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Motion Picture Association of America film rating system

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The Motion Picture Association of America film rating system is a system used in the United States and territories and instituted by the Motion Picture Association of America to rate a movie based on its content. It is one of various motion picture rating systems used to help patrons decide which movies may be appropriate for children and/or adolescents.

In the United States, the MPAA rating system is the most recognized system for classifying potentially offensive content, but it is usually not used outside of the film industry because the MPAA has trademarks on each individual rating.

Contents

[edit] The 5 ratings

The current MPAA movie ratings consist of:

Image
Text
G rating symbol
G - General Audiences
All ages admitted.
PG rating symbol
PG - Parental guidance suggested
Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 rating symbol
PG-13 - Parents strongly cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
R rating symbol
R - Restricted
No one under 17 admitted unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 rating symbol
NC-17
No one 17 and under admitted.

Note the inconsistent terminology, on one hand "under 13" and "under 17", on the other hand "17 and under", meaning "under 18".

If a film has not been submitted for a rating, the label NR (Not Rated) is often used; however, NR is not an official MPAA classification. Films that have not yet received MPAA classification, but are expected to, are often advertised with the notice "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" or "Rating Pending".

[edit] History

[edit] Origins

The MPAA film rating system was instituted on November 1, 1968, as a response to complaints about the presence of sexual content, graphic violence, scatology, and profanity in American film following the MPAA revisions to the Production Code of America in 1966. Although the revisions allowed a designation of "SMA - Suggested for Mature Audiences", along with the Code seal, this warning was hardly very descriptive and its enforcement was far from standardized. (Please see Green Sheet for information about a related precursor to the ratings system.) The United States came rather late to motion picture rating, as many other countries had been using rating systems for decades.

The erosion of the film production code had several effects: while it allowed for certain kinds of artistic movies like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) to be filmed, it also sparked a rise in low budget exploitation films that became more and more explicit in their sexual and violent content.

In 1967, two movies (Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's'isname) were released containing the word "fuck" in their dialogue. This precipitated the public demand for the reintroduction of self-regulation. After a series of meetings with government representatives, the Motion Picture Association of America and National Association of Theatre Owners agreed to provide a uniform ratings system for all of its constituents' movies, a system that would be theoretically enforced by the film exhibitors. Film production companies that were not members of the MPAA were unaffected, and the ratings system had no official governmental enforceability due to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as interpreted in regards to matters of sexuality, violence, and profanity in the media dating back to 1952's Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson decision. However, two important Supreme Court cases in 1968, Ginsberg v. New York and Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas, did lead to the creation of the MPAA rating system.

[edit] Original ratings

The original movie ratings (in use 1968–1970) consisted of:

  • Rated G: Suggested for General Audiences. All ages admitted.
  • Rated M: Suggested for Mature Audiences. (Parental discretion advised)
  • Rated R: Restricted. Persons under 17 are not admitted unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated X: Persons under 18 not admitted.

Originally, the X rating wasn't trademarked, under the plan; anyone not submitting his or her film for rating could self apply the X or any other symbol or description, except those trademarked by the rating program. The original plan had been to use only three rating categories, ending with R.

[edit] The M rating gets replaced

Many parents were confused as to whether films rated M contained more mature content than those rated R; especially because during the pre-rating years of 1965 to 1968, an earlier form of crude classification allowed more content to be included so long as the film's advertising bore the notation "Suggested for Mature Audiences" (often abbreviated as "SMA"). This confusion led to its replacement in 1970 by the designation GP, for General Patronage:

  • Rated GP: All Ages Admitted/Parental Guidance Suggested

The G in GP was meant to designate that the film had no age restrictions on audience admissions (like the G rating, "All Ages Admitted"), while the P in GP was to draw attention to a distinction that, although no ages would be restricted, guidance of parents was suggested. (The auditory similarity between G and GP soon caused this designation to be further revised into the PG rating, an abbreviated form of Parental Guidance.)

[edit] Age problems with the R and X ratings

At the same time (1970) the ages on the R and X ratings were increased from 16 to 17 (where the R rating has remained ever since), although the age on the X rating would still vary in certain jurisdictions until it was officially changed to an NC-17. Some newspaper advertisements clearly show that ages on advertising even for R- and X-rated films would occasionally be altered to read 18 instead of 17. Other local boards (involved in the early negotiations of the rating system) even wished to classify the age as high as 21, depending on the board.

