Interview: Kirby Dick, This Film is Not Yet Rated

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently sat down with director Kirby Dick and producer Eddie Schmidt to talk about their eye-opening documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated." The film is an unprecedented investigation into the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) film ratings system and offers a fascinating overview of how American culture has been profoundly impacted and irreparably altered by this institution and its 38-year dominance of regulatory standards over film content.

The ratings board is part of the MPAA, a lobbying organization for the movie industry and the trade organization of the six major film studios that control more than 95% of the U.S. film business. Over the last 15 years, Dick has closely followed the motion picture ratings system and has been struck by how many major filmmakers have had their visions censored by the board. Using some surprising, highly effective guerilla tactics, Dick challenges the MPAA’s film ratings system and exposes the notoriously secretive and Kafakesque nature of their organization.

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is informative and often hilarious as we are caught up in Dick’s zealous pursuit and merciless outing of the film industry’s raters whom he argues are untrained, are given no standards by which to judge movies, have no apparent qualifications, and whose seemingly arbitrary decisions and inconsistent application of standards determine film content and have played an influential role in shaping our cultural landscape.

The documentary will no doubt spark heated debates about freedom of speech that could not come at a more opportune time in this country’s history. Dick explains, "It is important that this film be seen by as many people as possible, as it deals with an insidious form of censorship resulting from a ratings process that has been kept secret for more than 30 years. If you want to keep the ratings system free from influence, keep it open, for all to see. That’s essential in a democracy."

Here’s what Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt had to say about their new film at the recent Los Angeles Press Day for "This Film Is Not Yet Rated":

Q: So Kirby, after this movie, do you think you’ll be able to make another movie ever?

KD: We’ll see. We’ll see.

ES: If there’s a black list, we’ve risen to the top.

KD: That’s right. Well, you know what I think it comes down to is if the film makes money, I’ll be good. This is a bottom line business.

ES: That’s true.

Q: So you had a bad experience with the MPAA getting your film rated?

KD: Well, yes, in a sense, yes. Not in terms of, you know, any of my films getting rated restrictively, in ways that I didn’t want them to be rated. But for many years, I like many filmmakers have been pretty upset with the way that the ratings have been administered. In particular, the art films get such stringent ratings. I’ve wanted to make something on the MPAA and this rating system for many years, but because they’re so secretive, all I could see was making a clip film of interviewing filmmakers and hearing their experiences. And then when Eddie and I hit on this idea of hiring a private investigator, we realized that this could really make the film because we could follow the arc of this P.I., in a sort of cinema verite fashion, which is where we come from. And also, if we outed the raters, we’d be able to hit sort of at the core of this secrecy. It’d be sort of a statement in a way so, yeah, I’ve had it in for this rating system for a long time.

Q: Isn’t that a really strong bias because you’ve kind of directed the private investigator toward one certain thing so you’ve found what you wanted to find?

KD: Well, what she found were just facts. The facts that everyone should know about. I mean this rating system is for the public. It should be public. In Europe, all the rating systems there in Western Europe, everybody knows who the raters are, so what she did was something that they should have done a long, long time ago. What many journalists have tried, you know, "60 Minutes," "Night Line," and were unable to do. Finally, we were able to do. I mean this is something that should have been out many years ago.

ES: It’s interesting you ask about the bias. We did want to research it in a traditional way, but the MPAA doesn’t release the information on how films are rated so you can’t get a file and see like, ‘Oh, how did they vote on "Mission Impossible?’ You can’t do that. It doesn’t exist. I mean it exists up to 1969 or something if you go to the [Motion Picture] Academy Library and then it’s cut off as soon as Jack Valenti takes over so there’s no way to find out about the process, and since the raters are kept secret, unless somebody really wants to go out on a limb, you can’t talk to them. I mean we were trying to find raters. Some raters would say, ‘I can’t talk to you. How did you get this number?’

KD: Ex-raters.

