Kirby Dick has rated the movie-ratings board and come to a blunt conclusion: This panel is not suitable for any audiences.
His documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," premiering Wednesday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a harsh indictment of the ratings system overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group for Hollywood's top studios.
Dick calls the ratings process a form of censorship carried out by unqualified film judges who operate in secrecy, their procedures favoring big studio fare over movies from independent and overseas filmmakers.
"Independent film tends to focus more on sexuality. Studios tend to put out films that have more to do with violence," said Dick, a 2004 Academy Awards nominee for his documentary "Twist of Faith." "Violent films get through almost unscathed, but the ratings have this excessive focus against sexuality that puts independent film at a disadvantage."
"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" examines the history of the ratings system, set up in the 1960s by MPAA boss Jack Valenti, who retired as head of the group in 2004 and gave up control of the ratings system last fall.
The film-ratings board, made up of people meant to represent typical American parents, views movies and brands them with G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 ratings.
Dick said ratings-board members are thrown in to the job with no clear standards and that they lack the expertise to make sound judgments about the psychological effects film content might have on children.
Ratings can be wildly inconsistent from movie to movie, and challenging a rating is stacked against filmmakers, since the MPAA also controls the appeals process, Dick said.
The documentary chronicles Dick's efforts to pin down ratings-board members, whose identities are kept private, and find out how they operate. He hires a private investigator who's fiercely determined to flush out the people behind the ratings system.
She rifles through the trash of one ratings-board member, stakes out the MPAA offices to run license plates of cars pulling in and out, tails the group's employees and eavesdrops on them when they go to lunch.
And Dick eventually identifies board members.
"There's kind of a David and Goliath quality. Here's this big, powerful organization being investigated by a small independent filmmaker and a colorful P.I.," Dick said.
Dan Glickman, Valenti's successor as MPAA chief, said he normally does not watch films submitted for ratings but that he viewed most of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" when Dick presented it because he "heard they used unusual surveillance techniques to follow our raters around."
"I decided the privacy of our employees was in jeopardy. I didn't know if there was some violation of law, maybe, but I thought that was going way too far," Glickman said.
"So I watched the movie, at least parts of the movie that were relevant here. I didn't think it was a fair reflection of the ratings system, but I think Americans will have to judge that for themselves," Glickman said.
Joan Graves, who heads the ratings board, said she spent two hours on the phone with Dick explaining the ratings process to him, "so his secrecy thing, I think, is a little bit disingenuous."
Dick includes interviews with filmmakers and actors involved with movies that received NC-17 ratings -- which prohibit anyone younger than 17 from seeing the films. Among the lineup: John Waters ("Pink Flamingoes," "A Dirty Shame"), Kevin Smith ("Clerks"), "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone ("Team America: World Police"), Kimberly Pierce ("Boys Don't Cry") and Maria Bello ("The Cooler").
"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" received an NC-17 rating itself because it includes explicit footage from many films that received an NC-17 for sexual content.
The rating allowed Dick to get an inside view of the appeals process, which he incorporated into the version of the documentary screening at Sundance, where he hopes to land a theatrical distributor for the film. His appeal of the NC-17 rating was denied.
"I hope that by the time my next film comes through, there's a different system in place," Dick said. "I would prefer an open system with standards, and if they're going to have guidelines, have the guidelines so that filmmakers know what they're working with and against, and there's something there to publicly advocate for and against. That's the democratic system."