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Do filmmakers need to hire consultants to guide them through the Motion Picture Association of America’s sometimes-Byzantine ratings process? Barry Freeman, 54, and Howard Fridkin, 55, who were both longtime members of the ratings board, think so — and they’ve just opened their own firm, Film Rating Advisors, to help filmmakers get the ratings they want. “We know exactly what to suggest,” says Freeman, who spent 10 years on the board alongside Fridkin, who served for 13. Both stepped down in October to make way for newer members. For fees ranging from $3,999 to $11,999 per film, their new venture, the first opened by former members of the board, offers to assess a movie’s ratings potential and suggest any necessary changes before a film is submitted to the board. (The MPAA charges another $2,500 to $25,000 to rate each film.)
But Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration, says filmmakers don’t need outside advisors since the board already provides similar services. “CARA is constantly reading scripts, conducting preproduction advisories, and answering specific questions at every stage of production,” she says. That is a relatively recent development, though. For years, directors and producers — particularly indie filmmakers who lacked a major studio’s clout — complained that the board’s decisions were often difficult to predict, a criticism that was featured front and center in Kirby Dick‘s 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. The following year, the MPAA instituted a number of changes, and ratings board member Scott Young was named filmmaker liaison, charged with opening up the lines of communication.
“They’re very transparent now,” says Ethan Noble, who runs another company, Motion Picture Consulting, that assists filmmakers taking films before the board. A former Miramax marketing director, Noble has handled appeals for The Weinstein Co. on films like Blue Valentine and The King’s Speech. His office offers script advice, explains the board’s ratings rationale and flags particular scenes and issues, suggesting how they could be edited to get a desired rating.
That’s not enough, though, Freeman and Fridkin contend. Addressing Noble’s services, Fridkin says, “He’s never been on the board, he’s just a middleman. He does it for Harvey [Weinstein] and a lot of the New York-based people, but Ethan doesn’t know the tricks, or the magic potion, the secret sauce. He may know the process, but he doesn’t know the due process.”
Retorts Noble, “It bothers me that they are purporting it as a new thing and that they have experience doing this. These guys were just raters at the MPAA, not senior raters, so they themselves were never involved in the producer/distributor discussions negotiating the rating on behalf of the MPAA. That’s what filmmakers really need.” Fridkin responds, “A senior rater does not act alone in rating films. The board collectively discusses the film’s rating and issues, then the senior rater delivers the information to the contact person.” Fridkin calls Noble “a glorified messenger who relays rating information to his clients given to him by the senior rater in charge of the film that he shepherded in for his client. Ethan may have handled the paperwork for over 1,000 films, but Barry and I have rated over 15,000.”
Others offer a range of opinions over whether outside counsel is needed when dealing with CARA. “It could be useful for people who don’t understand the ratings process,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker of Film Ratings Advisors’ services.
“A director usually gets their rating at a very critical time, once they have the picture locked and usually on the heels of a release date,” says Kimberly Peirce, who had to edit her 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry to ensure an R rating rather than an NC-17. “There is huge pressure. If a director didn’t have access to the people I was fortunate to have access to [producer Christine Vachon and lawyer John Sloss], I’d be open to hiring an outside organization if I knew what their relationship was to the MPAA and how exactly they could actually help a filmmaker protect their movie through this process.”
Distribution consultant Larry Gleason — who last month successfully helped Kevin Costner appeal the R rating originally bestowed upon Mike Binder‘s Black and White, in which Costner stars — doubts there is a need for consultants like Film Ratings Advisors. “Is there really a need for these guys?” he asks. “All you have to do is call the MPAA, ask, ‘Can I have a scene where a guy does this?’ and they’ll say, ‘That’ll probably make an R.’ There’s a 16-page description on their site.”
But Fridkin counters that his new firm could have saved Costner and Gleason a tense day before the appeals board. “The MPAA knows us so well, they wouldn’t have had to go that far [to an appeals board]. We would’ve gotten together with senior raters and said, ‘[Black and White] is a simple, wholesome film about a football coach, a true story, no violence. You can’t cite this picture for one F-bomb!’ We know what other movies have gotten away with, it’s like a Rolodex in our heads.”
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