ES: But I just want to know about your experience. ‘Well, I had a great experience, but I can’t talk to you.’ Well, if you had a great experience, we would want to hear about it. We wanted to talk to people within the studios who are able to work the system well. They don’t want to talk because they don’t want to lose their jobs. And we tried to get interviews with Dan Glickman and Jack Valenti and got no response at all so there was an effort made to try to get their side of the story but they don’t want anyone to examine the system at all so there’s really no way to get their side of the story.

Q: I used to work for movie marketing for years. For 8 years in marketing. So I totally agree that the system is screwed up in one respect. But I thought the one thing you guys really just missed was the reason why over maybe the past five to eight years, the studios have really bought back into the MPAA which is when the congressional hearings happened and all those studios…do you guys remember this?...and all those studio execs had to go back and sit in front of the Senate and get screamed at and yelled. That’s one of the reasons why they’re so afraid of that happening again, of that public reaction. I was just curious did that ever come up as being … as mentioning that? Because you could have gotten all that footage of them sitting there, being chastised. It’s a great reminder to… well, when you have filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce or other filmmakers doing it, why the studios say, ‘Nope. We’re not going to back off this system because it protects us.’ Did that ever come up? Did you guys realize that was something to talk about?

KD: Yeah. I mean, we were aware of that but, you know, they were being chastised because they….

ES: They went off marketing.

KD: Right.

ES: But it had to do with the advertising and kids seeing advertisements for R-rated films so we don’t really cover advertising. We’re sort of covering the art form, the film itself going through the process and having scenes from it excised so that the actual work of art gets altered. So we don’t really cover the marketing side.

Q: It’s all tied together because when the studios look at a movie, they look at what can they use because the MPAA also governs their marketing.

ES: They do. That’s totally true. No, I mean I had a background in trailers so I knew all about the marketing stuff. It just was too… It would have been another film. The Congressional stuff we did actually look at, had copies of the transcripts and looked at, but it all had to do with what time television spots aired and that kids saw certain things at certain times. It didn’t have to do with the ratings board. Because the trailers are administered by MPAA execs, not by the ratings board. They don’t weigh in on the trailer decisions. So you’re right, it is significant but we felt it was significant having to do with marketing.

Q: But doesn’t that hurt your argument about censorship because censorship has nothing to do with what the studios … whether they cut something in the studio’s own MPAA. In reality, what they cut or decide not to cut and what ratings they give this because censorship… the definition of censorship is always prior restraint by the government which has nothing to do with the MPAA. The MPAA does not censor because they can’t censor.

KD: Well, they do though. I mean they censor…

Q: Censorship is government prior restraint. It’s not anything that the studios do.

KD: Well, censorship can be economic. Censorship can be the government, but the MPAA… There is only one ratings system, you know, I mean one major ratings system in this country, and if the MPAA gives an NC-17 rating, it restricts how that film gets out into the marketplace. I think we should back up a little bit here because the MPAA really I don’t think cares whether there’s ratings or not. But if there is going to be a ratings system, they want to control it because they want to make sure that their films get out to the widest possible audience and so they make the most amount of money. They tend to make films that are more targeted toward adolescents, films that tend to have more violence. Those films get less restrictive ratings. Their competition’s films, which are foreign films and independent films, often have much more adult sexuality. Those films get more restrictive ratings. So they set up a system where their films can get through and they can make more money and at the same time, their competition’s films are hurt. Now you can call that censorship. You can call that restraint of trade. Whatever you want to call that, but that’s the net effect of this. Remember the MPAA controls 95% of the film business. I mean pretty much they run the show here. So this is what this film is taking issue with is that if they’re going to set up a system, set up a system that’s open. Why not have it open? I mean, what are they hiding? There’s no reason not to have it open. Set up a system that is fair, and then we can discuss whether the specifics of the ratings are appropriate or not. But until they do that, I mean there’s a problem.

