How Does a Movie Get Its Rating?

The MPAA in Theory, and in Practice and What the Ratings Mean

Every moviegoer, whether worried parent or curious ticket-buyer, has wondered about the Movie Ratings system – what do the categories mean? Who assigns them? And how are they determined?

The ratings assigned by the MPAA – the Motion Picture Association of America, a group made up of the large studios -- are simple. However, how a film gets that rating is less simple.

G Rating

G Rated movies are intended for General Audiences, with all ages admitted. To the MPAA, G ratings are most notable for what the films don’t include – no sex and nudity, substance abuse, or realistic/non-cartoon violence.

PG Rating

A PG movie rating stands for Parental Guidance, as some material may not be suitable for children. There may be mild strong language and some violence, but there will not be substance use or abuse.

PG-13 Rating 

PG-13 rated movies stand for Parental Guidance-13, with parents strongly cautioned, as some material may not be suitable for children under 13. Again, it’s a matter of what isn’t in the film; any nudity has to be non-sexual, any swear words have to be used sparingly, and, in the event of the specific obscenity we politely call the F-word, not used in a sexual context.  (You can say “Oh, (BLANK) this!” in a PG-13 film, but not more than once, and never “I’d love to (BLANK) Denise …”) Violence in PG-13 films may be intense, but must also be bloodless – see Jurassic World or any Marvel Movie, for example – and it is, as per usual, the Ratings Board’s call if the film's content is deemed to be more than PG but less than R.

R Rating

Rated R movies mean Restricted, with no one under 17 admitted without an accompanying parent or guardian. This rating is given for strong and frequent language and violence, nudity for sexual purposes and drug abuse.

NC-17 Rating

Movies with an NC-17 rating mean No one under 18 admitted. This rare rating is given to films which feature mature elements in such profusion – or in such intensity – that it surpasses even the R.

The MPAA bases this rating on the assumption that most parents would not want children to see this material without supervision – and, of course, it’s their definition of “Most parents.”

This Film is Not Yet Rated

You’ll also see the phrase “This Film is Not Yet Rated” in ads, and that means exactly what it says. While the finished film has yet to be rated by the MPAA, they have given their approval -- indicated by the red or green color of the "band" preceding it -- as to where exactly that advertisement and trailer can be shown (green is for all audiences, red is for mature audiences). Meanwhile, while it's utterly voluntary for a film to be submitted to the MPAA for a rating, and while a film can be released without an MPAA rating, many chain/mall theaters refuse to show unrated films. There are also significant restrictions on how an unrated film can be advertised as well.

How Does a Movie Get Its Rating?

Created in 1968, the current rating system replaced the Production Code, which was also backed by the MPAA. The Production Code was far stricter than the current ratings system, including significant fines up to tens of thousands of dollars for any distributor who released a film without the Production Code seal of approval.

By 1968, the morality and movie tastes of the ‘30s were no longer relevant and then-MPAA head Jack Valenti formed the MPAA Ratings System. The original ratings – G, GP, R and X – were similar to the modern G, PG and R – with the side note that the MPAA never trademarked the X rating, leading to ‘70s-era warnings/advertisements like a “XXX” often applied to exploitation films and other less savory movies in attempt to draw moviegoers to see "adult" content.

The system was overhauled repeatedly between 1968 and 1986, with a substantial revision in 1984 with the new rating “PG-13” after complaints about violent PG films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins. As “X” had come to be a meaningless rating thanks to deliberate misuse and abuse, the MPAA responded to the concerns of filmmakers by creating the NC-17 rating in 1990.

This was intended to help the makers of films like The Dreamers or Requiem for a Dream by creating rating for films specifically for adults. However, the NC-17 rating can also be a burden because of the distribution and advertising restrictions.

Critics of the MPAA (Including documentarian Kirby Dick, whose 2006 non-fiction film This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a great look at the inside of the MPAA) have noted that the organization is much tougher on sex and language than it is on violence, that it tends to be tougher on same-sex sexuality than heterosexual activity, and that the tradition of keeping the members of the ratings board a secret also harms filmmakers and the public. For its part, the MPAA is trying to be more detailed about what its rating is for, meaning that phrases like “Rated PG-13 for science-fiction violence” now appear in the ratings; the MPAA also has a website detailing more of their work and philosophy

If you’re looking for independent information about what a movie does or does not contain, the internet has brought us websites like commonsensemedia.org and kidsinmind.com, both of which do detailed analysis of the violence, language and other components of a film independent from the MPAA and from any major studios, so you can better make up your mind about what is – and what isn’t – suitable for your kids.

Edited by Christopher McKittrick