In the U.S., the MPAA's rating system is the most recognized classification system for determining potentially offensive content, but usually is not used outside the film industry, because the MPAA has trademarked each rating. Its system has been criticised for the secrecy of its decisions, and for censorship being stricter for sexual than for violent content.
| G - General Audiences |
| PG - Parental Guidance Suggested |
| PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned |
| R - Restricted |
| '''NC-17 - No One Under 17 Admitted |
If a film is not submitted for rating, the label NR (Not Rated) is used; however, "NR" is not an official MPAA classification. Films as yet unrated by the MPAA, but that are expected to be submitted for rating, are often advertised with the notice "This Film is Not Yet Rated" or, less frequently, "Rating Pending."
The United States began rating its movies relatively late, as most other countries began classifying their films decades earlier, such as the United Kingdom with the BBFC rating organization. The MPAA's film ratings were instituted on November 1, 1968, in response to religiously-motivated complaints about the sexual, violent, profane, and impudent content of American cinema, after the MPAA's 1966 revision of the Production Code of America. The revision created the "SMA" (Suggested for Mature Audiences) advisory, identifying violent movies and movies with mature themes, along with the MPAA Code seal. (see Green Sheet about an internal precursor to the ratings system).
The cultural erosion of the film production code had several effects: it allowed violently artistic films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), and an increase in low-budget exploitation films that were more sexually and violently explicit. In 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? used the phrase "hump the hostess". In 1967, two movies—Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's'isname—used the word fuck in their dialog. This precipitated public demand for the reintroduction of self-censorship. After meeting with government, the MPAA and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) agreed to a uniform ratings system for every film produced by its members that, theoretically, would be enforced by exhibitors.
The Non-MPAA member film producers were unaffected; the ratings system was legally unenforceable because of the free speech guarantee, inherent to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as interpreted regarding the sexual, violent, profane, and impudent content in communications media dating from the 1952 Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson decision. However, two important 1968 Supreme Court cases, Ginsberg v. New York and Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas, led to the MPAA's creation of its movie rating system.
The original movie ratings (used from 1968 to 1970) were:
This content classification system originally was to have three ratings, ending with the Restricted rating (like the system then used in most of Canada); however, business pressure from cinema owners forced the MPAA's creation of an exclusively adult "X" film rating to protect them from local church-instigated complaints and lawsuits. Initially, the "X" rating was not an MPAA trademark: any producer not submitting a movie for MPAA rating could self-apply the "X" rating (or any other symbol or description that was not an MPAA trademark).
The ratings then used, from 1970 to 1972, were:
In the GP-rating, the "G" meant the film was not age-restricted (like the G rating, "All Ages Admitted"), while the "P" told audiences that, despite the lack of age restriction, parental discretion was expected. However, many misunderstood GP as an abbreviation for "General Patronage". The change from "M" to "GP" took effect on March 1, 1970; again, "GP" confusion caused its revision to the "PG" rating, an abbreviation for Parental Guidance.
Simultaneously, in 1970, as the M rating changed to GP, the ages of viewers admitted to R- and X-rated movies was raised from 16 to 17. However, the age on the X rating varied per the jurisdiction, until the MPAA officially changed it to the NC-17 rating. Some newspaper advertisements clearly altered ages for R- and X-rated films to 17 years of age instead of 16 or 18.
By 1972, problems with the GP rating emerged; parents perceived it as too permissive, unindicative of a film's true content. In 1971, the MPAA had experimented with including a content advisory warning to GP-rated movies; the wording varied, but typically read: Contains material not generally suitable for pre-teenagers. It was essentially an early form of the PG-13 rating; the warning was often indicated with an asterisk next to the GP letters. This short-lived rating can be called GP*; however, the number of such films quickly outnumbered GP films (sans the warning), and the MPAA, in February 1972 (standardizing rating symbols used in movie advertising), announced that both the GP and the GP* ratings would be replaced with the new PG rating. It has been used since.
