This review is terribly late, but I finally got around to watching the DVD of Kirby Dick’s documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” which goes after the MPAA’s movie rating system. Dick tries to paint the MPAA’s private, voluntary ratings board as a “star chamber” that sits in judgment of visual arts and routinely “censors” content it finds at odds with the desires of the studios, government, the military, churches, and so on. But to me, the whole film is much ado about nothing and, worse yet, it fails to adequately address the very real risk of a government censorship popping up in the absence of a private ratings system.
By way of quick background, the MPAA’s familiar ratings system was created by former MPAA president Jack Valenti back in 1968. It was partially a response to the growing pressure for film censorship. Back then – - and this is one of many things Dick’s documentary largely ignores – - there were local censor boards who sat in judgment of films and decided if they could be shown in their communities. And there were ongoing efforts by many lawmakers at all levels to impose regulation on movies or at least strong-arm movie makers into changing content in certain ways.
And so the MPAA ratings system was born. A crucial feature of the MPAA system was that those doing the ratings would be anonymous. The reason this was done was to protect them from being pressured by both those who made the films (who obviously want less restrictive ratings) and those in government or the public who critique the films (many of whom would want stricter ratings).
But keeping raters and the rating process secretive has always had one obvious downside: The system lacks transparency. Why is it that two films with very similar content get two different ratings? Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s not. And this is what has Kirby Dick, and the many directors or film critics he interviews in the documentary, up in arms.
Some of the points they make are quite valid, especially the fact that sexual content in movies tends to set off alarms with MPAA raters while extreme violence doesn’t seem to raise as much of a problem. The documentary makes a point of highlighting the movies that received an NC-17 rating, which many consider a kiss of death since most theaters won’t show a movie with that rating. Most of the movies that received the NC-17 rating got hit with it because of explicit sexual content. In some cases, however, the sexual actually wasn’t that explicit, just controversial (especially when it involved homosexual relationships). Meanwhile, brutally violent films rarely get an NC-17. Of course, this probably reflects our cultural tendency to fear sex more than violence, so maybe the MPAA’s ratings are more in line with American culture than Dick or the critics care to admit. But, without getting into that whole debate, I will just say that Dick and the directors he interviews made some compelling points about why it may be the case that the excessively violent movies should receive the NC-17 rating before those movies with explicit sexual content.
But that’s about the only sensible point Dick makes in this documentary. The rest of it is just a tedious and baseless screed against the MPAA’s rating system based on the preposterous notion that private ratings are somehow tantamount to censorship. Indeed, what is most frustrating about the documentary is Dick’s absolute refusal to seriously discuss whether or not this voluntary ratings system–warts and all–is actually worse than real government censorship. Moreover, he doesn’t bother seriously debating the deterrent effect of the MPAA’s ratings system, which many argue has helped deter government efforts to regulate movie content. Dick interviews a few experts in the film who suggest that this fear has been overblown and, amazingly, one of them even argues that he thinks a government-based ratings system would be better because it would supposedly be more transparent and film makers would get a fairer hearing.
This is where Dick’s case against the MPAA just flies off the rails. In essence, he is trying to indict the entire ratings system by pointing out the obvious fact that it is inherently subjective. But that is the nature of all ratings systems. Ratings aren’t an exact science; they are an inherently subjective exercise because they are based on value judgments made by humans who all have somewhat different values. Those doing the rating are being asked to evaluate artistic expression and assign labels to it that provide the rest of us with some rough proxies about what is in that particular piece of art, or what age group should (or should not) be consuming it. In a sense, therefore, there will always be “flaws” inherent in all ratings systems since humans have different perspectives and values that they will use to label or classify content.
But because of this, there will always exist a group of critics who will argue that someone–presumably, themselves or the government–can devise better ratings or controls. Setting aside the clear First Amendment concerns it would raise, there is no reason to believe that the government could actually do a better job. If the government was responsible for assigning content ratings or labels, for example, five unelected bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission or some other regulatory agency would simply substitute their own values for those of the voluntary ratings boards or other labeling organizations in existence today. And the argument that government would provide more objective ratings or effective controls is also undermined by the grim reality of power politics. Government officials would be more susceptible to various interest group pressures as they were repeatedly lobbied to change ratings or restrict content based on widely varying objectives / values. Inevitably, as has been the case with the broadcast indecency complaint process in recent years, a small handful of particularly vociferous interests could gain undue influence over content decisions. This raises what the Supreme Court has referred to as the “heckler’s veto” problem since that vocal minority’s preferences could trump those of the public at large.