[edit] The GP rating gets replaced

By 1972, a number of problems with the GP rating emerged. First, the rating now sounded too permissive, and was not indicative of the film's actual content. During 1971 the MPAA experimented with designating some GP films with a special warning label. The exact wording would vary, but this label would generally read "Contains material not generally suitable for pre-teenagers" and thus was an early form of PG-13 rating. Since this added message was referred to with an asterisk next to the GP symbol, this brief rating can be called GP*. However, the percentage of GP* films quickly grew to outnumber GP films with no special advisory, and in early in 1972, as part of an overall standardization of the rating symbols as used in promotional material, both GP and GP* were redesignated with the new PG rating that would then be used throughout most of the 1970s.

  • Rated PG: Parental Guidance Suggested—Some Material may not be Suitable for Pre-Teenagers

Today the rating reads:

  • Rated PG Parental Guidance Suggested—Some material may not be suitable for children.

By this time, the familiar standardized boxes with boldfaced text, the MPAA logo, and the explanatory message underneath were now in common use.

From the adoption of the system through the mid-1970s, it was not uncommon for mainstream films such as Airport, Planet of the Apes, The Green Berets, The Odd Couple, Tora! Tora! Tora! and 2001: A Space Odyssey to be released with G ratings, but by 1978 (with increasing use of the phrase "children" rather than "pre-teenagers" on the PG rating), the G rating had become increasingly associated with films intended specifically for children, while the PG rating became increasingly acceptable for designating "family" films. Most of the G-rated films from the early years of the rating system contain content equivalent to stronger (PG and PG-13) ratings used in later years.

There have been some rating choices which, in retrospect, can be considered odd, though it must be remembered that the rating system was in its relative infancy at this time. The 1967 G-rated film The Battle of Britain had mild British profanity ("arse"; "shitehawk", "silly bitch") as well as several fairly graphic scenes of both RAF and Luftwaffe aircrew being killed. In one scene, blood is shown spattering throughout the bombardier's nose of a German bomber, and in another, Christopher Plummer's character is shown being burnt in the cockpit of his fighter. Another example is Larry Cohen's cult horror film It's Alive (about a mutant killer infant). This was originally released in 1974 and re-released in 1977. It was rated PG despite being fairly bloody for its time. Its two sequels (It Lives Again, 1978; and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive, direct-to-video, 1987) both received R ratings. All three Alive films were banned in Finland under their rating system.

By the late 1970s, the PG ratings on some films were reworded, and the pre-teenagers phrase became used less frequently, with the word children substituted instead. An analysis of the proportion of films rated G and PG at this time (corresponding with a conservative shift in the rating standards) shows that fewer G ratings were issued while more family films were rated as PG with the less restrictive sounding "children" label. No clear system of applying either label was known to be a part of MPAA policy during the late 1970s, but by the early 1980s, the phrase "pre-teenagers" became little used, and in 1984 the PG-13 rating was established and effectively restored the clear distinction (see GP and GP* above) between films with lighter and heavier content levels. The end of the 1970s also saw, with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979, what was probably the end of mainstream (mega-marketed, non animated) big studio films with a G rating. Ever since, such productions would be released with at least a PG rating (and even "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" itself was subsequently re-rated PG for its DVD release). This period of transition was also the time when live action Disney productions, such as The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, and The Devil and Max Devlin, began to routinely receive PG ratings.

[edit] The addition of the PG-13 rating

Prior to 1984, when two films associated with Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins) triggered widespread calls for a revision to the ratings system, there was a minor trend of films straddling the PG and R ratings (as shown by the MPAA records of appeals board decisions of the early 1980s). This suggested that there needed to be a middle ground between PG and R. The summer of 1982 featured Poltergeist, which was originally rated R (for intensity and a scene of drug use) but then re-rated PG on appeal. Disney's Dragonslayer (although PG without appeal, and a co-production with Paramount Pictures) alarmed many parents with scenes of explicit violence and gore. A larger percentage of films were allowed a PG rating despite limited use of strong language ("Terms of Endearment", "Sixteen Candles", "Footloose") that initially had warranted an R rating until the appeals board changed their ratings to PG (thanks in large measure to precedents set in the 1970s, with "All the President's Men" at their forefront) [1]

