For nearly four decades, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has sold its ratings system that G through NC-17 shorthand for vice and violence as a way to guide parents and keep government scolds a safe distance from Hollywood Hills. But according to director Kirby Dick and a bevy of film mavens he interviews in his exposé of the studios' lobbying arm, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA has also for the good of the children placed a stranglehold on what the rest of America is watching.
In Dick's telling, the MPAA's raters wield enormous power, capable of killing an independent film's prospects with an NC-17 rating or letting a studio flick ride with an R. The MPAA emerges from Dick's film as a system stacked against the maverick auteur, hostile to the creative process, and conducive to bland homogeneity. A long version of this conversation is online at reason.com/links/links091506.shtml.
Q: Doesn't the MPAA's obsession with sex just reflect the culture to which it is providing these ratings?
A: I don't think the MPAA's job is to reflect the culture. I think the MPAA's job is to inform parents. One cannot reflect culture from a uniform position. It's a very varied culture that we live in.
Q: Is there one film that stands out as having been unfairly targeted?
A: But I'm a Cheerleader. This was a teen comedy, a very sweet story, a [lesbian] love story. The sex is so nonexplicit that it's kind of surprising, given the story. And yet that was given an NC-17 rating. That's a clear case of homophobic bias in the rating system.
Q: What's the problem with keeping raters anonymous?
A: The reason they keep the raters' names secret, they claim, is to protect them from industry influence. But in fact, the people who have any kind of significant contact with them are people from the studios. Heads of studios have post-production contact with the raters. The independent filmmakers and foreign filmmakers don't only not have that access, they're not even aware that the studios have that access.
Q: At the same time, it's easier than it has ever been to avoid the MPAA's influence, in that consumers have more access to uncut versions.
A: Filmmakers do not want to go out with an NC-17 rating. More importantly, their investors don't want to go out with an NC-17 rating. They demand that their filmmakers deliver an R. The film is censored at the script stage even before it gets to any kind of distribution outlet. You never have the option to purchase the film the filmmaker intended to make.
That's part of the reason people say American sex scenes all look so similar. Directors are shooting to get an R rating, and they're very careful to work within those limits.