With private, independent ratings systems, by contrast, those assigning ratings or labels are generally isolated from lobbying or other interest group pressures. This it what makes the argument for “transparency” in ratings systems so disingenuous, or even somewhat dangerous. If “transparency” means forcing raters to be exposed to endless special interest lobbying or other pressures, one wonders if that would really produce a better system. It is more likely it would produce a system that bowed to those pressures.
This does not mean the raters ignore public input. To the contrary, private rating boards and labeling bodies poll the public and monitor what critics are saying to adjust their ratings accordingly. Indeed, the MPAA expanded its ratings designations over the past 35 years in response to concerns. And, just recently, the MPAA announced it would open up the ratings system a bit more. Some of the changes seem like a response to the concerns raised in Dick’s documentary. For example, the MPAA plans to reveal the names of the three senior raters and offer basic demographic information (but no names) of the others.
Regardless, what should be clear to everyone is that if the MPAA was forced by government to completely open up the ratings process to anyone who cared to provide input (including the public policymakers themselves), it would result in a circus-like atmosphere and little would get rated in a timely manner. Again, Dick doesn’t even bother mentioning this danger.
Dick’s concerns about NC-17 ratings being a kiss of death are also largely unwarranted. While it is true that many directors cut scenes from their movies to get an R rating and get their films in theaters, it is also true that the put all that material (and more) right back into the movie when it is released as a DVD! In fact, the commercials for many new DVD movies proudly scream that this is the “Uncut and Unrated” version of the film. It’s become a major selling point.
Another puzzling thing about the documentary is Dick’s complete failure to mention the explosion of independent movie ratings systems. If parents wish to independently verify MPAA movie ratings, or just get more information about the content of specific movies, there are many services to which they can turn. For example:
These independent ratings systems are wonderful resources for parents and average movie goers because they address what I believe has long been the MPAA ratings system biggest flaw: Its focus on ratings vs. content labels / descriptors. When the video game industry decided to voluntarily set up its own ratings system in the mid-90s–the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB)–they decided to use ratings symbols like the MPAA. But they went further and developed a detailed list of content descriptors that now accompany every game sold. Parents (and average consumers) can examine the game container and see these descriptors prominently displayed along with the game’s overall rating. Today, there are over 30 different content descriptors used by the ESRB to give game buyers a better understanding of the type of content they might find in those games (examples include: “blood and gore,” “fantasy violence,” “simulated gambling,” “alcohol-” or “drug reference,” “strong language,” or “strong sexual content.”)
The MPAA actually does produce content descriptors like these but, inexplicably, they just don’t seem to highlight them as well as the video game industry does. You can find the MPAA’s content descriptors at the beginning of most movies but they are in the fine print under the actual ratings designation. Also, the MPAA also has an excellent website that allows the public to search a massive database of movies and find those content descriptors. Still, more could be done by the MPAA to highlight these descriptors in other promotional materials. In particular, I’d like to seem those descriptors clearly listed on the back of all DVDs.
Of course, even if the MPAA decided to highlight these content descriptors and move away from its focus on ratings it wouldn’t satisfy Kirby Dick. He’s too busy trying to create a righteous crusade to solve what is, in reality, a complete non-problem. His refusal to address the subjects discussed above proves that. And his childish insistence on calling the MPAA’s private ratings system a “censorship regime” and trying to force it to be more open to outside influence just provides more ammunition to those who want the government to step in and engage in actual censorship.
Finally, just as an aside, what’s perhaps most silly about the documentary is that about a quarter of it is shot from the back seat of a private detective’s van. Dick hired a private investigator to stake out the MPAA’s headquarters in Los Angeles and snap photos of employees leaving the building in the cars. After weeks of listening to the female detective blather on about her absurdly boring life, she finally tracks down the names of all the MPAA raters. Kirby Dick then decides to end the film by throwing all their names up on the screen, as if he has revealed a secret cabal of schemers who were conspiring to take over the world. For God’s sake, these people are just movie raters! It was an absurd finish to an absurd movie.