Film Fund-amentals: A Filmmaker’s Guide to the Ratings

Life was simpler before the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. Americans were all married, had 2.5 children, and nobody engaged in sex. Yep, those were the days.

But in 1966, the MPAA created the first version of the rating system and thereby opened the floodgates of Hell. Well, that is sort of the way some Right Wing historians would like to view it. In reality, Jack Valenti and the MPAA were desperate to find something that would replace the old (since 1930) Hays Code. They were not seeking to advance the cause of Modernity, but they sure had Modernity barking up their rear with a vengeance.

In theory, the ratings system was created as a means of preventing the government from stepping in and attempting to regulate the industry for subject matter. But it was actually created to make life easier for theater owners who were afraid of catching flak from the audience as movies became more daring in an effort to reflect (well, to actually just try to catch up with) the rapidly changing conditions of contemporary American society. The system has been a quiet boon to theater owners, who will defend the ratings with a passion simply because… well, simply because. You were offended by the film? Too bad. Didn’t you see the rating?

Everything bad ever said about the MPAA ratings system is true. Back in the mid-1970s, I and others all got an earful about what an evil, hypocritical and price-gouging racket it all was from the old school cinematographer Lee Garmes. Garmes hated the MPAA system so much that he spent his later years trying to create an alternative system (that would basically be free to filmmakers). Lee had a bunch of valid points about the system, especially the price-gouging.

Unfortunately, we are still stuck with the system. Few theaters will show a movie without an MPAA rating. Recently, many theaters have even been trying to enforce the dang thing (the enforcement issue is a tricky one, since the system is strictly voluntary with no actual legal basis). It costs an arm and a leg, one kidney and half a lung to get a rating. The method used by the MPAA to determine a film’s rating is shrouded in more mystery than church dogma and is often more absolute in its verdict. There are some general rules to go by, but even the basic rules are constantly changing. Nobody likes the system and there is no way anyone really wants to change it.

Officially, you can learn all about the ratings by going to the MPAA site. Or you can just follow some basic points. For example, whatever you do, do not make a movie that will get either a G or an NC-17 ratings. Even babies don’t go to G rated movies (unless it’s Toy Story 3). These days, most children’s films will go for a commercially safe PG. G tells people that your movie is gad-awful boring.

At the other end of the spectrum, NC-17 largely guarantees that no theater will touch the movie. Many mall theaters have contracts with the mall owners that forbid such films. Even those that don’t still won’t deal with the potential controversy. Sure, the NC-17 rating is supposed to mean that the movie contains mature subject matter suitable for a mature adult audience. That can mean all kinds of things, but the general perception is that the movie contains wall-to-wall smut that will offend current community standards. Nobody actually knows what those standards are these days, but no one wants to be the first to find out in a court battle.

So everything has to be focused on PG, PG-13 and R. You have to stay in the magic middle. Generally speaking, the R rating is a tough one. Most movies are made for teenage boys. Lots of teenage boys are under the age of 17. Until recently, that was OK — most of the ticket takers were about the same age. But now, many theaters are actually trying to enforce the ban. Some theaters are now expecting teenagers to go to the theater with their parents. Who the hell wants to go to an R rated film with their friggin’ parents? This is bad for business.

Unless it’s a horror movie. In that case, the R rating is a virtual guarantee of a reasonable level of graphic violence and general mayhem. In that case, you can probably still get an older friend to go with you. If the horror film only has a PG-13, forget it. You can get more violence at the video arcade.

This leaves most filmmakers focused on the PG and PG-13 ratings. The biggest difference between PG and PG-13 is how many times you can use the F word. In a PG movie, the count is roughly between zip and 2 times (though you are best advised to stick with one use, and it better be reasonably placed). For PG-13, figure about 2 to 3. Obviously if you have Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, you may be leaning close to the edge of R-dom (his fans expect nothing less).

Violence is another tricky issue. For PG, you are best advised to keep it pretty bloodless no matter how many people are killed. Better still, keep it farcical. PG-13 has the great advantage that you can simply go back to the human sacrifice scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and use it as your blood guide (after all, this was the movie that PG-13 was created for). If you want guts on the screen, then you are begging for an R.

As for sex, this is a zone that really keeps changing. A little bit of breasts are OK in PG, as long as it is quick and appropriate (whatever the heck that means). A little bit of breasts with erect nipples will send you straight to PG-13. Breasts, erect nipples, simulated sex and moaning merits an R. Full frontal nudity is even trickier. A quick glimpse of a trouser snake could stay within the PG-13 range if the film’s subject matter makes it somehow socially relevant (for example, if the movie is about trousers). Full female frontal nudity will almost always be a hard R no matter what the dang movie is about. On the other hand, the MPAA has always been more preoccupied with male frontal nudity than female. Ironically, it is often easier to slip by with this stunt if the naked female is dead. Then the assumption is that she didn’t have time to dress.

If you need a visual guide, just follow the rules outlined in the trailer for This Film is Not Yet Rated. It pretty much says it all.