Are Ratings Safe Enough?

Paper by Eduardo Hernandez.

Renovating the Production Code and the Ratings system in the late 1960s provided the film industry and movie studios a working relationship by targeting the appropriate audiences precisely and advertising their pictures effectively. While the MPAA and its rating system’s predecessors have taken great lengths in upholding the Hollywood image, it does little to protect the public like younger audiences. Film classifications from the 1960’s is relevant as they are today because there are gray areas between each rating system. Films have an overwhelming influence over audiences and without a rating classification, it is important to clarify each rating’s description and the effects of the film’s rating has on its viewers.

Earlier forms of film regulation can be traced from the local censorship boards banning certain films in their local cities and states. In the early 1920s, most states, cities, and townships established their own censorship boards because many of the boards were operated by Police Departments. “The members of those boards had a vested interest in censorship, and they wielded considerable power in their communities” (Lewis Pg. 113). The thought behind censoring a film’s content is understandable during this time period because there was no such thing as a rating system or oversight from Hollywood to filter a film’s content. By taking a conservative approach in regulating film content, Will Hays protected the interests of both the movie studios, and the public seeking clean entertainment because his self-regulatory system was supposed to create a form of discipline for filmmakers to abide in their endeavors in making a movie. The List of “Don’t’s” and “Be Carefuls” in 1927 was brilliant in my opinion because Will Hays, the chief of MPDAA, had the wisdom to predict why a ratings system served merely as recommendations for filmmakers to abide by. “The List of Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” focused on what the uneducated, unwashed masses that consumed motion pictures so avidly might do with what they saw on the screen” (Lewis Pg. 114). This reasoning behind the 1927 List seems medieval, however, many politicians and leaders in the communities can attest behind the logic of content regulation because in hindsight, its protecting the public from the evils behind violent and suggestive themes to protect children and younger audiences.

As the film industry developed changes in film content regulation, The Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930’s was supposed to make every film suitable for all ages, however, the mature audiences were being difficult to serve because of the strict guidelines of the production code. Certain films tested the waters for Jack Valenti and the new MPAA with a powerful adult themed movie. The Warner Bros. Pictures Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966) was seen as a test case for MPAA because the film went on to be released in defiance of the PCA. Because this film would be seen as a modern change for Valenti and the PCA, this film was necessary in fixing the box office troubles and ventured in foreign markets. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was released with a PCA exemption and given the label For Mature Audiences.

The MPAA recognizes each of the ratings according by age, but it is not enough for parents and guardians to understand what the implications are for a movie being miscategorized as a PG movie instead of a PG-13 film. According to a study made by researchers from the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), “The findings clearly suggest the need for increased parental awareness about the prevalence of depiction of substance use in films, often in ways that normalize or glamorize their use, even if the amount of depiction in some rating categories continues to decline” (Study Pg. 1). The MPAA provides the rating information for a film that may be important to consider, but it doesn’t identify all depictions in film content with the correct rating, evident in the film Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975). The study concludes by emphasizing parental awareness for the rating system the rating system provides the recommendation on the type of film content depicted.

Films given a rating film of R for Restricted, M For Mature Audiences, and NC-17 were specific ratings intended for targeted audiences. In the case of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? its mature themed dialogue between a middle-aged married couple contains dramatic scenes with obscenities and profane language. In the scheme of things regarding the film’s content, it doesn’t feature violent actions or acts of killing. There is no blood and gore to suggest a visually unappealing film for audiences to outright ban this film. The success of the film went on to produce adult oriented drama flicks.

In the film Industry during the 1960’s, it was particularly vital for theatre chains and movie studios to reach an agreement regarding a film’s rating. For a film to appropriately be seen by its audiences, the film must submit their film for rating. While regulating film content is completely voluntary and optional, the MPAA film ratings system in November 1968 allows a designation to be added to a film regarding its content, thus characterizing which movies are appropriate for younger audiences. Adhering to the stipulation from the MPAA, a films’ rating prevented theatre chains from rejecting a film. The cooperation between the MPAA and movie studios facilitated the process for a film to be distributed across the country and reach box office success. Local censorship was a threat towards the film industry in terms of the distribution process (Pg. 120). “The threat of federal regulation was not that keen, but local censorship was inconsistent and unpredictable and seriously complicated the distribution process”.

