An introduction to the secretive organization that tells filmmakers how to make their films, and decides what movies kids can watch.
Ever wonder where movie ratings come from? That odd code of G, PG, PG-13, R and the elusive NC-17, followed by a weirdly-terse description (like “for fleeting language”) are omnipresent, but we give little thought to the who, how and why behind them.
Here’s a quick primer: The “Who” is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a supposedly independent organization that receives almost all of its financing from the major movie studios. The “How?” Anonymous panels of “ordinary Americans” watch every movie submitted to the MPAA and rate it based on a vaguely-known, but unwritten list of rules. If a producer is unhappy with their rating, which usually means they received an R or the dreaded NC-17, they can appeal to a different anonymous panel whose decisions are final. “Why” do we have movie ratings? The ratings system was created in the 1960s to head off the very real threat of government censorship, particularly local censor boards that would require producers to make separate versions of every movie for different parts of the country.
The system has been thrust back into the headlines by the recent decision to award an R rating to Bully, a documentary about high school bullying—thereby making it inaccessible to the very people it might help. A national petition drive created by bullied Michigan teenager Katy Butler, plus the protestations of Harvey Weinstein (distributor of Bully), Ellen DeGeneres, Demi Lovato and twenty Congressional Representatives have so far failed to convince the MPAA that the mild cursing in the movie, which is what led to the R rating, is unlikely to harm any young viewers.
Like many institutions in our society, the ratings system is a good idea that has been corrupted by money, power and secrecy. The MPAA claims that ratings are uniformly applied, but it is an open secret that Hollywood movies and independent films are judged differently. Perhaps because they know who pays their bills, the MPAA has always been more liberal when rating studio pictures, especially big-budget flicks that need a PG-13 to attract their preferred teen demographic. They also share our country’s widespread fear of sex. The rating boards seem to believe almost no amount of violence short of disembowelment is a problem for kids, but the mere sight of a woman’s breast or the dropping of a couple of F-bombs will send a child down the road of debauchery. Ironically, the group who the MPAA fails most is America’s parents, who receive precious little actual guidance from the organization that is supposed to be helping them.
Many filmmakers and critics would love to see the MPAA disappear. However, America’s right-wing drift makes that unlikely. In a country where we’re still debating the long-proven merits of birth control, the threat of censorship remains real, and that will keep the MPAA on life-support. In the meantime, one can only hope that parents will look past this simplistic system, do a little research and make informed decisions about what movies are appropriate for their children.