Violent scenes in the 1984 PG-rated films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which Spielberg directed and Gremlins, which he produced, were the final straws. Public outcry about the violence led Spielberg to suggest a new PG-13 rating to MPAA president Jack Valenti, who conferred with theater owners and then introduced the new rating on July 1. The rating still allowed children under 13 to be admitted without a parent or guardian, but it cautions parents about potentially shocking violence or other offensive content, although not as offensive as an R rating. It is the highest unrestricted rating. The first movie to gain widespread theatrical release with a PG-13 rating was 1984's Red Dawn (although the first to receive the classification was Dreamscape). It took a year for the PG-13 logo to shift into its current form. The initial rating, instead of using a line of boldface text followed by explanatory description below, bore the wording from 1984 to 1986:

Rated PG-13: Parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13.

Today the rating reads:

Rated PG-13 PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

With the PG rating still being used without a change, it was unclear to some parents at first whether PG or PG-13 films were intended for older viewers. Until 1990, some of the same content that prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating was still being observed in some PG films. For example Big, Beetlejuice, and Nothing in Common were three late 1980s widespread PG releases that contained "fuck" in their dialogue. The ratings board reacted quickly to parental protests, and over the next couple of years, the number of PG-13 films finally outnumbered the number of PG releases, as standards were tightened for PG classification. Around the turn of that decade, standards were also tightened for PG-13 films, at least for violence, as the ratings board became more likely to issue an R rating for violence that involved bloodshed and/or the slaying of policemen. Except for a brief reversal in 1994, the number of PG-13 films has outnumbered the number of PG films ever since, and the proportion of R-rated films (starting with the boom of home video product in the late 80s) has generally increased at the expense of unrestricted films. Only within the last two years has there been an indication that the proportion of restricted films has started to decrease slightly as a trend. Since these proportions tend to reflect the strictness of ratings criteria, this arguably refutes that so-called "ratings creep" (see below) occurred during the 1990s.

The PG-13 rating was spoofed by id Software's game Wolfenstein 3-D, which starts with a screen saying "This game has been voluntarily rated PC-13 (Profound Carnage) by id Software".

[edit] X is replaced by NC-17

In the early years of the ratings system, X-rated movies such as Midnight Cowboy (1969) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) could win Oscar nominations and awards. But the rating, which was not trademarked by the MPAA (as were its other ratings), was self applied by the "adult entertainment" segment of the industry to the point where an X rating could be included in advertising gimmicks and came to be equated strictly with film pornography, which was never the intent behind the original rating. This concern led to a large number of newspapers and TV stations refusing to accept ads for X-rated movies, and some theaters' landlords forbade exhibition of X-rated movies. Such policies led to a compromise with the distributors of George Romero's 1978 horror film Dawn of the Dead: the audience restriction would be enforced by participating NATO theaters, but the letter "X" itself would not appear in the film's advertisements or displays, a message instead being substituted: "There is no explicit sex in this picture; however, there are scenes of violence, which may be considered shocking. No one 17 and under will be admitted." After all, the MPAA stresses the voluntary nature of the system and denies that the rating system should cause a film not to receive widespread release. Various horror films, such as the sequel Day of the Dead and Re-Animator were marketed in this fashion. Some, like the horror parody Evil Dead 2 had actually earned an adults rating at only some point, while others like Guardian of Hell or Zombie may have used such messages in addition to their R ratings (that were sometimes surrendered specifically for marketing purposes).

The MPAA introduced the NC-17 (No Children Under 17 Admitted) rating on September 27, 1990, to finally make an official and standardized classification that could allow these films to be distributed with the MPAA seal. Part of this calculation was that the adult XXX markets tended to have no reason to pay the fee to submit their product by that point (since the films were distributed either through independent theaters or simply direct to video), and a differentiation could therefore be inferred by viewers that MPAA rated NC-17 films were legitimate motion pictures with actual stories and developed characters, as with the first such film, Universal Pictures' Henry & June (1990), rather than merely prurient/pornographic fare.