The ratings used from 1972 to 1984 were:
By then, the rating box contained the rating in boldface, the MPAA logo, and the content advisory warning. From the adoption of the system through the mid-1970s, mildly adult mainstream films such as Airport, Planet of the Apes, The Green Berets, The Odd Couple, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were commonly released with G ratings. However, by 1978, the G rating became over-associated with children's films, while the PG rating became the norm for "family" films. Most G-rated films from the system's early years are today perceived as having PG and PG-13 content. So, most G-rated movies from the 1960s and 1970s have often been re-rated PG in later years.
In retrospect, some ratings of this era seem rather odd, though it must be remembered that the rating standards then were more liberal; violence, sexually suggestive speech and action, naked men, and mild cursing were acceptable in the lower ratings, while sexual intercourse (either implicit or explicit) and naked women were not. A movie's rating depended on the personal mores and opinion of the individual censors. For example, the G-rated Battle of Britain (1967) had mild British cursing and explicit killings of RAF and Luftwaffe aircrew. True Grit was G-rated after being edited down in tone; however, it still contained American cursing and strong cowboy violence. Larry Cohen's cult horror film It's Alive (1974), about a killer mutant infant, re-released in 1977, was rated PG despite being bloody per the standards of the time. On the other hand, both its sequels, It Lives Again (1978) and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) (released direct-to-video), were rated R. Nevertheless, Finland banned all three films per its film rating system.
Moreover, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) was rated R instead of M (despite its violence being no more explicit than, say, the James Bond films of the time), because of a chess-game-as-sexual-foreplay between the protagonist and antagonist. The scene would most likely give the film a PG-13 rating today, however (though the 1999 remake of the movie was also rated R).
In 1975, the phrase May Be Too Intense For Younger Children accompanied the PG rating featured in the advertising for Jaws (1975).
In the late 1970s, the PG rating was reworded, the word pre-teenagers replaced with children. An analysis of the proportion of films rated G and PG at that time (corresponding with a cultural shift to stricter rating standards) shows that fewer G ratings were issued, while more family films were rated PG with the less restrictive "children" label. By the early 1980s, the phrase "pre-teenagers" was almost unused, and, in 1984, the PG-13 rating (see below) was established, restoring the clear distinction (see GP and GP* above) between films of lighter and heavier content.
By the end of the 1970s, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was the last commercially successful mainstream film that was rated G (The re-edited director's cut became PG for sci-fi action violence and some cursing, although the ratings-related content was effectively unchanged, thus showing that the standards for the G rating had narrowed significantly between its use in the 1960s and 1970s and in later decades.). Since then, such movies would be released with a PG rating. That transition was when live-action Disney movies, such as The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, and The Devil and Max Devlin were rated PG.
Because of such successful appeals, based upon artistic intent, many mild, mainstream movies were rated PG instead of R because of only some thematically necessary strong cursing, e.g. Tootsie, Terms of Endearment, Sixteen Candles, and Footloose. These censorship reversals were consequence, in large measure, of the 1970s precedent established by All the President's Men. Had these movies been released after 1984, they likely would have been rated PG-13 because of their content.
In 1984, explicit violence in the PG-rated films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins were "the straws that broke the parents' backs". Their complaints led Hollywood figure Steven Spielberg, director of Temple of Doom, to suggest a new rating, PG-14, to MPAA president Jack Valenti. Instead, on conferring with cinema owners, Mr Valenti and the MPAA on July 1, 1984, introduced the PG-13 rating, allowing in children under 13 years of age without a parent or an adult guardian, but warning parents about potentially shocking violence, cursing, and mature subject matter that may be inappropriate for children under 13; though weaker than an R rating, PG-13 is the strongest unrestricted rating. The first widely-distributed PG-13 movie was Red Dawn (1984), followed by Dreamscape (1984), and The Flamingo Kid (1984), although The Flamingo Kid was the first film so rated by the board.
It took a year for the PG-13 logotype to metamorphose to its current form, as noted below.
The ratings used from 1984 to 1986 were:
The ratings then used from 1986 to 1990 were:
With the PG rating still being used unchanged, it remained unclear to some parents, at first, whether or not PG and PG-13 films were intended for adults. Until 1990, some of the same content that prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating was in some PG films. For example, Big, Spies Like Us, Spaceballs, and Nothing in Common were four late-1980s PG releases containing PG-13-level innuendo; the dialogue of two contained the word fuck .
