The MPAA's excuse for this is that it's an alternative to government censorship of films, but as director Kirby Dick shows, it's wildly implausible that such censorship would be found constitutional. The MPAA system treats independents as second-class citizens, issuing gnomic pronouncements about a film's suitability, while treating the big studios that own the MPAA with more solicitude, lavishing editorial suggestions on directors who've come under the thumb of the big six.
This Film is Not Yet Rated makes a compelling case for MPAA ratings system as a form of institutionalized, homophobic puritanism. The ratings board is quite relaxed about violence, especially extreme, gory violence, but takes a dim view of sex, and won't tolerate sex out of the missionary position, nor gay sex of any kind, nor any suggestion of women getting real pleasure out of sex. It's an eye-opening look at America's hidden values, where you can take your kids to see bad guys gunned down by James Bond, but not a lightweight teen-comedy about lesbian girls sent away to anti-gay brainwashing camp.
The movie revolves around the mystery of the MPAA's ratings process. Kirby Dick hires a likable middle-aged lesbian private eye who stakes out the MPAA's LA headquarters, writing down license plate numbers and war-dialing the MPAA voicemail system until she gets the names and addresses of all the "parents" on the ratings committee, some of whom are childless, or with grown children.
He then submits his film for rating, and it receives a predictable NC-17 rating. As this is an indie film, the MPAA won't provide him with specifics about their decision. He asks to have his rating appealed, and is put through an Orwellian process whereby the arbitrators of his appeal (who unanimously vote against him) are kept secret from him. Here his private eye comes to the rescue again, revealing that the neutral arbitration committee includes executives from the major studios (who are presumably easier on their own products than on those of powerless indies), and, incredibly, two members of the clergy.
The most incredible thing about this film is the filmmakers that Dick interviews. The creators of Team America, Boys Don't Cry, Gunner Palace, Dirty Shame, But I'm A Cheerleader, Jersey Girl and other movies that received NC-17s from the MPAA recount the incredible heartbreak of slamming into the immovable wall of MPAA ratings. They talk about making movies that they hope will change the world. They talk about having hope snatched away from them by a little clique of oligarchs who control 95 percent of the films released in the US.
After watching this movie, I wanted to support these creators. I walked into a video-store across the way and bought Boys Don't Cry, a transgender teen who was raped and beaten to death; Gunner Palace, a documentary about life in the US military in Baghdad; A Dirty Shame, a gross-out sex-comedy from John Waters, one of my favorite filmmakers; and But I'm a Cheerleader, a lighthearted comedy about a sexually curious teenaged girl sent to an anti-gay rehabilitation camp.
They all look like great movies, and they didn't get the chance they deserved.
The movie's got a special treat for copyfighters -- a whole section on copyright and piracy, featuring an interview with Larry Lessig (the movie made the news recently when the MPAA revealed that it had made pirate copies of TFINYR to distribute to its executives). Link
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.