The movie ratings that the MPAA give out go something like this:
  • G: General Audiences. All ages admitted.
  • PG: Parental Guidance suggested. Some material may be unsuitable for children.
  • PG-13: Parents are stringly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13. Some material may not be appropriate for young children.
  • R: Restricted - People under 17 years of age require an accompanying parent or guardian.
  • NC-17 No one under 17 years of age admitted to this film.
  • X This rating symbol is no longer used to classify films (no one under 17 admitted), and may not be identified with NC-17 without the specific authorization of the Classification and Rating Administration.
That's the MPAA's take on it. Of course, that doesn't explain how Twister got rated PG13 for "Intense depiction of very bad weather." Really.

The MPAA should learn that rating films is stupid - I'd let my kids see Lolita before I let them see The Little Mermaid - at least Lolita isn't blatently commercial. Oh, wait, I don't have any kids.
There is one basic reason for the screwy things that happen with MPAA ratings: ratings are marketing.

Nothing more.

The 'R' rating is a very, very cheap advertisement aimed at people under 17. As a teenager, you know that an 'R' rated movie is gonna have what you want; sex, violence, swearing, etc. Plus, you're "not supposed to" see movies with an 'R' rating if you're under 17 (not that this has any basis in law anywhere...the ratings system is not law, or anything like a law). As we all know, a basic fact of adolescent existence is the desire to do anything and everything you're "not allowed" to do.

People were tremendously upset when it was revealed that studios had been testing trailers for 'R' rated movies on young kids. I, for one, couldn't understand the surprise. Because that's exactly who they're marketing to. This is not a secret.

Directors are contractually obligated to deliver a film with a certain rating. A studio makes an initial decision in pre-production (which can, of course, be revised during production and post-production) as to who the audience for a given film is. That is, who they are going to market the film to. This decision is, obviously, based on how they think they can make the most profit from a given film.

Any movie that is seen as having primarily a teen audience is steered toward an 'R' rating. A film that may be thought to play well with families is sent in a 'PG-13' (which is a rating that was specifically invented for "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") direction. You'll note that there are, essentially, no more movies rated simply 'PG'. In a very quick, informal study on the IMDb I could not find a major Hollywood film with a 'PG' rating after 1989.

And then there's the 'G' rating, which Disney and Don Bluth seem to have a virtual monopoly on. 'G', like 'R', is a gigantic profit source, especially on video.

Studios do not just make films and then submit them to the MPAA and take whatever rating may fall upon them. Films are, from the very beginning, designed to wring the most marketing possible out of the ratings system.

There is a whole separate discussion about the standards of the MPAA...why is violence accepted and sexuality censured? Why is homosexual sexuality rated "more strongly" than heterosexual sexuality of equivalent explicitness? Why is female sexuality (active sexuality, not passive, objectified, traditional sexuality) looked at with a harsher eye than male?

And why do we allow a private group of "concerned parents" inflict their personal morality on the rest of us?

And, most importantly, why do we provide one more mechanism by which parents can use an external, superficial source to decide what's "right" for their children rather than taking an active role and doing their own research?

Movie ratings are actually a voluntary system, designed exclusively for parents and co-sponsored by the MPAA and the National Organization of Theater Owners. Since November 1968, a group of parents - officially called the Film Rating Board of the Classification and Rating Administration - has gathered in a movie theater, watched a movie, and then sat around a table to give it a rating. The criteria examined include theme, language, violence, nudity, sex, and drug use, and how each of those elements are employed in the context of each film. The board often includes reasons for the ratings, but reasons are not available for films rated R prior to September 1990. If a filmmaker chooses to submit a film to be rated and disapproves of the assigned rating, they may appeal to the Ratings Appeals Board or re-edit the film then resubmit it.

G - General Audience: All ages admitted. This signifies that the film rated contains nothing most parents will consider offensive for even their youngest children to see or hear. Nudity, sex scenes, and scenes of drug use are absent; violence is minimal; snippets of dialogue may go beyond polite conversation but do not go beyond common everyday expressions.
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested: Some material may not be suitable for children. This signifies that the film rated may contain some material parents might not like to expose to their young children - material that will clearly need to be examined or inquired about before children are allowed to attend the film. Explicit sex scenes and scenes of drug use are absent; nudity, if present, is seen only briefly, horror and violence do not exceed moderate levels.
PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. This signifies that the film rated may be inappropriate for pre-teens. Parents should be especially careful about letting their younger children attend. Rough or persistent violence is absent; sexually-oriented nudity is generally absent; some scenes of drug use may be seen; one use of the harsher sexually derived words may be heard.
R - Restricted: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian (age varies in some locations). This signifies that the rating board has concluded that the film rated contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their children to see it. An R may be assigned due to, among other things, a film's use of language, theme, violence, sex or its portrayal of drug use.
NC-17: No one under 17 admitted. This signifies that the rating board believes that most American parents would feel that the film is patently adult and that children age 17 and under should not be admitted to it. The film may contain explicit sex scenes, an accumulation of sexually-oriented language, or scenes of excessive violence. The NC-17 designation does not, however, signify that the rated film is obscene or pornographic.

Source: http://www.filmratings.com/questions.htm

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