The socially and culturally conservative ratings board quickly reacted to protesting parents, and PG-13 films outnumbered PG films; content standards were narrowed for PG classification. At decade's turn, PG-13 rating standards also were narrowed, at least for violence, as the censors became more likely to issue R ratings to violent films showing explicit blood-letting and the killing of policemen. Except for a brief reversal in 1994, the number of PG-13 films outnumbered the PG films since, and the proportion of R-rated films (beginning with the boom of privately-viewed home video in the late 1980s) 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 slightly decreased as a cultural trend.
In the rating system's early years, X-rated movies, such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Last Tango in Paris (1973), could earn Oscar nominations and win awards, yet film makers continue disputing the true effects of an X rating.
That the MPAA rated those mainstream movies X as if they were pornography only underscored the contradictions between commerce and art. Although Deep Throat (1972), Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones were rated X, the rating never was either an official rating or trademark of the MPAA. Pornographers often self-applied it for business reasons, to the degree that it became acceptable in their advertising, and then the eponym for pornography in American mainstream culture; not the rating's original intent. Ironically, its overuse led pornographers to rate their films XXX to increase the success of their marketing efforts.
This concern led many newspapers and television stations to refuse advertisements for X-rated movies; some cinema owners forbade the exhibition of such films. Such policies led to the distributors' compromise with George Romero about his classic zombie horror film Dawn of the Dead (1978): participating NATO cinema owners would enforce the audience restriction rating, but the letter X would not appear in advertising; instead, the content warning advisory message: There is no explicit sex in this picture; however, there are scenes of violence, which may be considered shocking. No one under 17 will be admitted would be displayed.
The MPAA stresses the voluntary nature of their film rating system, denying that it could inhibit a film's commercial distribution and so deny the businessman-filmmaker the right to earn a profit and make a living. Horror films, such as the sequel Day of the Dead (1985) and Re-Animator (1985) were so marketed. Some, such as the horror parody Evil Dead 2 did earn an adult rating, while others, such as Guardian of Hell and Zombie, used such violent content warnings along with their R ratings (sometimes deliberately surrendered) as profitable marketing ploys.
In 1989, two critically-acclaimed mainstream art films, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were released featuring very strong sexual and violent content. Neither was approved for an R rating, hence had limited commercial distribution and so suffered commercially as unrated films. At around that time, the MPAA revised its rating system. Again, in answer to such dilemmas between art and commerce, director David Lynch (writer and director of Blue Velvet (1986)), suggested establishing an RR rating for such mainstream adult drama films.
On September 27, 1990, the MPAA introduced the rating NC-17 ("No Children Under 17 Admitted") as its official, standardized rating allowing the commercial distribution of adult-oriented cinema bearing the MPAA seal. This rating, as opposed to no rating, would in practice be an indication that the film is not pornography. (Pornographers tend not to submit their films for rating, since pornography is either independently distributed to cinemas or directly to video distributors.) Thus, people could differentiate between MPAA-rated adult mainstream cinema and pornography at last, leaving the definition of "obscene" to the viewer's private thoughts.
The ratings used from 1990-1995 were:
But in practice, communications media that refused to advertise pornography and X-rated films also refused to advertise NC-17 movies as equally unsuitable for family consumption through their venues, ironically transferring censorship authority to cinema landlords' decisions to permit or deny the exhibition of such movies. In addition, socially conservative and religious groups pressured video distribution businesses (e.g. Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video), to not rent or sell NC-17 movies, citing "family values". Nevertheless, the stores do rent and sell the movies, provided they are not explicitly labeled as such, i.e. are in a plain wrapper.
In 1995, the NC-17 rating age limit was subtly increased by one year, by rewording it from "No Children Under 17 Admitted" to "No One 17 And Under Admitted".
