It operates and exists under a shroud of secrecy surpassed only by the CIA, polices a multibillion dollar industry, and is accountable to no one. It has more control over what we see than any government agency, impacting the population in ways that few people ever stop to consider. It is the MPAA—the Motion Picture Association of America—and it is the organization that, under the auspices of protecting families and children from morally inappropriate material, goes a long way to manipulate the First Amendment.
In the new documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, filmmaker Kirby Dick sets out to uncover the secrets of the MPAA, which was started by the major Hollywood studios and began the current rating system in 1968. For nearly 40 years films have been submitted to the MPAA for rating, where they are scrutinized by a board of raters who then decide if the amount of profanity is enough to warrant a PG or a PG-13, if the number of pelvic thrusts in a sex scene is NC-17 material or merely R. The decision of the ratings board that determines what version of a film is screened in public, how much money a distributor will spend on marketing, and whether or not a film can play in certain theaters or a DVD can be sold in certain stores.
One of the most closely guarded secrets of the MPAA is exactly who determines the ratings of a film. The raters themselves are anonymous parents employed by the MPAA to watch films and come up with an appropriate designation that will protect the moral fiber of society. But how the ratings board differentiates a PG rating from an R from an NC-17 has always been a topic of considerable debate, as there are no clearly defined guidelines—if there were, that would be censorship.
Hiring a private investigator, Dick sets out to find out who the members of the rating board are. He also interviews filmmakers like John Waters and Kevin Smith, who have butted heads with the board over their film's ratings, and a host of others who help to pick apart the bold-faced lies and hypocrisy that underlies the MPAA. The favoritism shown to major studio films over indies is revealed by South Park co-creator Matt Stone, whose independently produced movie Orgazmo was given a NC-17 for unspecified reasons, leaving him and filmmaking partner Trey Parker to guess what would need to be cut. In contrast, Stone and Parker's big-screen version of South Park, produced by Paramount, was given a detailed list of what needed to be cut to avoid a NC-17. As Dick compares and contrasts various films, double standards and prejudices begin to rear their ugly heads within an organization that turns a blind eye to violence but punishes overt sexuality, condemns homosexuality and promotes homogenized mediocrity. An oral-sex scene in Boys Don't Cry is deemed too offensive, but someone getting shot through the head in the same film is acceptable. The indie-produced queer film But I'm a Cheerleader is stuck with an NC-17 for a woman rubbing her crotch (over her panties), while American Pie gets an R for a man masturbating (his pants and underwear pulled down) with an apple pie. As Dick's documentary progresses, some sad and mercenary truths about the world of film begin to surface.
"The MPAA and Hollywood—the film industry—is a marketing machine par excellence, and they've been able to spin the public perception of their industry to such an extent that everybody sort of looks on it as this sort of golden business," said Dick during a recent phone interview. "It entertains the world and adds billions to U.S. balance of trade. People don't look at it the same way they might the oil industry or the nuclear energy industry, and realize that corporations' only interest is really the bottom line. In the pursuit of that bottom line, they will very often engage in practices that are harmful to society."
During the infancy of the film industry, Thomas Edison said, "Whoever controls the motion picture industry controls the most powerful medium of influence over the people." As scathing as it is entertaining, as thought-provoking as it is frustrating, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is an examination of how the film industry is controlled. And while Dick's at-times lighthearted approach to the subject matter may not make the topic seem as pressing as other recent docs like Who Killed the Electric Car? or An Inconvenient Truth, the gravity of Hollywood's collusion with the MPAA is not to be quickly dismissed. "So many atrocities and so many freedoms are limited in the name of protecting children, one has to be careful," warns Dick. "It's up to parents around the country to decide if they want their children to see a particular film, and not 10 anonymous parents living in Los Angeles."