ES: The studios know which video chains and theater chains won’t carry certain films with certain restrictive ratings and they’re also, if they’re controlling 95% of the business, they’re putting money into films with contracts where directors are beholden to a certain rating. Then they’re also setting up the system that administers the ratings so you’re pretty caught. If that’s not de facto economic censorship…

KD: And the last thing is that the studios claim that the reason the raters’ names are kept secret is to protect them from influence, but the studios are the only people who have access to these people. Heads of production, post production supervisors have an ongoing relationship with these people. You know, what Matt Stone said has been corroborated time and time again. If it’s a studio film, you’re given advice even before you submit your film. There’s a dialogue that goes back and forth through the entire process. The independent filmmakers have no clue. In fact, because so little information gets out, all the filmmakers who got NC-17’s in our film that we interviewed were all trying to make an R-rated film and thought they had because there are no standards published. And they don’t have this access to find out. If they were working with the studio, this would not have happened.

Q: It’s just like you saying, in the early days with the studio system, they actually set up a cartel system here to get American movies made and not Europeans which were their most avid competition at the time. They’re doing this with the ratings now to keep foreign films…

KD: I think so. I mean ratings are one aspect of this. They look to every aspect of the business to maximize profit and this is one of the ways that they can do it.

Q: Is there a system that you think would work better than the one that we have or do you just think anything but this?

KD: No, I mean, again I feel the most important thing is that the information about what is in a film gets out so that parents can make the decision. Right now, without written standards, these letter ratings do not mean a whole lot and parents know that. I mean Terri Webb who is in our film was associated with UCLA. Her study, you know, bore out the fact that there are many R-rated films that have much less violence than some PG-rated films. They don’t have… It’s not a professionally developed set of standards. They don’t have experts on the board. So it’s very haphazard in that way, very subject to influence, and because it’s secret. I would like to see an open system with experts on the board, written standards. I’d like to see a system where you can make a film for adults and not get an NC-17 rating that stigmatizes it. Perhaps there should be a rating between the R and NC-17. In other countries, you know, you can get an 18+. Certainly there’s a press (?) around it, but it doesn’t stigmatize it. Here it actually very severely impacts it.

ES: And, you know, in every other Western European nation, the ratings board members are known to the public. They’re only kept secret here so I mean the secrecy, you know… In a democracy, a secrecy of any kind where it relates to the public, public good, public interest, is generally bad.

KD: I mean, if it’s for the public, it should be public. Look what’s happening with the Bush Administration and the mess we’re in.

Q: What standards? By whom?

KD: Well, that’s a good question. That’s something that would take, I think, a fair amount of … To develop a professional set of standards takes time. Obviously there are constituencies that would have to weigh in and hopefully one would …

Q: Lawyers have a set of standards but I would think if you did a poll of the American people, they would say those standards suck, that they’ve created for them *professional standards*.

KD: It’s true and I agree with you.

Q: And it seems to me that if you let Martin Scorcese and all the directors that you…Matt Stone… His standards are going to be wildly different from somebody who is making a family movie.

KD: I think both of them… Well, first of all, the industry is not only Matt Stone. I mean I agree with you. I think it is important. I mean there are parents who don’t want their children to see certain films. There are adults who don’t want to see certain films. They should know what’s in those films so that they can make that choice. I completely agree with you. I don’t think it should just be Martin Scorcese and Matt Stone making this. I think it should be the entire range of the industry and without …outside of the industry as well. I completely agree with that. I think it would take some time.

Q: I write for a Japanese-American magazine. Some Japanese movies are imported from Japan to show in this country. But usually in my country, high school kids can see the film, but in this country it’s not yet rated or R-Rated or NC-17. Why do you think they kind of close the door? Because of the cultural differences or something in the studio or something to do with the MPAA people?

KD: Is it because of sexuality that it’s… I mean you’re talking about…

Q: The violence. Usually a Japanese violence movie cannot get a rating in this country. It’s too violent. In my country, the high school kids can see the film. In this country, the high school kids cannot see [it] because the rating is too strict.

