A classification given to a commercially released motion picture that indicates to consumers whether the film contains sex, profanity, violence, or other subject matter that may be inappropriate for persons in certain age groups.
The idea for a nationwide movie rating system took root in the late 1960s. In 1966 Jack Valenti, a former aide to President lyndon b. johnson, became president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). That same year the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was completed. The film used terms such as screw and hump to refer to sexual intercourse. Because these terms were considered controversial language, Valenti met with officials at Warner Brothers before the film's release, and the group decided which terms could be deleted and which ones were necessary to the film's content.
The experience led Valenti in 1968 to implement a voluntary film ratings system, which has remained in effect, in varying forms, since that time. The MPAA that year created the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) to designate films with one of four ratings: G (general audiences), M (mature audiences), R (children under 16 years of age not admitted without parent or guardian), and X (children under 17 years of age not admitted). Three years later M became PG (parental guidance suggested). In 1984, in response to violence in the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the film review board instituted the PG-13 rating, which cautions parents that the film's contents may be inappropriate for children under age 13. In 1990 the board responded to criticism that the X rating unfairly categorized artistic adult films, such as Midnight Cowboy, with hard-core pornography. In that year the board replaced X with NC-17.
In the movie business, a better rating is generally a lower rating. Movies typically make more money when they appeal to the widest possible audience. This rule holds true particularly with motion picture video sales. Many video outlets limit their inventory to movies with ratings no higher than PG-13 or R. Some theaters refuse to show movies with the NC-17 rating, and some newspapers refuse to carry advertisements for movies with the NC-17 rating. A movie studio therefore wants its film to earn the least restrictive rating possible.
One exception to this general rule is the marketing of pornographic films. Because studies have suggested that sexually explicit films become more desirable when they are restricted, the pornographic film industry voluntarily labels its films X or XXX in an effort to increase sales. XXX is a marketing tool, not an actual MPAA rating.
Although the MPAA publicizes the meaning of each rating, most moviegoers do not know how the ratings are assigned. A ratings board, consisting of 11 members, views approximately 600 films a year, discusses each film's content, and chooses a rating for each film. Valenti and the board's chair choose all the board members and keep their identities secret to prevent film producers and studios from attempting to influence them. The members work full-time, serving terms of varying length. Members must be parents and cannot be involved with the motion picture industry, but they must meet no other requirements. Members base their ratings on a set of MPAA guidelines, some of which are precise whereas others call for individual taste and judgment. According to one MPAA guideline, a certain word used merely as an expletive in a film may garner a PG rating whereas the same word used to convey a sexual meaning may result in an R rating.
Directors who are unhappy with the board's rating may cut or edit objectionable film footage and resubmit the movie, or they may appeal the rating. Movie producers have the right to know the reason behind the rating their film receives. However, directors and producers have complained that the board's reasons are often unclear or too general, requiring them to edit a film several times before it receives the target rating. Some directors have added especially gory scenes to the first version of a film with the idea that they will cut the gore during the ratings process, leaving the film in its intended state with the desired rating.
Because the movie ratings system is a voluntary process not under government control, first amendment protections do not apply to ratings. If filmmakers believe that the rating for their film is too restrictive, they may appeal to a special board, which is composed of movie industry professionals rather than laypersons. The board screens the film, consults with the original ratings board, and listens to the complaints of the producer or director before voting. A two-thirds majority will overturn the original rating, and the decision of the appeals board is final.
No law requires filmmakers to undergo the ratings process; it is strictly voluntary. Yet, with very few exceptions, filmmakers comply. The system has the support of major film studios, theater owners, and video rental chains that rely on customer satisfaction for a healthy business. It is the movie industry that pays for the privilege of having a film rated; the producer of a film pays a fee for this service that is based on the cost of film production.
The ratings system has critics. Filmmakers complain that the system is arbitrary and point to instances in which films with similar content have different ratings. Producers and directors have also alleged racism, arguing that films depicting sexual encounters between African Americans receive more restrictive ratings than films involving sex between white characters. Critics also allege sex bias in that movies with frontal nude shots of women commonly receive R ratings, whereas movies with similar nude shots of men commonly receive X or NC-17 ratings. And major studios, say some critics, receive better treatment from the ratings board than do smaller, independent studios, which also have less money to spend on reediting and resubmitting movies in an effort to achieve a better rating.
Brown, Jay. 1993. Rating the Movies. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International.
Cole, David. 1994. "Playing by Pornography's Rules: The Regulation of Sexual Expression." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 143 (November).
Katz, Michael. 1996. "The Precursor: Movie Ratings." Broadcasting and Cable 8 (May 19).
Margulies, Edward, and Stephen Rebello. 1993. Bad Movies We Love. New York: Plume Books.
Mosk, Richard M. 1997. "Motion Picture Ratings in the United States." Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 15 (spring): 135–45.
"The Ratings Game: Movies' Ratings Can Have Strong Effect on Box Office's Rental Performances." 1994. Video Store 16 (May 1).
First Amendment; Pornography; X Rating.