Some media outlets that refused ads for X-rated titles viewed ads for NC-17 rated films as equally unsuitable, despite studio claims, and thus simply transferred that policy to NC-17 titles, as did many theater landlords. A number of social conservative groups placed pressure on large video chains including Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video, as a result of which these chains do not stock NC-17 titles. However, similar and even more controversial sexual and violent product is often carried by these chains so long as no such rating was officially connected with its packaging.

Later, in 1996, the age for the NC-17 category was subtly increased by one year by changing the wording from "No Children Under 17 Admitted" to "No One 17 And Under Admitted." The label NC-17 stayed even though the letters no longer stand for anything, as the word "children" was replaced by "one".

While a number of movies have been released with the NC-17 rating, none of them has been a major boxoffice hit. In a bold attempt to broaden the acceptance of NC-17 rated films towards the moviegoing public, United Artists marketed its big budget Showgirls heavily, with splashy TV and print ads. The film became the first (and, to date, only) NC-17 rated film to open in wide release, on 1,388 screens. But the critically savaged film's poor box office performance created only a larger stigma towards the rating, deeming any film rated NC-17 as being "box office poison." An acclaimed film, Requiem for a Dream in which the lead actress, Ellen Burstyn, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in the 2000 Academy Awards, was released unrated rather than go out with the stigma of an NC-17 rating. The MPAA threatened to give the film the NC-17 rating due to a montage at the climax of the film involving a graphic orgy/party scene. Although the scene is quite explicit even by today's standards, many protested it was very necessary to the entire message of the movie, which should be seen by teenagers under the 17 age limit to give them "an educational wake-up call" on the negative effects of drugs. Even though the purpose of the film was to show the realities of drug addiction, the MPAA stood by their decision by refusing to give the film an R rating on appeal. The NC-17 rating has more recently been limited to films considered to appeal to a limited "art house" audience, where the limited distribution and advertising of such films is not considered a major obstacle.

The majority of NC-17 fare is still released theatrically either in an edited R-rated version, or with its rating surrendered. Every five years or so, a mainstream release, such as The Dreamers, will be attempted by a large studio. Most commonly, however, the NC-17 version gets distributed on home video as "Not Rated," or where its rating is difficult for the average patron to notice on the packaging.

[edit] The rating process

 The factual accuracy of this section is disputed.
Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page.

Although 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 as this would be considered tantamount to self-censorship, some guidelines can be derived based on the MPAA's actual rating decisions:

  • If a film uses "one of the harsher sexually derived words" (such as fuck) 1-3 times, it is routine today for the film to receive a PG-13 rating, provided that the word is used as an expletive and not with a sexual meaning (this was mentioned in Be Cool, when Chili Palmer complains about the movie industry. "Fuck" is said only in that scene, giving the movie a PG-13). An example of a film that might suggest this criteria is Waiting for Guffman, which contains mostly PG-13 (some could even argue PG) content, yet is rated R because a man auditioning for a role uses "fuck" (the only time it is spoken in the movie), in a sexual sense. Exceptions may be allowed, "by a special vote of the ratings board" where the board feels such an exception would better reflect the sensibilities of American parents. A couple of exceptions were noted: rare films such as Guilty by Suspicion were allowed as many as 9 uses of the word; probably due to the precedent set in the 1970s by politically important films such as All the President's Men. It is a common misconception that if a movie uses "fuck", in a nonsexual context, more than once, it will automatically receive an R rating. In reality, PG-13 movies are routinely allowed two or three uses.
  • A reference to drugs, such as marijuana, usually gets a movie a PG-13 rating at a minimum. A well known example of an otherwise "PG movie" getting a PG-13 for a drug reference is Whale Rider. The film contained only mild profanity but received a PG-13 because of a scene where drug paraphernalia was briefly visible. Critic Roger Ebert criticized the MPAA for the rating and called it "a wild overreaction." [2]
  • A "graphic" or "explicit" scene of illegal drug use will earn a film at least a PG-13 rating and, especially in the case of "hard drugs", even an R rating. In extremely rare cases, extremely graphic scenes of hard drug use will get a film an NC-17 (see Trainspotting).
  • If a film contains strong sexual content, it usually receives at least an R rating. The film Lost in Translation had a scene in a strip club that had brief topless nudity and a song in the background that repeated the phrase "sucking on my titties." The scene was brief and the rest of the film had PG-13 level content, but the film still received an R rating. In the case of I Capture the Castle, a shot of a topless woman got the film an R rating "for brief nudity." In every other country with a similar ratings system (such as the UK, Australia, and Canada), the film received an equivalent of G or PG.
  • If a film contains male rear nudity, it is more likely to be given a lower rating than if the nudity were female. Male nudity is generally regarded as ribald (i.e. mooning) or natural, whereas female nudity is generally regarded as sexual.
  • Films that have legitimate historical or educational value are often granted leniency. Some have argued that the level of violence in Saving Private Ryan merited an NC-17, but that the film was given leniency because it was a historical war movie. This argument also came up when The Passion of the Christ was released without cuts, with an R-rating.
  • Violence which includes bloodshed will usually receive an R rating, while bloodless violence will be rated PG-13 (eg. Alien vs. Predator, the "unrated version" contains the same content as the PG-13 version in terms of violence however, every violent scene includes bloodshed; the same thing happened with Pearl Harbor in which explicit gunshot wounds and violence were added to get an R-rating on the DVD director's cut.)

