Saturday, November 26, 2016


This is an editorial about an oft discussed matter amongst films lovers and the public at large: the MPAA film ratings system. The MPAA (or the Motion Picture Association of America) is a voluntary trade association with a wing for filmmakers to voluntarily submit their films to receive a rating. The assignment of a rating (and what those ratings are) looks, from afar, like an extremely basic thing, however, when we look under the hood the process and system turn out to be more nefarious and functionless than presumed on the surface. This editorial will dig into the current ratings system and will propose some changes to make it better at achieving its aims.

Why rate films?

The only sensible first question is: why even bother rating films? A movie is a movie and the MPAA provides ratings in a country that values freedom of artistic expression, so why even assign a rating in the first place? The most obvious reason (and the one the MPAA harps on frequently) is the provision of information to parents and the protection of the child consumer from things they “shouldn’t see.” It has also been said that the MPAA rating system is a positive for the film industry because it keeps the government out film in this way and things like the infamous Hayes Code won’t be deemed necessary to protect consumers. In my opinion the first rationale, consumer information, is far more convincing than the second, however.

What are the ratings?

Currently, the MPAA will assign one of five ratings to any film provided to them for review. Those five ratings, as readers will likely be familiar with, are G (for General Audiences). PG (for Parental Guidance Suggested), PG-13 (for Parental Guidance Suggested for Children 13 and under), R (for Restricted to Audiences Members 17 or older unless accompanied by a parent or guardian), and NC-17 (for No Admittance to Anyone under the age of 17). What rating a film receives could critically impact the financial viability of a film. There is a lot of focus on staying out of the R rating in bigger budget blockbusters and there is an absolute goal of staying away from the NC-17 rating as many theaters will not carry the film and it generally means financial ruin for the given project.

How are the ratings determined?

This is the murkiest part about the MPAA rating system. We know for sure that there is a board of eight to thirteen people (who are purportedly all parents) whose job it is to view films, meet, and assign a rating based on some set criteria as well as some murky generalities. Some specific rules we know of deal with the number of instances of coarse language (particularly the “f-word”) that are allowed before a film moves from G to PG, PG-13 to R, or R to NC-17. Most aspects of the system itself are obfuscated and never explained. Whether violence or sexual content is more egregious in moving up the ratings letter isn’t specified anywhere (although circumstantial and anecdotal evidence suggest strongly that violence, especially without blood, is dramatically more kosher than sexual content). At the end of the day, however, there is no hard and fast information on the process and the MPAA has purposefully obstructed this information getting out by not making public statements about it and by keeping all of the members of the ratings board completely confidential.

What is the problem?

Without digging deeper (or having a basic opinion on the principle of ratings generally) there would seem to be no problem. If you’re an adult, you can see whatever you want and we keep kids away from a select number of movies (most of which their parents can opt to take them to if they believe that the rating does not reflect the proper restriction for their child). Once you dig deeper and think about the principle, however, the ratings system quickly falls apart. For one, as suggested earlier, there is a lot riding financially on the film based on its rating. That feature of the ratings system can lead to artists making artistic choices based on concern for ratings at the end of the day. If we do believe in artistic freedom, including the opportunity to succeed even in the face of regulation by a para-governmental actor, then this would seemingly fly in the face of such a principle. Moreover, without consistent rules, the ratings that films receive can appear to be arbitrary and, due to the influence of certain actors in the MPAA system, there is a deep appearance (and possible truth to charges) of corruption.

The last huge problem, and one that the MPAA pays lip-service to by having a committee, is that film ratings are entirely subjective things in nature. What we find appropriate, or not, for people of different ages depends greatly on our subjective opinions of things. Take a film like the 2007 coming-of-age comedy Superbad. This is a film I snuck into in high school because I was too young for the requisite rating. For me, the film was a comedy with nothing I hadn’t heard before or couldn’t understand. Nothing I hadn’t seen or knew about. It felt very much like a film made for my 16-year-old self. For someone who grew up with a more conservative and guarded childhood, there is a lot in this film that could come off as shocking to them and might be very inappropriate in the eyes of their parents. This fundamental divide reveals a point of genuine clash of subjective perspectives that cannot be simply resolved because neither answer is inherently right or inherently wrong. Both have merits and meaning (especially to the specific actors involved). The current system doesn’t take account of these as it has some objective features people don’t agree on, as well as subjective factors people don’t agree on either. Further, it is not clear (and we will never know) if the ratings board is truly representative of every possible filmgoer in America (massively unlikely). This would lead to systemic errors of questionable acceptability in this kind of system.

