Movie Review: “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”

by on February 25, 2007 · 10 comments

Film%20not%20Rated.jpgThis 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:

  • Common Sense Media’s user-friendly website offers detailed movie reviews as well as user-generated reviews submitted by both parents and kids themselves. The site offers extremely detailed descriptions of almost every possible type of content that one might find in a given title.
  • Similarly, the private rating company PSV Ratings produces the comprehensive FamilyMediaGuide.com website, which details which specific profanities are uttered in a movie and how many times they are said. The site also details the specific types of sexual or violent content that viewers will witness in a movie. Additionally, instances of tobacco, alcohol and drug use are documented and commercial product placements are identified.
  • The “Parent Previews” website reviews new theatrical releases and DVDs according to an easy-to-understand A-F grading system. Four primary categories are graded (violence, sexual content, language and drug or alcohol use) to determine the movie’s overall grade.
  • Plugged In Online’s website, a project of the religious group Focus on the Family, reviews many movies and DVDs and as part of their review process considers the following elements: positive elements, spiritual content, sexual content, violent content, crude or profane language, drug and alcohol content, or other negative elements.
  • ScreenIt.com is a online subscription-based movie review service ($24.95 per year) for parents looking for extremely detailed summaries of the content found in movies. It evaluates each movie title using 15 different criteria.
  • The Parents Television Council’s “ParentsTV” website offers recent movie reviews and awards a seal of approval to movies that they deem suitable for families.
  • Yahoo.com’s “Movie Mom” movie page includes reviews by Nell Minnow, author of The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies.
  • The Coalition for Quality Children’s Media’s “KidsFirst” website offer critical reviews of movies and other forms of children’s entertainment and provide a searchable database of recommended titles by age group.

    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.

    • V

      The rating system only prevents 16-year-olds from buying tickets to an R rated movie. I say 16 because anyone younger needs a ride to the theater anyway.

      With that in mind, what 16-year-old isn’t resourceful enough to get into an R-rated movie anyway?

      Essentially then, if some theaters (doesn’t even have to be a majority) started picking up NC-17 movies, there’d be no problem at all. It might even be a way for small theaters to compete with big chains.

    • V

      The rating system only prevents 16-year-olds from buying tickets to an R rated movie. I say 16 because anyone younger needs a ride to the theater anyway.

      With that in mind, what 16-year-old isn’t resourceful enough to get into an R-rated movie anyway?

      Essentially then, if some theaters (doesn’t even have to be a majority) started picking up NC-17 movies, there’d be no problem at all. It might even be a way for small theaters to compete with big chains.

    • http://thegreateric.com Eric

      I think you’re being a little disingenuous here. You present it as a choice between “private ratings” and “government censorship” – but why do we need either?

      As you point out, there are innumerable other sources of ratings, as well as movie reviews, movie news, etc. I don’t think anyone can really argue that there isn’t enough information about movies out there that a five-tiered letter rating is useful. So if it simply disappeared… would anyone really miss it?

      In either case though, the only real issue in my mind is that movie theaters are often contractually barred from showing NC-17 movies, and thus there’s a chilling effect on movie producers – an NC-17 film just isn’t commercially viable. Get rid of that rule, and let producers and theaters show whatever’s commercially viable, irrespective of the rating.

    • http://thegreateric.com Eric

      I think you’re being a little disingenuous here. You present it as a choice between “private ratings” and “government censorship” – but why do we need either?

      As you point out, there are innumerable other sources of ratings, as well as movie reviews, movie news, etc. I don’t think anyone can really argue that there isn’t enough information about movies out there that a five-tiered letter rating is useful. So if it simply disappeared… would anyone really miss it?

      In either case though, the only real issue in my mind is that movie theaters are often contractually barred from showing NC-17 movies, and thus there’s a chilling effect on movie producers – an NC-17 film just isn’t commercially viable. Get rid of that rule, and let producers and theaters show whatever’s commercially viable, irrespective of the rating.

    • Adam Thierer

      Eric.. I wish it was that simple. Unfortunately, it’s not. If there was no official industry ratings system, there would be enormous pressure put on the industry and film makers by government officials at the federal, state and local level. There would be efforts to directly censor, of course, but equally problematic would be all the indirect pressure those officials would put on the movie industry.

      Of course, one could argue that the industry could have just fought off such regulatory attempts by taking the government to court and mounting a First Amendment-based defense. I thought Kirby Dirk might raise this point in his film, but he did not. It’s an interesting question to debate, but even if the industry could have won those cases, I think there were other good reasons for them to have a private ratings system. Specifically, you also asked if anyone would miss the system if it disappeared. Yes, I think many would, especially parents. Keep in mind, an industry’s official ratings system is important because it rates ALL the movies that the industry releases, not just the most popular ones. As great as some of those independent sites I listed above are, they don’t rate everything. Moreover, there is no guarantee that those independent sites will be in business forever. And the movie’s official ratings system establishes a sort of baseline for all other ratings systems. The public, and parents in particular, can use it as a rough proxy for whether or not it’s OK for their kids.

    • Adam Thierer

      Eric.. I wish it was that simple. Unfortunately, it’s not. If there was no official industry ratings system, there would be enormous pressure put on the industry and film makers by government officials at the federal, state and local level. There would be efforts to directly censor, of course, but equally problematic would be all the indirect pressure those officials would put on the movie industry.

