Ratings for Movies

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In the United States, most movies produced for theatrical distribution are rated by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), a division of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The rating system was first introduced in 1968, under the leadership of Jack Valenti, who was the MPAA president. This voluntary system was developed in the midst of increasing public pressure for censorship of movies.

The Rating Process

Under the MPAA system, producers or distributors submit their films to the Ratings Board for review. They pay a fee for this service. The board, by majority vote, determines a rating and provides a brief written rationale for the decision. CARA publishes the Motion Picture Rating Directory at quarterly intervals, with biweekly updates of the ratings decisions that have been made during the preceding two weeks. Producers or distributors who disagree with the rating their film receives have the option of editing their film and resubmitting it. If they are dissatisfied with the final ruling of the Ratings Board, they can submit their request to a separate Rating Appeals Board, whose membership is comprised of theater owners, producers, and distributors, with the president of the MPAA serving as chair. The decision of the Ratings Board may be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the Rating Appeals Board. If they strongly object to the final decision, filmmakers can release a film without a rating, but strong economic concerns generally rule out this option.

There are no specific academic, professional, or occupational qualifications for serving on the CARA Ratings Board. All board members must be parents, however, and according to a description by the MPAA, members of the board must be "possessed of an intelligent maturity, and most of all, have the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents." With the exception of the board chair, the identities of the board members are kept secret from the public, although some information about family and occupational background is released, and the membership is diverse in terms of age, gender, race, and national origin.

The MPAA rating system has five levels that give general guidelines as to the age-appropriateness of a movie. The categories are as follows:

G: General Audiences. All ages are admitted.

Film content does not include anything that most parents would consider offensive for even their youngest children.

PG: Parental Guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. Parents are urged to give "parental guidance." Content may include some material that parents might not want their young children to see.

PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under thirteen years of age. Parents are urged to be cautious. Content may include some material that parents might find inappropriate for preteenagers.

R: Restricted. Admission of anyone who is under seventeen years of age requires him or her to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. The content includes some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children to see it.

NC-17: No One 17 and Under Admitted. The content is patently adult. Children are not admitted.

CARA does not publish data on the percentage of movies that are given each rating. However, in an independent analysis of the more than 1,400 movies rated during 1995 and 1996, Joanne Cantor (1998b) and her associates reported that 66 percent were rated R, 16 percent were rated PG-13, 14 percent were rated PG, 3 percent were rated G, and 1 percent were rated NC-17.

The various rating levels have been modified over the years. For example, the rating of PG-13 was added in 1984, as a reaction to children's responses to intense scenes in the PG-rated movies Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The "X" rating that was originally included in the system was abandoned because it had not been trademarked. That rating is sometimes self-imposed by filmmakers. However, this process is entirely independent of the MPAA system. The rating of NC-17 was introduced in the early 1990s.

Criticisms of the Ratings

The MPAA ratings have been criticized over the years for a variety of reasons. There have frequently been disagreements with the ratings of individual films. Some critics have charged that the Ratings Board is more likely to give restrictive ratings to films with sexual content than to those with violent content. Other critics have argued that the Ratings Board is not sufficiently independent of the movie industry that employs it. Spokespersons for CARA insist that the Ratings Board is immunized from attempts to influence its members.

In its defense, the MPAA has also pointed to the public opinion polls that it commissions each year. For example, its own poll conducted in 1995 reported that 76 percent of the American public found the rating system to be either "very useful" or "fairly useful." A New York Times survey conducted the same year reported more modest approval, with 53 percent of the parents surveyed saying they thought the movie rating system "does a good job in informing people about how much sex and violence to expect in a movie" and 46 percent responding that it does not do a good job.

Public health and child advocacy organizations have been critical of the MPAA rating system. For example, at its annual meeting in 1994, the national House of Delegates of the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a policy statement concerning the way the entertainment industry labels its products. The AMA referred to the MPAA system as "fundamentally flawed" and called on the MPAA to adopt changes. Recommendations included adding child development experts to the Ratings Board and incorporating more sensitivity to age differences in young children. CARA has responded to such criticism by arguing that it is not the function of the Ratings Board to suggest what is harmful for children but rather to suggest what parents would consider offensive or inappropriate.

The failure of the ratings to indicate the content of movies has been a major area of criticism by the AMA and other public health and child advocacy groups. The MPAA's own polls have not asked parents about their desire for content information. However, several polls conducted during the time that ratings for television were being developed (1996-1997) indicated that parents overwhelmingly prefer content information (i.e., the level of sex, violence, or coarse language) over age recommendations when making viewing decisions for their children. Research has also shown that MPAA ratings are often not informative about the violent or sexual content of movies. A content analysis of the Motion Picture Rating Directory, for example, reported that 26 percent of movies rated PG during 1995 and 1996 were so classified as a function of coarse language only, and another 13 percent contained unspecified "thematic elements" (Cantor, 1998b).

Although the age-based television ratings, the "TV Parental Guidelines," were amended to include content indicators as well as age recommendations as a result of public pressure, the MPAA ratings have not integrated content information into the ratings. Since 1995, however, the MPAA has provided information related to the reasons for the rating of a movie when the rating is PG or higher. This information is available on the MPAA's website and in the Motion Picture Rating Directory. In 1999, the MPAA announced plans to include this content information in newspaper advertisements for movies as well. Therefore, many advertisements that are of sufficient size include content information with the MPAA rating.