What is a solution?

There are certainly many solutions to this problem, but I am going to propose three things that could help to alleviate the problems we see in the current system:

(1)  Decide whether the rating system will be objective or subjective;
(2)  Compile a mass data set for the objective factors or individual ratings from an extensive, random cross-section of the population to use the Law of Large Numbers to arrive as close as possible to the objective measure inside of the subjective whole;
(3)  Reduce the number of ratings to three (one for all audiences, one for teen audiences and above, and one for adults).

The first key decision is to figure out whether we want ratings to be objective or subjective. Due to this being largely an area of opinion that cannot necessarily be boiled down to any specific set of objective features one might lean on the side of subjective ratings. In many senses this would be sensible and would be a decision I would happily support. However, due to the difficulties brought up by the second element to my solution, objective factors may be more expedient and could be assessed effectively by a group of professionals trained to look for the particular elements people find inappropriate for certain audiences. The main point here is you can’t have your cake and eat it to. It needs to be one or the other or the ratings will become heavily skewed and difficult to mend.

The second thing that needs to be done is to collect data (and lots of it). We can’t rely on the eight to thirteen people presently tasked with ratings, or even 100 people. We need a very large sample of thousands of people who are randomly distributed and selected to provide this data. Why do we need this data? To make educated econometric analyses of what a rating should or shouldn’t be, or what is or isn’t inappropriate for young audiences by the weighted average individual. If we were to go with the subjective system, this would need to be done for each and every film (hence the reasoning why the optimal option for the first point might not be the optimal option overall). If we were to go with the objective system, this would need to be done with enough frequency to reflect changing norms but could be spread over the course of years, leaving the actual rating to professionals tasked with analyzing films for the objective features. Of my proposals this is the biggest pipe-dream of them all. This process would be brutally expensive and presents the most difficult roadblock. That said, it is also essential to guarantee accuracy that our system currently lacks in its entirety as a likely non-representative (and surely due to the sheer small sample size) of the potential audience as a whole.

Finally, I would suggest reducing the ratings from the current five rating system down to a three rating system. Reducing complexity will allow for more films to be properly classified, for starters, and it would also get rid of ratings that are likely antiquated in this day in age. For example, the difference between G and PG movies is almost nonexistent making that differentiation less purposeful. Further, the differentiation between R and NC-17 is similarly misplaced as both cut off at the same age and the idea of taking away parental and consumer choice generally seems immensely improper. As such, my proposed system would be as follows: a G rating for films acceptable for all audiences; a T rating for films acceptable for persons in their teens or older; and an A rating for films acceptable for adults only (or children with parental guidance). This would help some of the issues and would allow for a clearer analytical approach for the different ranges of maturity in the film going public.

The deeply important thing about my proposal is that it is an all or nothing suggestion. Without all three changes the system will remain flawed in many of the ways it already is and the different changes would also be ineffective without the modifications from the other two suggested changes. All of this is, as mentioned, a pipe-dream as it is an expensive and tricky proposition to overhaul an institution that many pay little to no attention to. The fix, itself, would be similarly expensive creating yet another roadblock. That said, it provides a meaningful way forward and is one suggestion amongst many legitimate alternatives.

Thank you for reading this editorial and I would love to hear your thoughts. Sound off in the comments below with your thought process or how you would change the ratings system. Also check out the different videos or sources cited in the list below for my inspirations in writing this article and other suggestions for changing or repairing the ratings system.

Interesting Pieces

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (IFC Films 2006).
Roger Ebert, Getting Real About Movie Ratings, WSJ (Dec. 11, 2010).
Dear Hollywood – Fixing the Film Ratings System (CinemaSins Jeremy 2015),
Does PG Mean Anything Anymore (Channel Awesome 2016),
Kate Erbland, Gun Violence in PG-13 Films Has Tripled Since 1985 ­­– Report, IndieWire (Oct. 24, 2016).
And many, many more on both sides of the discussion.

Note: You will find parts of my argument described in these pieces. None of this is to say that the editorial constitutes entirely my original ideas, but my thoughts based on various influences and arguments I have found to be persuasive. I do not take credit for the work of others and pay their work due respect.

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