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The Hollywood Insider Film Ratings Explained

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There’s nothing quite like going to see a movie at the theaters. You get your ticket, your wildly expensive snack, and then head on in to find your seat. The lights dim and trailers start playing when that familiar green screen appears, “The following preview has been APPROVED for APPROPRIATE AUDIENCES by the MOTION PICTURE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA, inc.”

Often we don’t look to hard at this little blurb and are simply waiting for the trailer to start, or at least that’s my experience as a child-less young adult. Everyone knows that films are rated based on what age group they are appropriate for and they serve as guidelines for what parents should allow their children to see. But what do these ratings even mean, and where do they come from?

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A Brief History On Film Censorship

There is a long history behind the ratings of film, reaching all the way back to the beginnings of film. In 1909 the National Board of Censorship was created as a way to represent Protestant values after complaints about “indecent” films caused movie theaters to close. They changed their name a few years later to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in order to move away from using the controversial word “censorship”, although its purpose remained the same. 

There were also several smaller groups monitoring the production and release of films, mainly worried about Christian values but any municipal government could have a censorship board. In 1915 The Mutual Film Corporation of Detroit brought Ohio’s board to court, claiming that “licensing fees restricted interstate commerce, and further argued the statute was a clear violation of the free speech provisions in the U.S. and Ohio constitutions” according to Middle Tennessee State University. Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ultimately backfired as the Supreme Court ruled that movies were not protected under the First Amendment. They ruled this way under the assumption that films were business, not art, and the decision allowed boards to continue censoring films if they did not meet their specific standards.

By the 1920s, most Protestant critics are calling for federal regulation of the industry, and in 1921 they got it. On September 5th silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle threw a party in a hotel room in San Francisco. Actress Virginia Rappe was in attendance, and tragically died a few days later. Arbuckle was accused of her rape and manslaughter in a trial that was highly publicicized for its scandalous nature. “Across the country, Randolph Hearst’s chain of newspapers covered every salacious detail. Three trials and $700,000 in lawyer’s fees later, Arbuckle was acquitted. It was just one of many scandals that rocked Hollywood around the period. Fearing government reprisal for its transgressions, the movie studios turned to former Postmaster General and Presbyterian Church elder, Will H. Hays for moral guidance,” according to The Script Lab

The Hays Code

Hays instituted the Motion Picture Production Code, which would eventually be referred to as the Hays Code. The Hays Code was a set of guidelines and rules that Hollywood films were forced to follow between the 1930s up until the late 1960s. In 1934 Joseph Breen the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA) started to enforce the code in order to “maintain social and community values in the production of silent, synchronized and talking motion pictures,” according to Studio Binder. The purpose was to make pictures safer for the public at large and in doing so this meant restricting certain topics, themes, and actions. “On sex: ‘the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.’ On dancing: ‘dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.’ On profanity: ‘pointed profanity or vulgar expressions, however used, are forbidden.’ On religion: ‘no film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.’ On national feelings: ‘the use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful,” said The Script Lab

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The Hays Code wasn’t necessarily followed though, and films found ways to work around it. In response, The Catholic Legion of Decency is formed in 1934 and an estimated 10 million Catholics sign a pledge to “to refrain from viewing all objectionable movies or attending any theater that showed such films,” according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. At the risk of boycotts, the PCA becomes closely allied with the Legion of Decency under Joseph Breen. The National Coalition Against Censorship writes, “During this period, movie production companies are essentially required to join the PCA, and any company that releases a film without its seal of approval is subject to a fine.”

Film Ratings – The Motion Picture Association Of America

In 1968, the Hays Code was replaced by the movie rating system by Jack Valenti, who previously worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson. Where the old method would simply approve or disapprove of a film, the new way created by The Motion Picture Association of America (previously called the MPPDA) instituted a system of voluntary ratings based on the viewers’ age. The original ratings included G for General Audience, M for Mature Audiences, R for 16 and above unless accompanied by a guardian, and X meaning under 16 not admitted. Although it is technically voluntary, without getting the rating, films risk losing the widespread exposure that they need in order to succeed. 

In 1984 PG-13 rating was created and first applied to ‘Red Dawn’. Other changes, such as R ratings being raised to age 17, were made over the years. “Starting in 1990, every film given an R rating also received a short explanation as to whether it contained violence, drug use, nudity or hard language. This policy was later expanded to PG and PG-13 movies. Additionally, the X rating was changed to NC-17 (anyone 17 and under not admitted) because it was believed that “X” had come to connote pornography,” said History

The rating system was used as a way for parents to decide in advance if the content of the film was appropriate for their children. These ratings were given by an anonymous group of parents who supposedly reflected American ideals. According to Film Ratings, “Ratings are assigned by a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug use, then assign a rating they believe the majority of American parents would give a movie.”

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NC-17 Rating

The first and only X-rated film to receive an Oscar for Best Picture was 1969’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’. And with a rating like that, you would assume that it must be profane and relatively indecent considering how graphic, explicit, and vulgar R-rated films can get. However, that’s not really the case.

The MPAA originally rated the film R, but changed it to X for its depiction of prostitution and homosexuality. “Seeing the film today, 50 years later, the ratings controversy seems all the more curious, given the relative timidity of its nude scenes and a gay hustle at a Times Square theater that’s all uncomfortable glances and implication,” writes The Guardian

 Two years later, they changed it back to an R rating, but that again just shows how inconsistent the rating system worked. 

When a film is rated NC-17 (or X depending on the time) it hurts the movie financially. Theaters can deny playing a film, and even if they are booked, distributors struggle to place newspaper ads or TV commercials according to Entertainment Weekly. This type of rating keeps the movie out of the public eye, and you can’t see a movie that you don’t know exists. “I know movies where people lie together naked and don’t get an X. I’ve seen movies where people say ‘f—, f— ,’ and they didn’t get an X. So you start to get paranoid, wondering if there’s a hidden agenda here. You get to thinking the problem isn’t that Sandra’s saying ‘f— ,’ but that she’s saying it as a comment on a particular cultural idiom and the MPAA doesn’t like her view.” film producer Jonathan Krane said to EW

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‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’

In 2006, Kirby Dick created an exposé about the MPAA called ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’, which gives context as well as testimonials from filmmakers. Many of these filmmakers were affected by such a rating, including popular films such as ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and TV shows such as ‘South Park’, and talk about how little direction they were given and how arbitrary the rules seemed. 

In the film, Dick places the MPAA under scrutiny for their inconsistent ratings. During the film, a private investigator is hired to find out the identities of the powerful board in order to get a better understanding of them. The film is an entertaining and informative documentary that is worthwhile if you’re interested in learning more about the history of non-censoring censorship or film history in general. 

The Script Lab writes, “Increasingly, the MPAA rating system and CARA [Classification And Rating Administration] have come under criticism as being ineffective and misguided. Film critic Roger Ebert complained about the system’s preoccupation and strict classification of sexuality while at the same time it allows for copious amounts of violence in PG and PG-13 films. A comparison to a like system illustrates this point.”

Since the documentary, there are a few changes made to the rating system. The new guide includes the “Check The Box” Campaign which provides information including letter rating and a brief description of elements in the film that lead to that rating. However, little has been done to make the process more consistent and less open to biases. Since most theaters rely on ratings in order to show the film, until the rating system is fixed films will continue to have to bend to the will of the MPAA. It’s not censorship, but it’s not really freedom either. 

By Kylie Bolter

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