How does the Motion Picture Association of America rate movies?

Movie ratings are determined by a board of seven, six members and a chairman, within the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), under the auspices of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

The six board members are full time, paid employees based in Hollywood, where they watch movies nearly all day long. “The members are selected,” says Chairman of the Board Richard D. Heffner, “with two goals in mind: flexibility and stability.”

Thus, two members holding long terms are “old timers” who are well acquainted with film history; no one, however, is granted tenure. Two others are people on one or two year leave from their regular professional involvements, one, for instance, is a writer.

Being more recently involved with the outside world, these members reflect changing attitudes and social mores, particularly those of parents. The other two members are generally younger people with three year appointments, who will move on, usually to pursue careers in the film industry.

The Motion Picture Association of America’s president, Jack Valenti, formulated the voluntary rating system in 1968 with two other organizations: the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and the International Film Importers and Distributors of America (IFIDA).

Their stated purpose was and continues to be to advise parents in advance of what they are likely to consider suitable for their children, so that they may make an informed decision about whether their kids should see it. But the rating system was also designed to safeguard artistic freedom, by not making value judgments and by acting in lieu of government controls, which the motion picture industry fears would undoubtedly be more rigid.

The concerns involved in classifying a film include theme, language, nudity and sex, and violence. The categories established in 1968 are basically the same today, though the cutoff age for R and X ratings, which used to be 16, is now 17. The categories are:

G: “General Audiences .” The board applies this rating to films that contain nothing that might be offensive to parents even when their youngest children view the film. MPAA says, “Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation, but they are common everyday expressions. The violence is at a minimum. Nudity and sex scenes are not present.”

PG: “Parental Guidance Suggested.” These films may contain some profanity, some violence, and brief nudity, but no extended or severe horror or sex. The PG rating acts as an alert to parents to take responsibility for their children’s moviegoing.

R: “Restricted, under 17s require accompanying parent or guardian.” Here the “language may be rough, the violence may be hard, and while explicit sex is not to be found, nudity and love making may be involved.” Parents must be there to take the edge off a youngster’s film experience.

X: “No one under 17 admitted.” These patently “adult” films may contain an “accumulation of brutal or sexually connected language, or of explicit sex or excessive and sadistic violence.” Apparently many producers of particularly violent or sexual films never even submit their films to the board for ratings, but simply apply an X themselves, hoping to attract those on the lookout for as much excitement as they can get. (No other rating, however, can be self applied.)

The ratings are not comparative or imitative. The board claims to classify each film individually, taking note of what elements are present, to what extent, and for how long, so that the rating usually reflects a summation of the film, not a particular scene. One exception is the appearance of any harsh, sexually derived words, which automatically drive the film into the R category. Otherwise there is no predetermined set of rules.

Richard Heffner (who is a historian, teacher, and author of A Documentary History of the United States as well as chairman of the ratings board) said, there is no pretense that all of one kind of film content, must go into one classification rather than another. That would be unrealistic, a denial of the nature of contemporary films, and their audiences.” Each board member first applies an overall rating, then fills out a rating form giving his or her reason for rating in each of several categories, and then applies an overall rating. The final rating is decided by majority vote.

Because of the flexibility of the system and the absence of absolute criteria, there is much debate about the ratings, and many an irate producer who feels he will lose half his audience because of an R rating, say, on a film he considers PG (and vice versa.). Such disgruntled producers may revise their film and resubmit it, which means the board must sit through two, three, sometimes eight versions of the same film. If disagreement persists, the producer may appeal the decision to a Rating Appeals Board, composed of twenty four members from MPAA, NATO, and IFIDA. Such was the case with the producers of Dogs, rated R. Heffner, however, remained steadfast in his defense of the rating board’s decision: the Rating Board feels that most parents of young children would consider it inappropriate to classify Dogs as “PG,” given its many scenes both of vicious dog attacks upon human beings and of their bloody results.

Dogs are not, after all, seldom seen denizens of the deep or of the wilderness that children generally encounter only in fictional situations. They are household pets, the favorites of American children. And we believe that most American parents will find the results of their frenzied attacks upon human beings, as depicted so forcefully in (the) film, far too heavy for their younger children to see unaccompanied by an adult.

We appreciate the fact that the fearsomeness upon which we base our “R” for Dogs is considered basic to the film’s essence and purpose. But we believe that that fearsomeness also takes the film far beyond what most parents will anticipate or accept in the “PG” classification.