MPAA Ratings
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MPAA Ratings System

Back around 1968 I wrote my first essay about the new movie rating system. Now, so many decades later the MPAA system is changed but still around. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has provided a voluntary guideline system helping parents determine which films are appropriate for their children.

Films have almost always been subjected to guidelines imposed by others. First there was a simple Certificate of Approval, a notation that the film contained no material the industry considered obscene or objectionable. These Seals of Approval were typically given by the Production Code Administration of California. The guidelines were based on the Hayes Commission, a group founded to ensure the morality of films. In 1922 the MPAA came into existence to help administer these standards. Things were pretty much left to the studios and the MPAA as to what was considered fit for the viewing public.

History
In May of 1966 a film was presented to the MPAA that broke many of the rules. 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'. This film had as part of its dialogue 'Screw' and 'Hump the hostess'. Since the sixties was a time of breaking down traditional views of morality and sexuality this film became a pioneer in the opposing forces of the film makers trying to reflect real life and the organizations trying to prevent films from presenting objectionable material. The new (and until recently) president of the MPAA, Jack Valenti, met with the studios and tried to broker a deal between Warner Brothers and the MPAA. Only a few months later yet another challenge will present itself. MGM was to release the film 'Blow Up'. This film had a good deal of nudity and many found it's free and easy depiction of sexual attitudes very wrong. An informal list of 'dos and don't s' were rapidly becoming of code of artistic censorship. Although these films were released without the Seal of Approval the issue had only begun. In August 2004 Valenti, then 82 years old, retired from the MPAA and was replaced by Dan Glickman.

Valenti, representing the MPAA met with the National American Theater Owners (NATO) and International Film Importers & Distributors of America (IFIDA). Eventually the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG), other professional organizations and representatives of the major religions where included in an effort to determine how to strike a balance between the artistic freedom demanded by the actors and directors and those who demanded some sort of standards. In November of 1968 the first MPAA ratings system was announced.

Back in 1968 the ratings were simple:

    G    General Audiences
    M    Mature Audiences
    R    Restricted Persons under 16 (later 17) not permitted unless accompany by an adult
    X    Adults only. No one under 17 admitted.


Initially, the ratings had no X rating. The feeling was a parent should be able to take a child to any film they chose. Giving in to pressure from NATO the 'X' was added as an Adult Only category. (The X comes from ancient Rome were you had to be over ten -X - to enter the Coliseum). At this point the impotent Hayes code was finally abandoned.

In 1969 the new ratings were already being changed. Many parents thought that the M rating was more sever than the R. To rectify this the MPAA changed the M to a GP, General Audiences - Parental guidance suggested. In 1970 the GP underwent the change to PG, Parental Guidance Suggested.

The introduction of the PG-13 rating is largely due to Steven Spielberg. 1984 two of his films, Gemlins (which he produced) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom received a rating of PG. Parents where outraged at some of the scenes and complained. Spielberg went to Jack Valenti and stated the problem, the rating system grouped everyone from infant to late teens in one category, PG. Spielberg suggested a middle ground, the PG-13 rating. Not only did this resolve the problem but it ultimately became the rating of choice for many films. The PG rating tended to turn off teen audiences that felt the film would be too bland. Seizing the opportunity the studios now often strive for the PG-13 over the PG rating. In fact, most of the highest grossing films including Titanic and Spider-Man received this rating.

On July 1, 1984 the PG category was split into PG and PG-13. The latter category was for more intense subject matter intended for older teens. As it turns out while the new rating was created for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom  and Gremlins due to some very intense scenes but there were two films that beat it to the punch and actually receive the rating. Red Dawn was the first film released as a PG-13 while The Flamingo Kid was the first to actually receive the new rating but sat on the shelf for five months allowing Red Dawn to be released first. The first PG-13, Red Dawn, was released on August 10th of 1984. There was a lot of talk at the time that Gremlins and Temple of Doom should have received the more restrictive R rating if not for the reputation of Steven Spielberg for family films and his influence in the film industry.

On November 27, 1990 more changes took effect. First, explanations behind a rating of R were given. Information as to language, nudity, drug use and violence were noted in the rating. Later, the explanation would be expanded to the PG and PG-13 ratings. Next, the X rating was replaced with the current NC-17. The 'X' rating had over the years been completely associated with hard core pornographic films. There was a need to differ between those films and main stream films of an adult nature. The first such film to receive the new NC-17 rating was the biography of Henry Miller, Henry and June.

Methods

The MPAA maintains a board of persons that view the film and vote on a rating. After a discussion a rating is placed on the film. Specific reasons for the rating are not formally disclosed to the producers and director of the film. Usually only general reasons are provided as feedback. The final rating is by majority vote. If the distributor, director or studio wishes to they can appeal the rating. A board of 14 to 18 persons from the film industry is set to hear the appeal. This board views the film and discusses the information presented in the appeal. The scenes responsible for the rating are identified and the movie is sent back to the studio and director for reediting. The submission process is then repeated. If the filmmakers feel the rating was improperly imposed then they have a chance for a rebuttal. The board can question both sides. The representatives from both sides are excused during a secret ballot of the appeal board. A two third vote is required to over turn a rating. The decision of the board is final.

Today's MPAA Ratings

G:"General Audiences-All Ages Admitted."

This is a film which contains nothing in theme, language, nudity and sex, violence, etc. which would, in the view of the Rating Board, be offensive to parents whose younger children view the film. The G rating is not a "certificate of approval," nor does it signify a children's film.

PG:"Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children."

