Film Rating Systems

Jack Valenti, creator of the MPAA rating system (courtesy Wikipedia)

Most countries throughout the world have some sort of film classification system. These can range quite widely in depth and scope, from the very basic system in Belgium, where there are only three levels or classifications; KT = Children admitted, KNT = Children under the age of 16 not admitted, and E = Exempt, to the system in use in New Zealand where there are ten levels or classifications. For a list of the film classification systems in over 50 countries see the Wikipedia article here:

In this article however, we will concentrate on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system used in the United States as well as look at the body that does the actual ratings, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA).

Currently, and as unchanged since 1990, the MPAA ratings and descriptions are as follows:
G - General Audiences - All ages admitted
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested - Some material may be not suitable for children
PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned - Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
R - Restricted - Under 17 requires accompanying by a parent or adult guardian
NC-17 - No One 17 and Under Admitted
There is also an unofficial NR rating, meaning Not Rated. These are movies that are not submitted for rating. Movies that are allowed distribution without being rated are almost always 'art-house' independent movies or foreign films, as well as straight to video releases, that are not expected to have wide release.

Although the MPAA created and maintain the ratings, it is actually the group Classification and Ratings Administration, or CARA, who actually do the film rating. This group consists of a board of 'average' Americans with no ties to the film industry who rate the movies based on their own experiences and feelings as parents themselves. Not only does this group rate all mainstream movies submitted, they also rate all related advertising, including such things as trailers, TV and radio spots, print advertising and other materials. According to their website they rate upwards of 60,000 marketing pieces a year. (

How did the MPAA ratings begin? In 1968, under the direction of MPAA head Jack Valenti, the MPAA's film rating system was implemented, replacing the current system that had been in place since 1930 and was viewed as no longer appropriate to the movie industry. Under that system, called the Hays Code movies had been judged much more strictly and by harsher morals than the times of the 1960s dictated, and basically could control what was in a movie, as opposed to who could see the movie. This system was also government instituted and run, whereas the new MPAA system would take film rating out of the government's and put them into the hands of the industry. This would, as Jack Valenti himself said, allow the "writers, directors and producers to tell their cinema-story the way they choose to tell it." Then, with the help of the MPAA ratings, it would be up to the parents to decide which films to allow their children to see.

Indeed, on the MPAA's website their self-proclaimed mandate is written as follows: "Movie ratings provide parents with advance information about the content of films, so they can determine what movies are appropriate for their young children to see. Movie ratings do not determine whether a film is 'good' or 'bad'. They simply provide basic information to parents about content they may find sensitive. The MPAA and its member companies believe that filmmakers should be free to bring their unique creative visions to the screen, and that parents should be equally free to decide what their children can and cannot see. By providing clear, concise information, movie ratings achieve both goals. They provide timely, relevant information to parents, and they help shield filmmakers and this dynamic American art form from government censorship." (

While this sounds all good on the surface, there is some widespread criticism of the rating system, and perhaps appropriately so. For instance, there is no legal binding to the system and it is entirely voluntary. Also, the "policing" falls upon the theatres which often leaves an unconsistent effect. It is not much different than convenience stores not selling cigarettes or liquor to minors; one store/clerk is often more stringent than another. As well, while the MPAA does not directly decide what may or may not go into a movie as with the earlier Hays Code, their very rating system indirectly does establish a form of censorship because a director knows what types of scenes will draw a higher rating and therefore affect ticket sales. Finally, many critics find the system very biased against violence as opposed to sex.

Roger Ebert in particular until his death in 2013 was a very strong opponent of the MPAA system who agreed that the MPAA and CARA are more likely to give an R rating to a film that has mild sexual content than one that has a large amount of violence. The documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated points out that the NC-17 rating is 4 times as likely to be given to a movie depicting sex than one that depicts violence, and this is even as stated at the MPAA's own website. Similarily, Ebert felt that many films that are given a PG-13 rating, often have positive messages aimed at the very group (children under the age of 13) that are not allowed to see the movie. He cites Whale Rider and School of Rock as PG-13 rated movies that would fall into this area. Finally, Ebert also suggested reviving the old X rating that was replaced with NC-17 because X more clearly suggests that the movie is heavy with sexual content while NC-17 is confusing to many. Then for those movies which might be approaching NC-17 levels of violence or other reasoning besides sex be given a new rating of A standing for Adults only.

Further still, many critics feel that independent movies which are submitted for rating tend to be more harshly rated than similarily themed mainstream releases. This Film is Not Yet Rated also revealed that the CARA board of film-raters is only 8-10 strong, while the appeal board is 14 or so strong. The fact that there are more appeal members than actual rating members can suggest that mistakes and unacceptable or unwarranted ratings are made too often. Also such a small rating board could easily create strong biases and voting 'cliques' than a larger board might.

Finally, the fact that both CARA and the film-rating board are viewed as highly secretive and that there is no real publicized standards available to the public has irked many in the business, both conservative and liberal alike. This Film is Not Yet Rated went part of the way of delving into the 'secretive' CARA and MPAA world, but many feel that the public should be allowed further in.

'Secret society' aside the one thing the public can feel good about the MPAA rating system is that it is better than having no system at all, even with its warts. Still, in the ever changing world of film and public morals, perhaps it is time again for a major change in the film rating system, as occurred with Jack Valenti back in 1968.

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