In 1968, the creation of the ratings system has undergone numerous changes and revisions to meet the demands of the expanding audiences in the movie theatres. Initially, there were four categories in the 1968 Voluntary Film Rating System. G (suggested for “General” audiences), M (suggested for “Mature” audiences, parental discretion advised), R (“Restricted,” no one under age sixteen admitted unless accompanied by a parent or an adult guardian), and X (no one under sixteen admitted). Its important to understand the motives behind the ratings system because most of the decisions behind the changes in the MPAA and its predecessors have been rooted with good intentions. “From the start, the rating system emphasized parental guidance and studio compliance” (Lewis Pg. 293). Its ultimately left to the parents to decide the content their children should be watching on the big screen. “The rating system was not designed to regulate or censor film content but instead to differentiate products and product lines, enabling the studios to advertise their pictures more effectively and target audiences more precisely” (Lewis Pg. 293).

Its ultimately left to the filmmaker to submit their film for a rating approval. Because the ratings system is entirely voluntary along with the protections afforded by the 1st Amendment regarding free speech, a filmmaker chooses the ratings system by submitting their film and paying fees for the service. Running the risk of an unrated film will prove to create problems for a film to be marketed to an audience. Although the current ratings system’s last changes were effective in the late 1990’s, it is still a subject of heavy criticism because of various psychological factors. According to an article written by Barbara J. Wilson, Ph.D., the ideas of the current ratings system are continually evolving and serves as a debatable topic. In Wilson’s article, she lists several problems included in the current ratings system that lend credence to Will Hay’s 1927 List of “Don’t’s” and “Be Carefuls” and its successors in the MPDAA and MPAA.
Age division, Older vs. younger, context of violence are ideas promulgated to ask an important question. “What types of portrayals are really harmful to children?” (Wilson Pg. 2) These headings in Barbara J. Wilson’s article are entirely subjective because the perception of each of the film’s ratings will fall under the care of the parent, in other words, each of the film’s rating system emphasizes parental guidance. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws contradicts the film’s ratings by being categorized as a PG film. In the film’s opening scene, Chrissie gets eaten by a shark, includes suggestive content like Brody’s alcoholism, and its brief moments of violence could have designated this film as PG-13 to accurately regulate the films’ content. Arguably, there is indeed certain grey areas to maneuver around distinct guidelines in each of the film’s ratings. Moving to a different tier or rating will target a specific audience when shown in theatres.

Each category in the rating system offers a black and white perspective on the classification of each film, however, there are certain grey areas because the transition between PG-133 and Rated R. What makes a PG movie different from a PG 13? How far apart is a PG 13 from a rated R film? The MPAA rating system divides viewers into three broad categories of age ranges. 0-13 years, 13-17 years, and over 17. Movies designated with a G rating will target the age ranges of 0-13 because the film’s content will not include any offensive material viewable by children. This film contains no restrictions regarding age supervisions, the film is defined as general audiences, meaning all ages are admitted. What sets this rating apart from the others is the fact no nudity, sex scenes, or drug use are present in the motion picture. A PG film is defined as Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children. In short, a PG rated motion picture should be investigated by parents before they let their younger children attend. The Rating Board suggests parents should consider some material unsuitable for children.

Movies rated PG-13 are not recommended for those under the age of 13 but are indicated to be viewed by older children. “Research suggests media depictions towards preteen viewers are more interested in motives are more likely to engage in behavior than a younger child who doesn’t understand the complexities how motivation affects action” (Wilson Pg. 2). The mature rating of NC-17, M for mature audiences, and rated R offer clear guidance on towards its audiences on the film content to be expected. Films rated R are defined as being Restricted and Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian. The Rating Board includes adult themes, drug abuse or other elements, The explanation behind the rated R designation recommends parents not bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.

Evolution Entertainment is an American Independent management and film production company that oversaw its subsidiary, Twisted Pictures, create one of the most successful horror film franchise in the companies’ history. Lionsgate Films experienced box office success when it began a trend of producing and distributing too controversial films for movie studios. Referred to as “Splat Pack”, a group of independent filmmakers have written and directed low budget extremely violent R-rated films. Twisted Pictures played an important role as part of the production company. By moving away from the PG-13 rating, it was made clear R rated films were making their return to the big screen. James Wan’s 2004 horror Saw pushed the absolute limits on the horror category because most movie studios rejected the idea of Saw. It was initially given a rating of NC-17 by the MPAA and was later changed to rated R after reediting. This explains how far movie studios are not willing to go by risking the film’s marketability and allowing an NC-17 film to see the movie screen. Its seen as a risk for movie theatres to pursue this film’s rating and allow it be viewed by the public. It is seen as a less profitable film with a smaller audience.