Starting with Henry & June (1990), few NC-17 movies have proved profitable, but United Artists, boldly attempting to broaden public acceptance of such films, marketed the big budget drama Showgirls with clever, colourful television and print advertising. To date, it was the first and only widely distributed NC-17 movie, to 1,388 cinemas, simultaneously. It also was critically savaged, earned little money for the studio, and for a time, established the NC-17 rating as commercially untenable: "box office poison" in journalese. Also, Showgirls was a factor in the ultimate failure of Carolco Pictures, the co-distributor/international distributor of the film.
The makers of the critically-successful anti-drug film Requiem for a Dream (2000) released it unrated, rather than endanger any commercial success with an NC-17 rating. The MPAA had threatened using that rating because of an orgy depicted in the movie's climax. Despite artistic intent, the MPAA rejected the filmmakers' appeal for an R rating. Today, the NC-17 rating tends to cinema appealing to the art house patrons who do not interpret the rating as either a positive or a negative reflection upon a film's content.
Most NC-17 films are released in cinemas, either in an edited, R-rated version or in its original version. Most films that were rated NC-17 would be re-edited to get R ratings for United States theatrical release, and later get released as both the original, unrated "uncut" version and the censored R-rated version on the home video market (e.g. Basic Instinct). Only the viewers can determine whether or not that was a marketing strategy to make more money, or if it is censorship. Ironically, American film studios release NC-17 movies abroad uncensored and artistically intact, adding controversy to the subject of the MPAA's movie ratings system in the United States.
Still, there are some exceptions: for example, the studio Fox Searchlight Pictures released the original NC-17-rated American edition of the European movie The Dreamers (2003) in the United States theatrically, and later released both the original NC-17-rated "Director's Cut" and the censored R-rated version on DVD. A Fox Searchlight spokesman said the NC-17 rating did not give them too much trouble in releasing this film (they had no problem booking it, and only a Mormon-owned newspaper in Salt Lake City refused to take the film's ad), and Fox Searchlight was satisfied with this film's United States box office result.
The most recent major-studio film rated NC-17 is Focus Features' Lust, Caution (2007), about an assassination conspiracy in Shanghai during World War II, on account of its eroticism, not its violence; director Ang Lee did not alter his film for distribution in the U.S.A. Even with the NC-17 rating, major theater circuits like Regal and AMC had no issue with booking this film, and most newspapers had no issue with accepting this film's ads (except for Salt Lake City); it grossed $4.6 million in the United States theatrically, and Focus was very satisfied with this film's theatrical release. National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) even gave a Freedom of Expression Award to Lust, Caution for its NC-17 rating.
Even though NC-17 films did not become big box office hits in the United States, they tended to make much more money on the home video/DVD market. For example, Showgirls became one of MGM's top 20 all-time bestsellers, and Lust, Caution has generated more than $24 million from its DVD sales and rentals in the United States.
However, there are still many motion picture companies that are reluctant to release movies with, or with the potential of receiving, an NC-17 rating. Many motion picture groups either release their movies unrated or rated R rather than release the films under the NC-17 rating labels marked on them by the MPAA.
Film studios have also pressured the MPAA to retire the NC-17 rating, because it can make their film worthless (e.g. most Blockbuster stores refuse to carry DVDs rated NC-17 and many daily newspapers also refuse ads for NC-17 films).
The MPAA also rates movie trailers for theatrical exhibition. This system uses 3 ratings: green band for previews that have been approved for all audiences (shown before any films), yellow band for previews approved for mature audiences (shown before PG-13, R and NC-17 films), and red band for trailers approved for restricted audiences (shown before R and NC-17 films only). The colors refer to the cards shown before trailers indicating whether they are intended for general, mature, or restricted audiences. As long as the trailer meets the MPAA guidelines for a green band rating, the rating for the film it is advertising is irrelevant. Theoretically a green band trailer for an R-rated movie can play before a family film, although most theaters will not do this in practice.
#Sixteen Candles contains a shower scene where there is a close-up of breasts and buttocks.
