The Motion Picture Association of America is finally showing some give with regard to its movie ratings system, agreeing to open up the process a bit more and to give filmmakers more leeway in appealing its decisions.
Good move. Little is known about the ratings board, except that its decisions are frequently indefensible. How, for instance, could it slap an NC-17 rating on a thought-provoking examination of adult relationships like The Cooler, but give an exploitative mess like Basic Instinct an R? How can John Waters' hilariously scandalous A Dirty Shame be ruled for adults only, while parents are welcome to take their 12-year-olds to see the proudly offensive (and relentlessly scatological) Jackass Number Two?
But are the changes enough? Filmmaker Kirby Dick spent much of last year railing against movie ratings - either through his documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which pointed out the flaws and double standards that affect the system, or through the countless interviews he gave on the subject.
You'd think he would be happy that the MPAA is addressing some of the issues he raised. But he's not, insisting the proposed changes are, at best, baby steps in the right direction. "They've still got a long way to go," he said yesterday over the phone from Los Angeles.
Among the changes, to be implemented in March:
Demographic information about ratings board members will be made public, although their identities will remain secret.
Filmmakers will be allowed to refer to other films when appealing their ratings - that is, they'd be allowed to point out similar films that received a less-restrictive rating, a practice currently prohibited by the MPAA.
The explanation of the R-rating will be reworded to emphasize that "many R-rated movies are not suitable to young children," MPAA spokeswoman Kori Bernards says.
The association has been considering changes since September 2004, well before the release of Dick's film, Bernards says.
"My view is that we have a continuing obligation to listen," MPAA chairman and chief executive Dan Glickman told The New York Times, suggesting that the list of proposed changes is not exhaustive. "Nothing is locked in forever."
But Dick, whose film was threatened with the dreaded adults-only NC-17 tag (it was eventually released without a rating), doesn't see much in the way of real change. Serious flaws in the system remain, he contends, that cause the ratings board to favor the big studios over independent filmmakers, that excuse ultra-violence while raising red flags whenever sex shows up onscreen, and that inhibit the exploration of truly adult themes in American film.
The proposed changes, he says, "are much more cosmetic than actual. ... Remember, we're dealing with Hollywood, and Hollywood is the spin machine par excellance."
Providing information about the board members is not enough, he insists. And the members of the appeals board will continue to remain anonymous, he notes. "All the names of the appeals board and the ratings board should be known. The entire process should be open to the public."
One thing Dick supports unreservedly is letting filmmakers cite other movies when appealing the board's decisions. It's no secret that big-studio movies get breaks that the smaller, independent films don't. Maybe giving filmmakers the opportunity to point out such hypocrisy - to wonder why a brief glimpse of Maria Bello's privates in The Cooler helped earn that film an NC-17, while a leering look at Sharon Stone's in Basic Instinct was deemed acceptable for general viewing - will help level that playing field.
"I made [This Film Is Not Yet Rated] because I wanted to start this discussion," Dick says, "and hopefully move toward some changes. There's a long way that the MPAA has to go to make this a ratings system that works for the filmmakers and the public."
True enough. Too often, the threat of a too-restrictive rating is used as a club to keep filmmakers in line and away from controversial topics. Many media outlets refuse advertisements for NC-17 films outright - which means the ratings board's decisions tend to stifle creativity by keeping films out of the marketplace (which shouldn't be the goal) rather than enhance it by acknowledging the reality that certain films are unsuitable for certain audiences (which should).
At least the proposed changes are a start. And for an organization that been as historically averse to change as the MPAA, that's nothing to sneer at.
"Kirby should be quite happy," says Waters, who shares many of Dick's concerns, but sounds a bit more willing to let the MPAA prove itself. "His film obviously caused this."