This article is not yet rated: The dark history of the Hollywood rating system

Morgan Smith

Once upon a time, American culture was happy-go-lucky, perfect and innocent. There was absolutely no pre-marital sex to speak of anywhere, and all kisses lasted no more than 3.2 seconds. Everyone had a husband or a wife, a dog and three kids. American life must have been good, wholesome and perfect. Wrong.

The innocent American Dream in the early 20th century was a fabrication; a result of censorship. That censorship has been largely dealt with but is still very much present today.

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The six major film studios in Hollywood, (20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney and Universal) are all members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which was designed to protect the financial interests of the biggest film companies of America. Most of the above studios were the original founding members of the MPAA in 1922.

In 1966, Jack Valenti, a former assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, became president of the MPAA and created the ratings system we know (and are forced to use) today.

The ratings today are: G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance suggested, PG-13 for parents strongly cautioned, R for restricted (under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian) and NC-17, for adults only (no one 17 and under admitted).

The Classification And Rating Administration (CARA) is a division of the MPAA composed of 10 to 13 raters who watch and rate all films submitted to the MPAA, all day long. They watch a movie, jot down notes about what they think is obscene then take a vote on the rating.

The only qualifications of these raters are that they “have a shared parenthood experience, (are) possessed of an intelligent maturity, and … have the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents,” while viewing and rating a film.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 13 untrained people have the authority to make decisions for every parent in the country. There are many interesting facts about the mysterious people involved in this process, including the fact that there has not been a single openly LGBT rater on this board. Ever.

Also odd is that The Pentagon can demand copies of scripts and has to give approval on films portraying modern military technology and operations.

Finally, on the appeals board, where filmmakers can attempt to overturn a rating, there are always two members of the clergy, who are always Catholic and Episcopalian.

Not too long ago, the ratings were only G, PG, R and X (X being the same as NC-17), but the release of “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” pressured the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, so more risqué films could be more successful.

Jack Valenti once said, “Ratings have nothing to do with box office.”

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Ratings have everything to do with box office. If a film receives an NC-17 rating, the most restricting rating a film can have, then studios may refuse to advertise it, theaters may refuse to exhibit it and home video retailers may refuse to carry it. So if the film cannot be advertised or seen, then obviously the film is financially crippled.

The highest grossing independent film with an NC-17 rating is “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” grossing only $7.7 million.

The clear solution is to create a content-based ratings system, where no arbitrary letters and numbers are used. Parents can make choices for themselves based on the description of a film’s content, rather than blindly trust a big letter voted on by a small room of people.

Fortunately, Hollywood has been making efforts to improve their image lately and open up the market. Mini-major studios like the Weinstien Company, New Line Cinema, Miramax and Lionsgate give independent filmmakers a chance to reach a national audience.

Many of the facts and figures in this story were recently exposed for the first time in Kirby Dick‘s amazing 2006 documentary, “This Film is Not Yet Rated.”

Since that documentary, leadership at the MPAA has changed and their focus has turned from the ratings system to online piracy.

Collegian Film Beat Writer Morgan Smith can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @MDSFilms.