmakers to cite another movie when waging an appeal for a rating.
Filmmakers have already benefited from the changes, says Schmidt: the MPAA recently lowered the rating for a movie called "The Hip Hop Project" from an "R" to a "PG-13."
"The MPAA very grudgingly admitted that the film ‘maybe’ had something to do with it," said Schmidt. "The changes they made were not significant, but the fact that they made them at all shows that if you do pay attention and have a dialogue, things can change The point of the film was to blow open something that’s secret that’s regulating our culture. Our whole film industry, our film culture and the way we see ourselves on screen we wanted to allow people to take that in and participate in it and make it a better system."
But for now, Schmidt and Dick seem to be successfully dodging the MPAA altogether. Though they submitted "This Film is Not Yet Rated" for the board’s review and appealed its rating, the documentary continues to circulate in theatres and DVDs as an unrated film.
"This Film is Not Yet Rated" will screen at 7 p.m. the Jim Santy Auditorium located at 1255 Park Avenue. Admission is free.