According to This Film Is Not Yet Rated, as of December 2005:
The MPAA Ratings Board members are:
and the MPAA Appeals Board members are:
Since the 1970s, G ratings have been commonly associated with children's movies and could limit a movie's audience. It is sometimes said that the makers of the original Star Wars movie purposely added scenes in order trigger a PG rating to find a broader range of audience. Since about the beginning of the 21st Century, PG ratings have also 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—both huge movie-going demographics—may have brushed it off as a "kiddie flick". In 2001, in response to the poorer performance of R-rated material, the film industry began to shift focus toward PG-13-rated films. None of the X or NC-17 films have been commercially successful, not even Showgirls which was a widespread release in 1995.
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 "tame" 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-rated films are 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 or provocative content for its own sake.
The minimum age for unaccompanied patrons at R-rated films, and all patrons at X-rated 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 anyone into R-rated films without being accompanied by an adult since the rating system is technically voluntary and in most jurisdictions 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 Theatre Owners, the major trade association in the U.S., announced it would start strict enforcement of identification checks for R- and NC-17-rated movies.
The 2001 independent film L.I.E. disputed 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 (it was later cut for video and was given an R rating). 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. The Dreamers also had an R-rated version released on DVD and VHS. NC-17 films often have R-rated versions when released on DVD. 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 announced he was prepared to release the sequel, Clerks 2, without a rating, but was surprised and relieved when the MPAA passed it uncut with an R rating. Gunner Palace appealed to the MPAA and overthrew its R rating in favour of a PG-13 rating, even though it contains 42 instances of the word fuck, some used sexually.
Earlier in the rating system, African-Americans complained that rating criteria were 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 contain no more provocative material than the theatrical version (one example 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.
Starting in 2004, GKC Theatres (now Carmike) had 'R-Cards' that let teens see R-rated films without adult accompaniment. The cards generated much controversy, and Jack Valenti of the MPAA said in a news article: "I think it distorts and ruptures the intent of this voluntary film ratings system. All R-rated films are not alike. The president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, John Fithian, also says that the cards can be harmful. He noted in a news article for the Christian Science Monitor that the R rating is "broad enough to include relatively family-friendly fare such as Billy Elliot and Erin Brockovich (both rated R for language) along with movies that push the extremes of violence, including Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
Perhaps with these objections in mind, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting (a descendant 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.
Before Miramax Films was purchased by The Walt Disney Company, Miramax founders 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 rating. 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).
An internal critic of the early workings of the ratings system is film critic and writer Stephen Farber, who was a CARA intern for six months during 1969 and 1970. In The Movie Ratings Game (Public Affairs Press), he documents how, since its early days, the board has used the same censorship tactics it uses today: threatening an X rating to force a filmmaker to delete content offensive to the personal sensibilities of the board's members; the lopsided prejudice against sex in relation to violence; and the use of psychological jargon to justify restricting films because of their themes rather than their images, even when inexplicit; for example, the anti-war movie The Revolutionary first was rated PG, but later was re-rated R because it is anti-war.
Farber also documents how the ratings board used its power to punish creative filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) while rewarding conservative, uncontroversial filmmakers and films with open-ended ratings; the hypocrisy about "protecting" in light of the fact that most of the severities imposed on certain films is borne less for impact on children than on parents' reactions; and annoyance at the board's R rating of the film of the Woodstock music festival (1970), given that the festival itself had no age restrictions, which arguably is less traumatic an experience than was the festival.
Another problem, he notes (and one cited in modern-day criticism), is the freely-wielded threat of a restrictive rating to force studios to tone down submitted films; he cites movies that were re-cut not only to be removed from the X category (sometimes as many as two brackets, to PG), but for re-rating from R to PG, and from PG to G. This censorship extends to screenplays submitted for analysis to determine a projected rating; for example, The Panic in Needle Park (1971). The script was rated X because of its vulgar, street junkie dialogue, cursing, and many references to using heroin; it was released with an R rating.
Farber suggests that the X rating either be abolished or re-labelled to A (adult) or AO (adults only), but recommends its abolition, arguing that an R rating ought to be an enlightened society's most restrictive film rating. He concludes The Movie Ratings Game by endorsing public pressure and economic activism as the best means of reform, because, as he puts it, "The rating system is certainly not going to be reformed from within".