The members from the “Splat Pack” have met opposition from the MPAA for its film content, nevertheless, it went on to gross over $103.9 million dollars with a $1.2 million dollar budget. The release of the franchise, unquestionably, reinforced the notion that the ratings system can only provide recommendations for awareness of the film’s content and parental guidance. The MPAA rating merely provides a reminder for moviegoers to consider. These “Splat Pack” filmmakers are considered on the radical end of the spectrum of genres and filmmakers because “torture porn” and the combination between slasher and horror genres cannot be easily described by the MPAA’s rating system. It would be considered a blanket rating system by comparing a brutal film like Saw and a film and a drama like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? These two films cannot be treated equally rated R because one film includes acts of torture and killing, while the latter with explicit language and obscene behavior. Both films, however, the MPAA will disagree and considers these films to be the same. A film’s R rating targets specific audiences but it should be abundantly clear for audiences the type of material that is to be expected on a film like Saw.

The film presents the dialogues and scenes more easily identifiable with Art Cinema and less towards the classical Hollywood Conventions because the film doesn’t necessarily have a closure. The film is structured around a nonlinear narrative by telling the story of Jigsaw. The ending of this film shows the antagonist Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) escaping and leaving the viewers with no closure. The film’s nonlinear narrative presents the information around the story of Jigsaw, from the storytelling provided by Dr. Gordon and his knowledge about the serial killer and explaining to Adam who Jigsaw was. An example of the film’s narrative is provided by one of Jigsaw’s assistants, Amanda. The film breaks out of the chronological narrative when detectives interview her because she was one of the only known survivors of the Jigsaw killings. Throughout the film, director James Wan cuts back and forth between what the events that transpired in the film’s main setting to the traps and crime scenes occurring in the past. The audience later finds out about her relationship with Jigsaw through flashbacks from the police investigation of the crime scenes that occurred before the film’s main plot surrounding Dr. Gordon and Adam. The film’s strong nonlinear narrative technique defined the film because many subsequent films after Saw will further explain Jigsaw and the rest of the films in the franchise.

In the Saw franchise, each of the films were designed to act as a piece of the puzzle to create anticipation and fear in the viewer, and it worked in favor of the studios as a marketing technique. Part of what makes this film ingenious to analyze is the fact, each movie in the franchise explains the previous movie from any unanswered questions with continuing developments, plot changes, recurring cast and characters. For example, to connect the missing answers and motives behind the first installment, the Saw 3 will explain what transpired in Saw 1. Saw 4 explains the events transpiring in Saw 2. Each of the films in the franchise connected with each other. There was a total of nine feature films dedicated to the legacy of Jigsaw with the most recent release in 2021 starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in the film, Spiral.

During the 1970’s, the rise of X films circulated around the industry in a growing market of a counterculture and new audiences. The rise of pornography was fueled by many broad social trends with the release of three provocative film features from June 1972 to June 1973. This era coincided with the sexual revolution, the hippie movement, the growth of Rock n Roll all contributed to the expansion of the industry during the 1970’s. Adult content, sexuality, and language loosened up because these elements became more mainstream as time progressed. The counter culture influenced Hollywood to take risks, be freer, and experiment with the alternative. Blaxploitation during the 1970’s emerged as Independent films from the concurrent social changes in the nation and an empowerment tool for African Americans and African American audiences in cinema. Films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971) was designed to upset white audiences. This film received an X rating from the MPAA with numerous scenes in the film being altered or completely removed altogether. The success of blaxploitation brought opportunities for African Americans to work in the film industry in Hollywood. The movement contributed to the rise of Hip Hop music, influenced fashion, and aided other films to be produced.

Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, pornography was less stigmatized by the public and the rated X film rating was becoming less taboo. X films were initially thought of as a no profit venture but in 1972, Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972) proved to the movie studios nationwide fame. The success of the hardcore films developed a trend in mainstream moviemaking, attracting newer audiences. X rated films were defined by the MPAA as rated films limited to eighteen-year-olds and above. The distinction behind an R rated film and X rated was based on the overall sexual or violent content of the movie. If a film contained adult themes, nudity, sex and profanity, it was categorized as a rated R film. A movie with an X rating contained an accumulation of brutal or sexually connotative language or explicit sex, or excessive and sadistic violence” (X rating Pg. 1). Movies that were rated X typically did not see the big screen because of marketing issues. Once a film was awarded an X rating, the producer would reedit the film to be submitted rated R. This is important to consider because theatre chains were reluctant to book X rated films because it would reduce audience sizes. X rated films did not remain in the film industry with a new rating of NC-17 and a reluctance from movie theatres ushered in various changes after the 1970’s in terms of censorship and the rating system.

Some of the various changes that have been made since in the film industry include rating system changes, studios being run by international corporations, and important Supreme Court decision that reconsidered the film industry’s 1st amendment protections of free speech and press. In September of 1990, the MPAA developed major changes in their ratings system by removing the “X” rating and reassigning films with “NC-17” instead. In terms of opportunity, the movies labeled NC-17 had more mainstream distribution. Later in 1996, the age minimum requirements were raised to age 18 and the film’s description received a rewording to “No One 17 and Under Admitted”. As of 1996, the MPAA has transitioned to the following ratings for films: Rated G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. Considering the descriptions that were added by the MPAA in 1990 for each of the ratings doesn’t offer enough protection for audiences because it doesn’t explain the seriousness of the film’s content when given a rated R or NC-17 rating.

Changes in big business included takeovers by multi-national conglomerates which included ownerships of many movie studios and Hollywood properties. Film decisions were in the hands of corporations and highly influential and successful businesses instead of the individual filmmaker because movies could only have been made if they guaranteed financial success. Budgets for films increased and actor salaries were negotiated by powerful agencies. Movie studios like Paramount and MCA/Universal were later renamed and under new ownership from Viacom and Universal Studios, respectively.

In 1973, a Supreme Court case issued an important decision by interpreting the definition of obscenity and its laws in the State of California that would affect the film industry’s 1st Amendment protections against X rating and obscene material. A three-pronged test was developed to assist state legislatures create statutes by properly determining the degree of obscene material. In Miller v. California, the Court issued a ruling and vacated the judgement to lower California courts and empowered local communities with new guidelines to decide for themselves what can and cannot be shown by movie theatres in regard to explicit material and sexual content. In 1974, a US Supreme Court case overturned the Supreme Court of Georgia’s ruling on a conviction of violating Georgia’s obscenity statute. The Court held the film in the case was not obscene and the defendant’s conviction violated the 1st and 14th Amendments. These important Supreme Court decisions reaffirmed the validity of the voluntariness of the Rating Systems. Films that have been rated G through rated R have gone through the entertainment industry free from litigation and the threats from local bans and seizures. The recommendations provided by the MPAA serve as compliance between the movie studios and the American audiences in providing clean entertainment. Films including the most conflicting rating of NC-17 target such a specific audience, many films are would rather opt to receive a rated R description.

In summary, the Production Code and its predecessors have provided the modern film Industry with a framework on its current rating system. Its conservative approach of provided its audiences with fun, clean, entertainment that allowed a transparent relationship with the movie studios and the public to manifest. Currently, the association responsible for the current rating system on films, MPAA, doesn’t sufficiently protect its audiences because of the blanket rating it has on its broad categories of each description of rating category. Films like in the franchise Saw were originally recognized by the MPAA as a rated NC-17 but later rated as R due to its graphic contents. The conclusion behind the ratings system offers a recommendation for parental guidance for their children to be granted access to view certain films. It is worth noting these ratings system can benefit the sound advice if enough research made on the films contents prior to viewing.

Works Cited
“Classic Hollywood and American Film Censorship.” Classic Hollywood and American Film Censorship | The American Historian, movies/classic-hollywood-and-american-film-censorship/.
Dow, Douglas C. Motion Picture Ratings, picture-ratings.
“Film Ratings.” Motion Picture Association, 30 Apr. 2020, ratings/.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: a History. W.W. Norton, 2019.
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“MPAA Ratings.” Filmbug,
“Study Finds.” Harvard School of Public Health, releases/archives/2004-releases/press07132004.html.
Wilson, Barbara J. “What’s Wrong with the Ratings?” What’s Wrong with the Ratings? | Center for Media Literacy | Empowerment through Education | CML MediaLit Kit TM |,
“X Rating.” The Free Dictionary, Farlex,

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