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Have you ever wondered what and who determines the rating that precedes the start of a movie? Who gets to decide what visual and audio content is appropriate or inappropriate for specific age groups. Most of all – how often does this rating system get it right? If these are questions that interest you, then “This Film is Not Yet Rated” is a documentary film meant for you. Besides prodding you to think, it’s also really entertaining and revealing.
Who made it and what’s it about?
Directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Eddie Schmidt (both known for their work in making creative and honest films inquiring into a range of issues affecting society and pop culture), “This Film is Not Yet Rated” was made in 2006 and premiered at the Sundance Festival.
The independently produced documentary is essentially about the hypocrisy surrounding the Motion Picture Association of America or the MPAA and its movie rating system. The film draws on inferences and interviews with some well known film makers, former MPAA raters, free speech advocates and the findings of a private investigator, hired by the director to learn more about the MPAA raters and their financial backgrounds. The documentary also shows a lot of footage that has been edited or cut out of other movies by the MPAA raters, in an effort to substantiate its claims against the seemingly unnecessary filtering supported by the MPAA.
What is the MPAA and who are its raters?
The MPAA or the Motion Picture Association of America is an organization claiming to secure the artistic freedoms of filmmakers, while at the same time overseeing film content exhibited to the public at large. According to their website, the MPAA consists of 6 major American production houses – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal City Studios LLC, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
The origins of the MPAA can be traced back to the 1920s when a group of producers decided to join forces in forming an association that protested Government censorship of American films. As an alternative to Government imposed censorship that they feared would destroy artistic freedom, the MPAA led by William Hays (a former Post –Master General) instituted a kind of industry led censorship standard that came to be known as the Production Code or Hays Code.
Fast forward to the late 1960s – the MPAA adopted a voluntary film rating system under the auspices of the then President of the MPAA, Jack Valenti (who you will find being mentioned a lot in the documentary). This voluntary film rating system, as it exists today, comprises an independent board of parents who’s job consists of watching movies and rating them in terms of appropriate content for different age groups.
Who’s in it and how long is it?
It’s about an hour and forty minutes long, and begins with an interesting anecdote shared by “Boys Don’t Cry” director, Kimberly Pierce who talks about her fears surrounding the distribution, promotion and theatrical release of her movie in light of receiving an unfavourable NC-17 rating (formerly known as “X-Rated”) from the MPAA. Other filmmakers interviewed include Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a dream), Jamie Babbit (But I’m a cheerleader) and Matt Stone (South Park/Orgazmo). It also features inputs from others associated with the industry like Jon Lewis (author of Hollywood v. Hardcore), David Ansen (film critic), Paul Dergarabedian (box office analyst) and Lawrence Lessig (Law Professor, Stanford University).
Disgruntled filmmakers and ratings: This is the most obvious premise of the documentary – the constant tussle between artists and societal censorship. The documentary explains the various ratings – General, Parental Guidance, PG-13, R and the most controversial, NC-17. The cases selected for review and criticism in this documentary mostly have to do with movies that were initially rated NC-17 and later re-rated as R, thereby making them available for distribution, promotion and theatrical release. The documentary helps you understand that getting an NC-17 virtually implies that the movie will not be promoted by the studio – a fact that can spell financial disaster for the moviemaker. Another point emphasized by the documentary lies in the differential treatment accorded to indie filmmakers as opposed to those backed by prominent studios.
Who are these MPAA raters anyway: The MPAA rating board is meant to comprise ordinary, non-media trained American parents of children between the ages of 9 and 17 years. The board members’ identities are kept secret so as to prevent their decisions from being unduly influenced by studios, production houses, producers, actors and any other industry honchos. Atleast that’s what the board is supposed to be. The documentary’s findings include exposing the identities of some of the raters, leading to the discovery that many of them are not qualified to be on the board owing to various reasons including the fact that most of them are parents of adults. In addition, the MPAA members are studios that interact with the raters and pay them for their work – so then, how and why keep the rater’s identities secret? Just some of the things that make you wonder how fair the system is.
Whose interests are being protected? The MPAA rating board’s job is to award movies with a rating that can help guide parents in making informed decisions as to whether their children may be permitted to watch a particular cinematographic work. The onus of figuring out the right rating falls on the members of the MPAA board and requires that they represent the interests of the American population. Unfortunately, the documentary suggests a lack of representation from several groups including the LGBT community. This lack of representation also finds its way into distinguishing R rated content from NC-17 where most movies or scenes containing LGBT and/or same sex themes are labeled NC-17. Another huge problem with the rating system goes back to society’s moral disapproval over the depiction of sexually themed work, and the almost casual treatment of gore, violence and brutality on screen.
“This Film is Not Yet Rated” is supremely informative as it is entertaining. It does a great job of giving viewers a glimpse into issues such as censorship, morality and entertainment from the perspectives of an industry member, an artist and a movie-goer. A definite must-watch for all the interesting insights and footage. Have you watched this documentary or do you have something to say about movie rating in your country? Why not leave a comment and let us know what you think.