What is the MPAA?
The Motion Picture Association of America, commonly abbreviated to simply “the MPAA”, is in charge of assigning one of five ratings to all movies published in the United States: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 (there is a sixth, if you count the voluntary “unrated” rating). In order to be shown in any chain of U.S. theatres, a rating must be given to the film. Although the current system is entirely voluntary under the law, contracts and corporate policies require theatres to enforce age limitations on certain films, based on their ratings.
Most everyone knows what censorship is, to some extent. Miriam-Webster defines censorship as “the system or practice of supervising morals and conduct by removing things deemed too offensive.”
Of course, in America, the first amendment guarantees, among other things, protection from laws “abridging the freedom of speech”. However this did not always apply to movies.
In 1915, a landmark case, Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was ruled upon by the United States Supreme Court, deciding:
“…the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.” (Flemming)
This ruling excluded first amendment rights from movies giving legal precedent for censorship. Although this decision was overturned in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952), it took until 37 years later! The production code (the old system, a list of FCC checked topics, to be avoided or treated with caution) had lasting effects even after the modern system was adopted in 1968. [The production code can be found here: “Hollywood V. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry”, p301-307]
So How did the MPAA Change to Remove Censorship?
Following Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (the case that gave movies 1st amendment rights, remember?) what happened to the movie system? How did it change?
The first answer is, well- It didn’t.
Movies were granted 1st amendment rights in 1952; the MPAA continued to follow “The Production Code” (Which was government checked and approved) until 1968.
In 1968, The Production Code was scraped in favor of the modern system. However this was an example of choosing the lesser of two evils. The production code was open censorship. Movies could be sent back for edits, or were fined heavily if they still attempted to show the unapproved versions.
The modern system featured age suggested ratings to indicate the graphic nature of the content shown within each film. Instead of censoring content from the films, the MPAA now censors people from the content. The new system censors on two levels: age restriction and some unintended consequences.. Two ratings, “R”, “NC-17″, and “Unrated” are age enforced. “R” rated films require the viewer to be 17 or older, OR to have a parent inside of the theater during viewing. “NC-17″ and “Unrated” films ONLY let in viewers over the age of 17 inside. All three of these ratings take the choice out of parents hands to a degree on if minors can view a film. “R” films require the parent to have time to sit in the theater themselves, and “NC-17″ and “Unrated” remove the parents decision altogether.
The other consequences result from the new system is all about money. Money plays such an integral role in the production of movies.
Photo-credit to Breaking Bad, S5, EP8
Modern blockbuster films cost millions upon millions of dollars, and need to earn much more to turn a profit. Movie viewership varies by age group, with adolescents making up the largest movie going group. Already this sets up the system for trouble- if movies companies can have more viewers of a certain age, then they’re incentivized to produce movies that interest those viewers. Paired with the fact that “R” rated movies will only admit viewers aged seventeen and up without a parent accompanying the child into the theater, Studios are inclined to produce movies of the PG-13 rating. Unfortunately this not only results in political pressure for the increased violence in PG-13, but also creates pressure on the screenwriters to censor their own work during the writing stages, before even submitting the film to the MPAA.
Even the MPAA has its incentives to appease the studio giants. After all, the MPAA charges a cut of money to rate each film, based off of the budget of that film. Since the trend in major films is ever increasing budgets, with many films topping 200 million dollars for budgets, and PG-13 films accounting for more than half of the top grossing films (Nalkur et al.), the MPAA takes larger cuts from the studio giants than independent filmmakers. As Matt Stone, producer of South Park, the South Park movie, and several independent movie projects explains in an interview, he could not get a specific list of cuts needed to achieve an “R” rating, because “[The MPAA] can’t tell you what to cut out, because that would make us a censorship group, until he worked with Paramount, a large studio, where he was given shot-by-shot edits he should make to achieve the desired ratings.
Here is the interview (it’s short!) for those who are interested:
The Change in Ratings Over Time
Claims of unfair biases against gay content, and inconsistencies in filtering violent content and sexual content valid concerns about the MPAA censoring. “WTF Happened to PG-13?” is an excellent video talking about how the content in ratings has changed (for the worse), and some reasons driving the change.
All credit for the video goes to its creator, the YouTube channel “GoodBadFlicks”.
For some information about the sources I used, feel free to visit the “sources” page!