Ratings criteria is intended to reflect changing norms and compromises between the diverse needs and rights of various interests in a large and complex modern society. Therefore, an evaluation of ratings criteria must specify what year or approximate period of time is being referred to, when modeling the standards relevant to each film classification.

Members of the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration, which the MPAA claims consists of a demographically balanced panel of parents, view the movie, discuss it, and vote on the film's rating. If the movie's producer is unhappy with this rating, he/she can reedit the film and resubmit it, or can appeal to an Appeals Board. Appeals generally involve a film which was rated R for which the producer is seeking to have the rating changed to PG-13, or a film rated NC-17 for which the producer is seeking to have the rating changed to R.

[edit] Effects of ratings

Legally, the rating system is entirely voluntary. However, signatory members of the MPAA (major studios) have agreed to submit all of their theatrical releases for rating, and few mainstream producers (outside the pornography niche) are willing to bypass the rating system due to potential effects on revenues. Therefore, it can be argued that the system has a de facto compulsory status in the industry. Most films released unrated nowadays are either relatively obscure independent films, foreign films, direct-to-video films, made-for-TV films or documentaries not expected to play outside the arthouse market, or large format (IMAX) films, which typically contain minimal offensive content and generally receive a G or PG rating when they are submitted for a rating.

One of the unintended side effects of the rating system is that the G and (in recent years) PG ratings have been associated with children's films, and are widely considered to be commercially bad for films targeted at teenagers and adults. For example, the 2004 action/adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which was not targeted at children, received a PG rating, which some believe caused it to underperform at the box office as preteens and teenagers may have brushed it off as a kiddie flick. [3] On the other hand, the R rating also has a negative effect on the box office performance, due to common social and cultural controversies. [4] In fact, most R rated films released in the 1990s generated a box office revenue of less than $100 million. [5]

While some may debate the degree to which any such things are truly unintended, since the ratings now have a clearly established use as part of the marketing strategy for a film, the whole question of children tending to scorn "unchallenging" G or PG fare in favor of whatever they can get away with seeing is a legitimate criticism of an age based rating system. Some R fare is not aimed at older adults, but at a high school and college age market eager to engage in what they perceive as mature activities. Thus, the pretense that offensive content can be considered "adult" serves as a misleading marketing strategy to attract a youthful audience, often for purely sensational and provocative content for its own sake.

The minimum age for unaccompanied patrons at R films, and all patrons at X films, was originally set at 16. By 1970 it was raised to 17 (in some areas the age may be higher still—often 18—and in rare cases as high as 21). Theater owners could still allow children between 13 and 16 years of age into R-rated films without being accompanied by an adult since the rating system is technically voluntary and does not have the force of law behind it. Attendance at films with strong enough content to merit an NC-17 rating could be restricted by law due to the possibility of being considered indecent.

In the 1970s the East Coast based Century theater chain used its own rating system, with only three categories instead of four: For All Ages, For Mature Audiences, and No One Under 17 Admitted, with most, but not all, R-rated films receiving the middle designation, under which no age limits were enforced. In 2000, due to issues raised by Senator Joseph Lieberman, the National Association of Theater Owners, the major trade association in the U.S., announced it would start strict enforcement of ID checks for R and NC-17 rated movies; however, only a small percentage of cinemas (as of 2005) are doing so.[citation needed]

Many retailers of videos, especially Wal-Mart, tend to restrict the sale of R rated movies to minors. POS systems are set up to prevent a transaction without a sales associate checking an ID.