KD: Well, keep in mind they do see the film here but they see it on DVD. The MPAA has set up a system here where they get to sell the same film twice. First, the R-rated version or the NC-17-rated version, and then the unrated version comes out on DVD. So again they’ve …this is another way that they’re very cleverly using the rating system to maximize profit.

ES: Well, I do think there’s a certain… I mean, if you think of it this way… If they’re seeing three films a day and they’re mostly seeing Hollywood films, Hollywood knows how to market its violence in a certain way. So if you’re conditioned to seeing certain, let’s say, clichés of the genre or an actor that you know well, who you know is going to triumph in the end, you might maybe be inclined to kind of take that content a different way than for a film that you’re not familiar with where maybe the tone is a little bit different and think ‘Oh, this doesn’t follow…’ I mean you may not even be conscious of it but it’s not following the sort of subconscious rules of Hollywood filmmaking. Therefore, it’s going to be under a stricter standard and I think that applies to both foreign films like you’re talking about and independent films that often deal with more kind of edgier topics or may have a more gray area tone that isn’t necessarily black and white. It’s more adult. And then I think that’s where you’re finding those films having trouble because they’re being held to standards that are for 17 and under, very clear cut, black and white, not challenging.

Q: What would you like people to take from this film?

KD: Well, I would like people to take….because this film deals with ratings but it also deals with other issues too like sort of the history about the House Un-American Activities [Committee] and obviously the collusion between the Pentagon and the studios in terms of making more films and …I think for too long people, even the academics, have looked at the film business in terms of stars, grosses, and director’s vision. And I really want people to look at this industry just like any other industry, like the nuclear energy industry or the oil business, and realize that it’s a bottom line driven business. You know, that’s what business is and some of the time, often times, they make decisions that are not in the best interests of the public. I want that critique to be out there…that this information be out there because right now, you know, Hollywood is a marketing industry and they have marketed themselves very, very well and you know, just a little bit of a wake-up call, I think.

Q: You said in the movies that are R like "Clockwork Orange," or even, what’s the one with Ned Beatty? Not "Apocalypse Now."

KD: "Deliverance"?

Q: Yeah. A movie like that now probably wouldn’t even make it. So do you think the political climate right now – you touched on that earlier -- is allowing it to be even more pervasive as to … stopping movies…?

KD: More restrictive?

Q: Yeah.

KD: I think that’s a part of it. But again, I think, you know, they… In the seventies, the studios were interested more in making art movies and taking chances. They’re not anymore. They’ve got a formula now which is much more geared towards adolescents. And that’s where they see their money. And they really, as Eddie said, they don’t even want their filmmakers going out in that direction except for maybe to make a few Academy Award nominated films. So I don’t see a studio even making a "Midnight Cowboy" or anything like that. You know, that’s all changed.

Q: But as far as the ratings board response?

KD: Well, that’s fine.

Q: You know, why do all the art films have to be edgy? I just think it’s really a different form of censorship using your definition.

KD: Well, I don’t think. Right now, if anything, art films are so far in the minority. In fact, I think they’ve always been. Let’s face it. We just forget all the other more mainstream films that were made because, you know, I guess generally critics tend to like art films and those they tend to write history, but films can be made for any audiences and everybody has the right to see whatever film they want to. That’s all we’re saying. Just like you have access to the films. We want you to have access to the films that you want to see and we want an art film going audience to have access to the films that they want to see. That’s all we want.

ES: Yeah, as far as what you’re asking about, whether "Deliverance" would be rated more harshly today… Because the system won’t allow it, isn’t open, we don’t know. We don’t know. I mean John Waters asks in the film whether "A Dirty Shame" got a harsher rating because Abu Ghraib photos were released the week before they viewed his film. Who knows? Because the system is closed, there’s no way for us to tell.

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" opens September 1st. We want to thank Kirby Dick & Eddie Shmidt for spending time with us. We can not encourage you enough to go check out this truly informative and entertaining movie. Be sure to read our This Film is Not Yet Rated Movie Review

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