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
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
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
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:
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
The Dove FAMILY-APPROVED Seal was designed to represent
traditional values embraced by most families around the
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
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
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.
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
expletive and not in a sexual context.
“Bennie and June”, “Big”, “Eight Men Out” all
contain the F-word.
If a film contains
strong sexual content, it usually receives an R
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
Mild reference to
drugs usually gets a movie a PG-13 at a minimum,
otherwise it warrants an R rating.
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
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.
“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
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
Copyright © 2005 The Dove Foundation. All rights