The 2001 independent film L.I.E. challenged its NC-17 rating and waged a publicity campaign against the arbitrary nature of the ratings system. Lot 47, the film's distributor, lost its appeal, and released the film unrated. With the recent success of another NC-17 film, The Dreamers, some film producers and directors hope that the rating may begin to lose some of its stigma and more movie theaters will consider playing such films. Earlier, the NC-17 rated Kids waged a similar campaign, part of which included exhibiting the film to persons under 18 and publishing their (generally favorable) reactions to it. Another film to successfully challenge its NC-17 rating was the cult classic 1994 comedy Clerks., which eventually garnered an R rating. Director Kevin Smith geared up for another MPAA battle when the sequel, Clerks 2 was released, but was surprised and relieved when the MPAA passed it uncut with an R-rating.

Earlier in the rating system, African-Americans complained that rating criteria was too heavily biased against inner city conditions and dialects. For his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, director Melvin Van Peebles came up with a winning ad slogan ("Rated X by an All-White Jury") that proved successful with the urban market. The revision of the ages upward corresponded with a slackening of standards that generally allowed most such product to receive an R rating thereafter.

Since the rapid expansion of the home video market in the late 1990s, studios have been known to skirt the rating system and release unrated versions of films on videocassette and DVD. Sometimes these versions would have earned an NC-17 if submitted for rating, but often their unrated status is merely for marketing purposes. Films that have been rated PG-13 in their theatrical run are sometimes extended with footage equivalent to an R (but not NC-17) rating and marketed as "unrated" with the implication that the added unrated material is racier than an R rating would permit. For example, one DVD release of American Pie, rated R in its theatrical release, exclaims on the box, "UNRATED! The Version You Couldn't See In Theaters". Sometimes the difference between an R-rated feature and its unrated home video counterpart is as little as a few seconds, while other unrated video editions add scenes that have no sexual or violent content whatsoever, making them "unrated" in the technical sense even though they don't contain more provocative material than the theatrical version (examples of this would be Unleashed). A number of filmmakers have also taken to filming additional footage specifically for video or DVD release, with no intention of submitting this material to the MPAA.

Some foreign and independent films do not bother to submit to the rating system, reasoning that they will not be distributed widely beyond their arthouse audience, so the expense is unnecessary. Canadian films use the American system to an extent as well. The commercials for the movie often use the same ratings that the American ones do, and when the movie is released on video the packaging will often feature the American rating as well its Canadian equivalent. Many U.S. packages display Canadian ratings as well.

[edit] Critics of the system

The movie rating system has had a number of high profile critics. Film critic Roger Ebert 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, if the movie realistically depicts the consequences of sex and violence). He has called for an A (adults only) rating, to indicate films high in violence or mature content that should not be marketed to teenagers, but do not have NC-17 levels of sex.

Perhaps with these objections in mind, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting (a descendent of the formerly influential National Legion of Decency) maintains its own film classification system, which takes the overall "moral tone" of a film into account, rather than focusing on content alone.

Many critics of the MPAA system, especially independent distributors, have charged that major studios' releases often receive more lenient treatment than independent films. It is widely assumed that Saving Private Ryan, with its intense depiction of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, would have earned an NC-17 if it were not a Steven Spielberg film. The comedy Scary Movie, released by a division of The Walt Disney Company's Miramax Films, contained "strong crude sexual humor, language, drug use and violence" but was rated R, to the surprise of many reviewers and audiences; by comparison, the comparatively tame porn spoof Orgazmo, an independent release, contained "explicit sexual content and dialogue" and received an NC-17. On the other hand, the independently distributed film The Passion of the Christ received an R rating despite graphic depictions of violence.

Ironically, before its purchase by Disney, Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein often clashed with the MPAA, proclaimed the rating system unfair to independents, and released some films unrated to avoid an X or NC-17. Orgazmo director Trey Parker's ratings battles later inspired the (R-rated) film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which directly criticized the MPAA and holds the Guinness world record for most profanity and violence in an animated feature (399 profane words, 128 offensive gestures and 221 acts of violence).