This is a film which clearly needs to be examined or inquired into by parents before they let their children attend. The label PG plainly states that parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but the parent must make the decision.

PG-13:"Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13."

PG-13 is thus a sterner warning to parents to determine for themselves the attendance in particular of their younger children as they might consider some material not suited for them. Parents, by the rating, are alerted to be very careful about the attendance of their under-teenage children

R:"Restricted, Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian."

In the opinion of the Rating Board, this film definitely contains some adult material. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about this film before they allow their children to accompany them.

An R-rated film may include hard language, or tough violence, or nudity within sensual scenes, or drug abuse or other elements, or a combination of some of the above, so that parents are counseled, in advance, to take this advisory rating very seriously. Parents must find out more about an R-rated movie before they allow their teenagers to view it.

NC-17:"No One 17 And Under Admitted."

This rating declares that the Rating Board believes that this is a film that most parents will consider patently too adult for their youngsters under 17. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not necessarily mean "obscene or pornographic" in the oft-accepted or legal meaning of those words. The Board does not and cannot mark films with those words. These are legal terms and for courts to decide. The reasons for the application of an NC-17 rating can be violence or sex or aberrational behavior or drug abuse or any other elements which, when present, most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children. Most major theaters will not accept a film rated NC-17 for showing. Also, many news papers and other media such as TV and radio stations will not advertise a film rated NC-17.

Television Ratings

Guidelines similar to those used for film have now been employed for rating television shows. Often, they are used in conjunction with the V-Chip or cable box lock out features to permit a parent to restrict which shows their children can watch on their own. The ratings are as follows:

 TVY: "All Children."

This program is designed to be appropriate for all children. Whether animated or live-action, the themes and elements in this program are specifically designed for a very young audience, including children from ages 2 - 6. This program is not expected to frighten younger children.

TVY7: "Directed to Older Children"

This program is designed for children age 7 and above.It may be more appropriate for children who have acquired the developmental skills needed to distinguish between make-believe and reality. Themes and elements in this program may include mild fantasy violence or comedic violence, or may frighten children under the age of 7. Therefore, parents may wish to consider the suitability of this program for their very young children. Note: For those programs where fantasy violence may be more intense or more combative than other programs in this category, such programs will be designated TV-Y7-FV.

TVG: "General Audiences"

 Most parents would find this program suitable for all ages. Although this rating does not signify a program designed specifically for children, most parents may let younger children watch this program unattended. It contains little or no violence, no strong language and little or no sexual dialogue or situations.

TVPG: "Parental Guidance Suggested"

This program contains material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children. Many parents may want to watch it with their younger children. The theme itself may call for parental guidance and/or the program contains one or more of the following: moderate violence (V), some sexual situations (S), infrequent coarse language (L), or some suggestive dialogue (D).

TV14: "Parents Strongly Cautioned"

This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended. This program contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong coarse language (L), or intensely suggestive dialogue (D).

TVMA: "Mature Audiences Only"

 This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17. This program contains one or more of the following: graphic violence (V), explicit sexual activity (S), or crude indecent language (L).

Industry Reaction

It used to be if a director wanted his film released he or she pretty much had to follow the recommendations of the MPAA. Now, with the advent of DVD for the distribution of films many directors are offering different versions of the film of disc. One notable example is director Todd Solondz with his film Storytelling. The MPAA objected to one particular scene that depicted a sexual act between a student and her teacher. In the theaters there was a red box digitally imposed over the couple. The DVD provides the unrated version of the film which previously had only been available in Europe. Such unrated versions are becoming increasingly popular with DVD releases. One caveat is that many major retail chains will not carry such unrated versions resulting in the studios creating separate rated and unrated discs.

One final note about unrated DVDs. This only means the version of the film has not been submitted to the MPAA for rating. Often an unrated DVD contains only a few minutes of extra material and often if it was submitted for a rating it would receive the same one as the theatrical release. Basically, this is a marketing ploy on the part of the studios. Unlike when a movie is released in a theater where NC-17 or unrated translates into a lack of distribution and advertising, with the DVD market people flock to purchase such a disk. Even though many brick and mortar stores will not carry an unrated disk the popularity of online retailers ensure the success of these releases.

2007 Changes

In January 2007 the MPAA announced several changes to their rating and appeal system. Speaking from Park City Utah, Jack Velenti's successor, Dan Glickman denied the changes were promoted by the documentary 'This Film not yet Rated' by Kirby Dick, but many in the industry have noted the proposed changes were announced just before the DVD release of the documentary. In his film Dick focused on the secretive nature of the MPAA's process and indicted them for what he considered misleading statements to the public and numerous cases of having double standards in their ratings. Among the changes announced are:
bulletDirectors would be more active in the appeals process. They would be permitted to cite similar objectionable scenes in past movies when trying to overturn an initial rating.
bulletPosting the names of its three senior raters on the association's Web site. Other raters will remain anonymous, but details on their background, families and where they come from will be posted online.
bulletEnforcing a policy to ensure that raters have school-age children, which the association's overseers said was important so raters could give parents proper perspective on what might be inappropriate for kids.
bulletPutting information online about the association's standards for rating movies, along with forms and instructions to filmmakers for submitting movies for rating.
bulletProviding clearer definitions of movie ratings and sterner warnings to parents about films that might contain material inappropriate for younger children.

Glickman used the United States constitution as an example stating that like that document the MPAA is fundamentally sound but may require some minor adjustments to keep up with the times. Dick has said that these changes are mostly cosmetic in nature and much of the secrecy will remain.

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