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MPAA Ratings

The MPAA film rating system is a system which attempts to rate a movie based on its content, helping patrons decide which movies may be appropriate for children of different ages. It was created and regulated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).


The MPAA film rating system was instituted in November 1968 as an alternative to federal regulation of motion picture content by the United States government. The United States came rather late to motion picture rating, as many other countries had used rating systems for decades.

After the Production Code approval system was abandoned in the 1950s, movies had become more explicit in their portrayal of "realism." The realism movement had its advantages and disadvantages: while it allowed for movies like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) to be filmed, it also sparked a rise in low-budget exploitation movies that became more and more explicit in their sexual and violent content. The violent content of such movies as Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs shocked and alarmed the more conservative segment of the population. In 1967, two movies were released containing explicit profanity (Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's His Name), and this was seen as the impetus for a form of regulation to be instituted. After a series of meetings with government representatives, the Motion Picture Association of America and National Association of Theater Owners agreed to implement a uniform ratings system for all of its movies, a system that would be enforced by distributors and exhibitors (including movie theaters).

The rating system, legally, is entirely voluntary; however, few mainstream producers outside the pornography niche decline to submit to the rating system due to potential effects on revenues (see NC-17, below), so the system has a de facto compulsory status in the industry.

Some foreign films do not bother to submit to the rating system, reasoning that they will not be distributed widely beyond their art-house audience, so the cost and expense are unnecessary.

When the DVD home video format became popular, many film producers started translating some of their "R" rated movies to DVD with extra outtakes included which were never rated by the MPAA, and then attempting to use this as a marketing angle. For example, the DVD of American Pie exclaims on the box, "UNRATED! The Version You Couldn't See In Theaters".

The Rating Process

The MPAA does not publish a list of what exact words, actions, and exposed body parts are used to determine a movie's rating, other than stating that if a film uses "one of the harsher sexually-derived words" once, it gets a PG-13 rating at least, and an R rating if these words are used more than once. Any drug reference gets a movie a PG-13 at least. Members of the MPAA's Rating Board view the movie, discuss it, and vote on the film's rating. If the movie's producer is unhappy with this rating, he can re-edit the film and re-submit it, or can appeal to an Appeals Board. Movie publishers generally specify the desired MPAA rating in their contract with the movie producer, so it is common to hear of producers re-editing in order to achieve the desired rating, by trimming several seconds of the film footage in question.

Original Ratings

The original movie ratings consisted of:
  • Rated G – Acceptable to "general" audiences, including children.
  • Rated M – For "Mature" audiences.
  • Rated R – Restricted. Children under the age of 17 (originally 16) must be accompanied by a parent or "guardian" (i.e., supervised by an adult).
  • Rated X – Children under the age of 17 not admitted.

Current MPAA Ratings

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 – Parent 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 – No one 17 and under admitted.

Effects of Ratings

One of the unintended side effects of the rating system is that the G rating has been associated with children's films and is widely considered to be commercially bad for films targeted at adults. In a number of cases (such as the movie Sneakers) directors have intentionally added profanity in order to avoid the G rating.

Confusion (many parents thought films rated "Mature" contained more adult content than those that were "Restricted") led to the introduction of the GP rating (General audiences - Parental guidance suggested) in 1969. This was later (1970) changed to PG (Parental Guidance suggested), and the age limit raised to 17, though children could still be allowed into theaters without being accompanied by an adult.

During the early 1980s, a number of PG-rated movies containing surprisingly violent content sparked off an overview of the ratings system. Two violent PG-rated movies affiliated with Steven Spielberg—Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins—were the catalyst for the MPAA to modify the ratings system and introduce the PG-13 rating in 1984 (July 1). This rating still allows children under 17 to be admitted without a parent or guardian, but the rating does note that parents are "strongly cautioned" to be aware of potentially shocking violence or sexual content.

The first movie to officially be released with a PG-13 rating was 1984's Red Dawn. The new rating also sparked a wave of generally mediocre PG-13 "teen movies."

Many films which are rated "R" have been targeted at teenage audiences. In 2000, due to issues raised by United States Senator Joseph Lieberman (Democrat from Connecticut), the National Association of Theater Owners, the major trade association in the U.S., claimed it started strict enforcement of ID checks for "R" rated movies.

The X rating was never officially trademarked by the MPAA, and it was usurped by the adult entertainment industry to the point where an X rating was universally seen as being equated with pornography. Before this occurred, the most critically acclaimed X-rated movies were Midnight Cowboy (1969), which won three Academy Awards and was nominated for four more; and A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was nominated for four Academy Awards. (Both films were re-rated "R" several years later.) A few movies have been rated X for violence, including Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). A large number of newspapers and TV stations refused to place any ads for X-rated movies, a move that guaranteed a kiss of death for any movie labelled with the X rating.

When a number of filmmakers chose to release their movies without an MPAA rating rather than let them be labelled X, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 (not for children 17 or under) rating on September 27, 1990 to differentiate MPAA-approved adult-oriented films from unapproved X-rated movies.

The first movie to be released with an NC-17 rating was Henry and June in 1990. However, several large newspapers continue to refuse ads for NC-17 movies. While a number of movies have been released with the NC-17 rating, none of them have been large box-office hits, and NC-17 is still seen in many circles as being a guaranteed money loser.

Critics of System

The movie rating system has had a number of critics, including Roger Ebert, who argues that the system places too much emphasis on not showing sex while allowing the portrayal of massive amounts of gruesome violence. Moreover, he argues that the rating system is geared toward looking at trivial aspects of the movie (such as the number of times a profane word is used) rather than at the general theme of the movie (for example, does the movie realistically depict the consequences of sex and violence).

Also see BBFC and British Film Certificates.

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