Another criticism of the ratings system is the apparent arbitrariness in designating PG-13 and R rated content. Many critics (professional, the general public and religious and moral groups) believe that the content of recent PG-13 films equals that of R-rated films from the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. For example, depictions of sexual content, violence, profanity and other objectionable content in a PG-13 film from the late 1990s on may have been considered "R level" in the 1970s and 1980s. Critics of film content seem to want that standard to continue despite shifting cultural norms about what is socially acceptable. These critics make the case that instead of the film industry simply reflecting societal values, the movie industry is in fact instrumental in desensitizing society to previously offensive content.

Some other problems include odd ratings for movies. For example, most horror films that do not contain extreme graphic violence can get a PG-13 rating, whereas Kung Fu Hustle, an action-comedy movie with unrealistic, "animated" violence and minimal coarse language in the Cantonese version with English subtitles, gained an R rating, although the PG-13 rated movies are generally more realistically graphic.

Other critics have argued that the sexual (and to a lesser extent, drug and profanity) standards for movie ratings are ideologically biased in favor of socially conservative values. They generally advocate allowing more slack in such categories as nudity and four-letter words, while maintaining the current rules for violence ratings.

Many critics of the system, both conservative and liberal, would like to see the MPAA ratings unveiled and the standards made public. The MPAA has consistently cited Nationwide scientific polls, (conducted each year by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey) which demonstrate that parents find the ratings useful. Nevertheless, critics respond that this is the only source of information available.

[edit] Stephen Farber's internal critique

One internal critic of the early workings of the system was film critic and author Stephen Farber, who interned with the CARA for six months in its early years (1969–1970). His experiences with the board prompted him to write a book, The Movie Ratings Game (Public Affairs Press), which documented how, even in its earliest days, the board used many of the same tactics that persist to this day: the wielding of the X rating as a way to remove material from films that board members took personal affront to, the lopsided way sexual material was handled relative to violence, and later on the use of psychological jargon to justify placing certain films, even unexplicit ones, in restricted categories on the basis of theme alone. For example, an anti-war themed movie such as The Revolutionary were given a PG rating by the board, but later board members wanted an R simply because it was anti-war.

Farber contended that the ratings board used its power to "punish" the most challenging, creative, and interesting movies being made—A Clockwork Orange, Midnight Cowboy—while "rewarding" more conservative, uncontroversial films with more open ended ratings. Farber also contended that the ratings board's stance about the ratings being used as guidelines to protect children was hypocritical in light of the fact that most of the severities imposed on certain films seemed less borne of their potential impact on children than on reactions to them by parents. He registered great annoyance with the board when they rated the film Woodstock R, pointing out that the original festival had no age restrictions and that it seemed hypocritical to age-restrict the film, which was arguably a far less traumatic experience than the festival itself.

Another still-current problem Farber cited was how the threat of a restrictive rating was wielded freely by the board as a way to force studios to tone down submitted films; he cited a number of movies that were re-cut to not only be removed from the X category (sometimes going as far as two rating brackets to GP) but also be moved from R to GP, or even GP to G. This extended to screenplays submitted to the board as well, which were analyzed and given a projected rating; he used as an example the film The Panic in Needle Park, the script for which was given an X based on its vulgar dialogue and many references to shooting heroin. (The released film was rated R.)

Farber recommended that the X rating either be abolished or relabeled to "A" or "AO", but leaned towards abolition on the grounds that the R rating really ought to be the most restrictive rating for a film in an enlightened society. He concluded by endorsing public pressure and activism as being the best way to proceed: "The rating system is certainly not going to be reformed from within ... In the era of the silent majority, a great deal can be accomplished by a little noise."

[edit] Ratings creep

The notion of "ratings creep" is the hypothesis that, over time, ratings have become steadily and incrementally less restrictive toward potentially objectionable content. On June 13, 2004, the Harvard School of Public Health released a widely publicized study supporting this hypothesis, which is disputed by the MPAA.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  • Farber, Stephen (1972). The Movie Ratings Game. Public Affairs Press. ISBN 0-8183-0181-3.
  • MPAA: Ratings History

[edit] External links

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