How Do Movies Get Their Ratings?

Today, a few minutes of movie hype bookended by the phrase “In a world…” and a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is pop-culture commonsense. The combo is such a regular part of our lives, in fact, that it’s become the object of effortless parody for any comedian worth her salt, as well as a veritable Pavlovian bell for cinephiles across the United States. There is hardly an American left living that hasn’t felt heartbreak crash down upon them when listening to a movie preview as a school-aged brat only to find out that the film that meant more to them than anything else the world had to offer was given an R-rating—a death blow to any kid’s potential for weekend excitement.

Though most Americans could tell you the general feeling of the films in each of the five categories designated by the MPAA—G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17—few actually know how these ratings came to be, who assigns the ratings to these films, or what nuances actually determine the jump between each level of perceived intensity or appropriateness for children.

The people calling the shots when it comes to movie ratings are members of a highly secretive organization called the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), a division of the MPAA. Founded in 1922 by former Postmaster General Will Hays as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, what we now know as the MPAA is an organization that claims to act in the interest of the film industry by preventing the need for government censorship. Up until 1968, though, the MPAA actually enforced “self-censorship” by filmmakers according to a specific ethical protocol called the Hays Code, which was designed to keep offensive material off the silver screen. It was LBJ-advisor-turned-MPAA-Chairman Jack Valenti that instituted the system we know today.

CARA is made up of a Chairperson, staff members including an administrative director, senior voters, and raters, each of whom serve a term of up to seven years. Voters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they begin their terms; can't be connected in any way to the film industry; and are booted out of office after the end of the full term, once all of their children are over the age of 21, or at the MPAA’s discretion. The identities of the raters are kept completely secret (only two have ever actually talked publicly about their experience on the job) and admission to the MPAA compound is about as easy to come by as a guided tour of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

CARA is funded through fees paid directly to them by producers and production companies to have their films reviewed; their methods have been questioned by industry professionals and movie-lovers alike, most notably in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Still, the impact of MPAA ratings is nonetheless an undeniable force in American cinema.

Here are the guidelines for today’s ratings designations as outlined by the MPAA:

G—“All ages admitted. A G-rated motion picture contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture…Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present…Depictions of violence are minimal. No nudity, sex scenes or drug use are present.”

PG (formerly M, then GP)—“Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children… The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity… There is no drug use content.”

PG-13—“Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13… may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements… Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity… generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence… but generally not both realistic and extreme persistent violence… Single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words (author’s note: the ‘f-word’), though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context” (emphasis added; author’s note: i.e., “Let’s ‘f-word’”).

R—“Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian… May include adult themes, adult activity (author’s note: stuff it’s not legal for kids to do), hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements… Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.”

NC-17 (formerly X)—“No One 17 and Under Admitted… (A movie) that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under… NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense… rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.”

In general, there seems to be a strong correlation between ratings and box office figures—generally, lower ratings mean a broader available audience—with many theaters and distribution companies even refusing to deal with films rated NC-17. According to Jack Valenti, though, what he calls “Valenti’s Law” holds that “If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, no rating will hurt you. If you make a movie that few people want to see, no rating will help you.”

Tell that to the 13-year-olds of the world.

Other interesting film-ratings facts:

The original ratings system included the designations G, M (for ‘Mature’), R, and X. PG showed up in 1972, NC-17 in 1990.

The PG-13 rating was added on July 1, 1984 in response to Steven Spielberg’s films of the same year—Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The first movie to receive a PG-13 rating was The Flamingo Kid, though it was not the first film to be released with the rating—that distinction belongs to Red Dawn.

Smoking was added as a factor in ratings determination in 2007.

Not all films are rated NC-17 for sexual content—Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, for instance, switched to black and white during the bloodiest scenes to avoid a proposed NC-17 rating.

Additional Sources: Evolution of the Film Rating System [PDF]; Rating Rules [PDF]

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July 10, 2014 - 9:30am
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