Effects of the Ratings

Another criticism of the MPAA ratings has come from those who perceive that providing a restrictive label to a movie, indicating that it is inappropriate for viewing by young people, may make the movie more attractive to children and thereby work to defeat the purpose of shielding children from inappropriate content.

A study was conducted in 1980 by Bruce Austin, who explored whether the ratings of G, PG, R, or X (the MPAA categories in place at the time of the study) would affect high school students' reported likelihood that they would go to a movie. Austin reported that the ratings of movies had no significant effect on the interest of students in the movies. More recent research, however, has shown that MPAA ratings do have effects on children's interest in movies.

In the first year of research for the National Television Violence Study (NTVS), children between the ages of five and fourteen years were given a programming guide and were instructed to select one of the three programs or movies described on each page. The findings revealed that among children between the ages of ten and fourteen, and especially among boys in this age group, the ratings of PG-13 and R made a movie more attractive and the rating of G reduced its attractiveness. The second year of the NTVS reported the same results. Moreover, it reported that more aggressive younger children were more interested in movies that had restrictive ratings. The research also showed that a variety of content-based rating systems did not increase children's interest in movies with higher violence levels. Research by Brad Bushman and Angela Stack (1996) has confirmed that, in general, restrictive warning labels make programming more attractive, whereas content information has less of a tendency to attract children's interest in programming with violent content.

MPAA ratings have an economic effect as well. In some cases, this is due directly to the responses of potential audiences. In other cases, the economic effect is due to the policies of members of the entertainment industry, such as television advertisers and owners of movie theaters and video stores.

Some producers and freedom of speech advocates argue that the MPAA's NC-17 rating, introduced to designate adult-only films, amounts to virtual censorship because many exhibitors refuse to show the films, many newspapers will not advertise them, and some leading video chains refuse to stock them. For example, Blockbuster Video, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart, which together account for more than half of the video sales in the United States, will not stock NC-17 videos. There is a commercial bias against unrated films as well. Few distributors will attempt to release a film without submitting it for a rating because 85 percent of theaters around the country will not accept an unrated film.

As a result of such commercial restrictions, the major studios, desiring releases of their larger-budget films in a thousand or more theaters, have usually chosen to cut films rather than face an NC-17 rating and thus be restricted to about three hundred theaters. Because of the commercial difficulties of an NC-17 rating, many directors are contractually obligated by the major studios to produce a film that is rated no more stringently than an R. As a result, films are often tailor-made to achieve a particular rating.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there seems to be a desire on the part of moviemakers to avoid the rating of G except for movies that are explicitly designed for young children. As the research on the effect of MPAA ratings on children's interest in movies suggests, a G rating makes movies less attractive to youths as early as the preteen years. The economic implications of an unwanted G rating were acknowledged by former CARA president Richard P. Heffner in a 1999 television documentary aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). He described the situation surrounding the 1981 Oscar-winning British film Chariots of Fire. According to Heffner, after CARA gave the film a G rating, the producer complained, asserting, "the G will kill us." When the Ratings Board refused to change the rating to a PG, the filmmakers forced CARA's hand by adding in one forbidden, off-color word. The film was then accorded the desired PG rating.

After the well-publicized school shootings in the late 1990s, many politicians called for greater scrutiny of the marketing of violence to children. One of the responses to these calls was an agreement by U.S. theater owners to check the identification cards of young people who were attempting to buy tickets for R-rated movies. The film rating system is likely to remain the subject of controversy as long as there is public concern regarding the effects of media content on audiences, especially on children.

See also:Film Industry; First Amendment and the Media; National Television Violence Study; Ratings for Television Programs; V-Chip; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


Austin, Bruce A. (1980). "The Influence of the MPAA'sFilm-Rating System on Motion Picture Attendance. A Pilot Study." Journal of Psychology 106:91-99.

Bushman, Brad J., and Stack, Angela D. (1996). "For-bidden Fruit Versus Tainted Fruit: Effects of Warning Labels on Attraction to Television Violence." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 2:207-226.

Cantor, Joanne. (1998a). " Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

Cantor, Joanne. (1998b). "Ratings for Program Content: The Role of Research Findings." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557:54-69.

Center for Communication and Social Policy.(1996-1998). National Television Violence Study, Vols. 1-3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Classification and Rating Administration. (2000). Motion Picture Rating Directory. Encino, CA: Classification and Rating Administration.

Classification and Rating Administration. (2000). "Questions and Answers: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Movie Rating System." <http://www.filmratings.com/questions.htm#q3>.

Federman, Joel. (1996). Media Ratings: Design, Use, and Consequences. Studio City, CA: Mediascope.

Mosk, Richard M. (1998). "Motion Picture Ratings in the United States." In The V-Chip Debate: Content Filtering from Television to the Internet, ed. Monroe E. Price. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Motion Picture Association of America. (2000). "Voluntary Movie Rating System." <http://www.mpaa.org/movieratings>.

Valenti, Jack. (1991). The Voluntary Movie Rating System: How It Began, Its Purpose, The Public Reaction. New York: Motion Picture Association of America.

Joel Federman

Joanne Cantor