Hollywood Uplink – April 2005: The Movie Ratings – For Better or Worse

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April 2005

        Issue: 14:4

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The Movie Ratings – For Better or Worse
By Dick Rolfe

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is a nonprofit organization funded by the 8 major Hollywood film studios.  In 1967, to avoid the threat of governmental regulation, the industry assigned the responsibility of developing a voluntary film ratings system to MPAA head, Jack Valenti, former advisor to President Lyndon Johnson.  The ratings system originally consisted of three categories, G, PG and R.

The ratings evolved to include PG-13 in 1984. This decision was reached because of an appeal from Steven Spielberg who had released Indiana Jones; Temple of Doom. The comedy/adventure film was originally branded with an R-rating due to its violence. One scene in particular showed a witch doctor removing the still-beating heart from his live victim.

Spielberg argued successfully that this type of violence was more cartoonish than realistic and there should be a special rating to acknowledge the difference. Thus, the PG-13 category was born.

Beginning in 1968, the movie ratings system has been used in the United States to classify a film based solely on its content. It is supposed to help patrons decide which movies may be appropriate for children.

The current MPAA movie ratings consist of:

  • Rated G – GENERAL AUDIENCES: All ages admitted.
  • Rated PG – PARENTAL GUIDANCE SUGGESTED: Some material may not be suitable for children.
  • Rated PG-13 – PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED: Some material may be inappropriate for children   under 13.
  • Rated R – RESTRICTED: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated NC-17 – The only legally enforceable restriction that prohibits admission to anyone 17 and under.

If a film was never submitted for a rating, the label “NR” (Not Rated) is often used, however “NR” is not an official MPAA classification. This designation makes it difficult for a movie to get into the theaters, since NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) agreed to honor the MPAA ratings to the exclusion of any movie that does not carry an official designation. Films that have not yet received MPAA classification are often advertised under the banner, “This film is not yet rated.” The MPAA Website is: http://www.MPAA .org


Critics of the System

The Dove Foundation has been one of many critics of the MPAA film ratings system. Dove was founded on the belief that the MPAA brought an industry bias to its decision-making process, since the organization is subsidized by the studios whose films it is supposed to rate.

The Dove FAMILY-APPROVED Seal was designed to represent traditional values embraced by most families around the country.

There has been a feeling among many that the ratings are inconsistently applied, and that there seems to be a tendency to relax the standards. Even independent filmmakers argue that their films are treated more harshly than major studio releases

On June 13, 2004, the Harvard School of Public Health released a study documenting “ratings creep” as more adult content is allowed in films at a given rating than was allowed in the past.

The study reports, “The MPAA appears to tolerate increasingly more extreme content in any given age-based rating category over time. Movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and type of potentially objectionable content. Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity and other content.”

Films rated PG-13, in particular, seem to be exhibiting the most “ratings creep” as more features that would have received R ratings even five years ago are now receiving the more appealing PG-13 rating.


How the system works, or doesn’t work

The MPAA does not publish an official list of all the exact words, actions, and exposed body parts used to determine a movie’s rating. Here are some details that have been made available. These details are inconsistently applied according to the Harvard study.

Here are a few of the ratings rules and the films that demonstrated exceptions to those rules.

Rule: If a film uses “one of the harsher sexually-derived words” (such as the F-word),  it remains eligible for a PG-13 rating, provided that the word is used only once and as an expletive and not in a sexual context.
Exception: PG movies “Bennie and June”, “Big”, “Eight Men Out” all contain the F-word.
Rule: If a film contains strong sexual content, it usually receives an R rating.
Exception: There is strong and explicit sexual content in many PG-13 films like “Dodge Ball” and “Anchorman.” Sex in these films is mixed with humor, which seems to earn them an exemption.
Rule: Mild reference to drugs usually gets a movie a PG-13 at a minimum, otherwise it warrants an R rating.
Exception: Several PG movies like “October Sky” and “Race the Sun” depicted mild drug/alcohol use. PG-13 movies like “Drive Me Crazy” and “10 Things I Hate About you” contain heavy drug and alcohol use involving teenagers.
Rule: While total female nudity is permitted in an R-rated movie, any display of naked male genitalia will (usually) result in an NC-17 rating.
Exception: “Sideways,” a 2004 R-rated movie has graphic sexual activity and male frontal nudity. This is also apparently exempt from the rules because it’s a comedy.

The Ratings Process

Members of the MPAA Rating Board view the movie, discuss it, and vote on the film’s rating. If the movie’s producer is unhappy with this rating, they can re-edit the film and re-submit it, or they can petition an Appeals Board. In nearly all appeals the film was rated R and the producer was seeking to have the rating changed to PG-13.


Effect of Ratings

The rating system is entirely voluntary, with no legal recourse. However, MPAA member studios are expected to submit all of their theatrical releases for rating. Few mainstream producers are willing to bypass the rating system due to potential negative effects on revenues. Therefore, the system has a de facto compulsory status.

The only exception in recent times was The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson cut 7 minutes from his mega-epic with the hope of getting it reclassified to PG-13, thereby increasing its exposure to a larger audience. When the MPAA refused to award the gentler rating to the movie, Gibson released the re-cut version as NR (not rated). Theater owners didn’t object, since the original, more intense version garnered the position as the third-highest grossing film of 2004 and the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time.

One of the unintended side effects of the rating system is that the G and PG ratings have been associated with children’s’ films and are widely considered by filmmakers to be artistically unpopular. When, in fact, PG and G-rated movies are by far and away the most profitable films of all categories because they appeal to the widest possible audience.

Watch closely for a landmark study that will soon be released by The Dove Foundation.  It will compare the relative profitability of G-rated to R-rated films. You may (or may not) be surprised by the results.


The Dove Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.  Our mission is to encourage and promote the creation, production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment.  We are supported primarily by donations from families such as yours who want to move Hollywood in a more family-friendly direction.  All donations are tax deductible.
Copyright © 2005 The Dove Foundation. All rights reserved.