When public cinemas began to fill with people clamoring to see the latest silent film, the movie industry knew they were going to boom. Beginning in the 1920s, the industry decided to regulate itself in terms of content so that the government wouldn't step in, and over the decades, as culture changed and Hollywood's special effects advanced, a more clear-cut rating system evolved into the one we know today.

The history of the MPAA

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The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is the primary organization that rates films based on their content. Initially, the MPAA was called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and was established in 1922 — five years before the first "talkie" movie, "The Jazz Singer," was released. Its primary job was to determine if a film was suitable for release. Unlike the current rating system, the MPPDA — otherwise known as the Hays Officerated films on a pass/fail basis. Movies were rated based on a detailed description of what was considered morally acceptable. If a movie failed, it didn't see the light of day.

As the times changed, so did what was considered “morally acceptable.” After the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the rating code became obsolete. In 1968, the MPAA adopted a new set of ratings that classified movies into four categories: G, M, R, and X. Later, a fifth category was added to make the ratings what they are today.

Today’s film ratings

Modern movies can be put into one of five ratings based on their content:

  • (G) General audience – all ages admitted: Movies that are rated G must have no nudity, drug use, sexual content or strong language, and violence is kept to a minimum. While these films are deemed appropriate for young children, a G rating doesn’t always mean it’s a children’s movie.
  • (PG) Parental guidance suggested: Movies with a PG rating are allowed to have some profanity, violence, or brief nudity, but only in a mild capacity. PG films do not depict drug use. These movies are still acceptable for kids but perhaps not younger children.
  • (PG-13) Parents strongly cautioned: This is the newest rating that was added in 1984 as a bridge between PG and R. These films can contain more profanity, violence and sexual content than a PG movie but not so much that it bumps them to an R rating. If a film features drug use of any kind, it automatically moves to a PG-13 rating. PG-13 movies can also feature a single use of a “harsher, sexually derived word” (the “f-word”), but only if it’s used as a curse word and not in a sexual manner.
  • (R) Restricted: Movies with an R rating contain high levels of adult content, including explicit sexual content, extensive drug use, harsh language, and intense violence. Children under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult.
  • (NC-17) No one under 17 admitted: Originally, NC-17 movies were classified as X under the old rating system. These movies aren’t necessarily obscene, but they do contain even more intense content than an R rated movie. You must be older than 17 (18 in some states) to even be allowed into the theater.

The process of rating

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While almost every movie made today features an MPAA rating, it’s technically optional. Filmmakers can choose not to have their films rated, but in doing so, they’re hurting themselves at the box office. Most commercial movie theaters require films to be rated because unrated films are harder to advertise.

Once a film is complete, it’s sent to the MPAA where the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) can give the movie a rating. The movie is viewed by a board of eight to 13 people who have no affiliations with the film industry and have children between 5 and 17 years old. The board members all watch the movie individually and write down their thoughts on a ballot.

After everyone has seen the film, the board members get together to discuss as a group. After a brief discussion, the group votes on what the film should be rated. A senior rater then takes the decision back to the filmmaker, along with an explanation.

Filmmakers aim for a certain rating

A rating from the MPAA can make or break a film, and filmmakers are all too aware of that fact. Many filmmakers start thinking about the rating as early as during the scriptwriting process. While the MPAA won’t accept scripts or unfinished movies, there are plenty of freelancers and agencies that will work with filmmakers in the early stages of production to help steer them toward the rating they want.

Obviously, if a studio is making a movie geared toward teenagers, they need to avoid an R rating. Millions of dollars would be lost by excluding audience members under 17. Imagine how much money Disney would lose if the “Avengers” series were rated R!

Luckily, films can be resubmitted to the MPAA multiple times to get the desired rating. If the filmmaker is content with the original rating, the film moves on to theaters. If the filmmaker or studio disagrees or doesn’t get the rating they want, changes are made and the movie can be resubmitted for another round.