      Of course, one could argue that the industry could have just fought off such regulatory attempts by taking the government to court and mounting a First Amendment-based defense. I thought Kirby Dirk might raise this point in his film, but he did not. It’s an interesting question to debate, but even if the industry could have won those cases, I think there were other good reasons for them to have a private ratings system. Specifically, you also asked if anyone would miss the system if it disappeared. Yes, I think many would, especially parents. Keep in mind, an industry’s official ratings system is important because it rates ALL the movies that the industry releases, not just the most popular ones. As great as some of those independent sites I listed above are, they don’t rate everything. Moreover, there is no guarantee that those independent sites will be in business forever. And the movie’s official ratings system establishes a sort of baseline for all other ratings systems. The public, and parents in particular, can use it as a rough proxy for whether or not it’s OK for their kids.

    • http://www.videogamer911.com/ Video Gamer

      Looks good! Rated or not

    • http://www.videogamer911.com/ Video Gamer

      Looks good! Rated or not

    • http://thegreateric.com Eric

      Well, I’ll grant that as a pragmatic matter censorship is a real possibility – I’d just love to live in a world where it wasn’t. It’s sad that we have to worry about it in a country that explicitly protects free speech. The fact that the movie industry feels it needs a ratings system to avoid government censorship is pretty troubling in its own right.

      On the ratings itself, I just think that there’s enough *other* information about movies out there that the 5 tier rating system is pretty marginalized in terms of utility. It might have been necessary in the 60′s given the relative sparsity of information out there. But today, there are untold numbers of professional movie reviewers and bloggers that cover movies. We have entire newsprograms dedicated to entertainment news and movie reviews. Newspapers features a movie section. Movie trailers are available online and on TV. We have IMDB. And Google pretty much puts anything else you could possibly want to know about a movie at your fingertips. What’s an “R” rating according to that?

      Try as I might, I just can’t construct a scenario where those ratings are useful. You’d have to assume that some family managed to make it to a movie theater, knowing *nothing* about any of the movies playing, and deciding to take their kids based entirely on a movie having a “G” rating. Which seems kind of ridiculous to me.

      For a more plausible scenario, I know that there are a bunch of “Christian movie” sites out there that rate and rank new releases based upon Christian evangelical values. I would imagine that the authority of those sites weighs a lot more heavily on an evangelical than the MPAA rating. And even if that site that family uses for reference doesn’t review every single movie, so what? I’m sure it more than suffices for that family’s purposes.

      Meanwhile, someone like me pretty much ignores the ratings altogether anyway and sees movies based on buzz without worrying about their content – I just want to know if it’s good or not, and MPAA ratings don’t tell me that.

      Were I a parent, the MPAA ratings wouldn’t even serve as a “rough proxy” for me, because they’re so ludicrously skewed towards the aforementioned conservative christian values anyway. Your typical “G” rated movie is jam packed with violence and consumerism, and a host of other things I’d rather not have my kids exposed to. I could care less if my kid hears “dirty words”. So the utility of those ratings to me? Still pretty much nill.

      Which highlights the real error with “one ratings system to rule them all” – it presumes a common set of values which just doesn’t exist. Eliminating that and letting multiple independent bodies come to fill the vacuum would cure it. The conservative christians can have their own raters and I can have mine, and meanwhile the free market is the thing deciding what goes into movies and what gets shown.

    • http://thegreateric.com Eric

      Well, I’ll grant that as a pragmatic matter censorship is a real possibility – I’d just love to live in a world where it wasn’t. It’s sad that we have to worry about it in a country that explicitly protects free speech. The fact that the movie industry feels it needs a ratings system to avoid government censorship is pretty troubling in its own right.

      On the ratings itself, I just think that there’s enough *other* information about movies out there that the 5 tier rating system is pretty marginalized in terms of utility. It might have been necessary in the 60′s given the relative sparsity of information out there. But today, there are untold numbers of professional movie reviewers and bloggers that cover movies. We have entire newsprograms dedicated to entertainment news and movie reviews. Newspapers features a movie section. Movie trailers are available online and on TV. We have IMDB. And Google pretty much puts anything else you could possibly want to know about a movie at your fingertips. What’s an “R” rating according to that?

      Try as I might, I just can’t construct a scenario where those ratings are useful. You’d have to assume that some family managed to make it to a movie theater, knowing *nothing* about any of the movies playing, and deciding to take their kids based entirely on a movie having a “G” rating. Which seems kind of ridiculous to me.

      For a more plausible scenario, I know that there are a bunch of “Christian movie” sites out there that rate and rank new releases based upon Christian evangelical values. I would imagine that the authority of those sites weighs a lot more heavily on an evangelical than the MPAA rating. And even if that site that family uses for reference doesn’t review every single movie, so what? I’m sure it more than suffices for that family’s purposes.

      Meanwhile, someone like me pretty much ignores the ratings altogether anyway and sees movies based on buzz without worrying about their content – I just want to know if it’s good or not, and MPAA ratings don’t tell me that.

      Were I a parent, the MPAA ratings wouldn’t even serve as a “rough proxy” for me, because they’re so ludicrously skewed towards the aforementioned conservative christian values anyway. Your typical “G” rated movie is jam packed with violence and consumerism, and a host of other things I’d rather not have my kids exposed to. I could care less if my kid hears “dirty words”. So the utility of those ratings to me? Still pretty much nill.

      Which highlights the real error with “one ratings system to rule them all” – it presumes a common set of values which just doesn’t exist. Eliminating that and letting multiple independent bodies come to fill the vacuum would cure it. The conservative christians can have their own raters and I can have mine, and meanwhile the free market is the thing deciding what goes into movies and what gets shown.

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