Motion Picture Association of America: History and Controversy
The Motion Pictures Association of America has stood the test of time as one of the most influential companies in the world. With control over the film ratings process, as well as strong political ties with the United States government, the MPAA has the power to manipulate how the world views the medium of motion pictures.
Maintaining this kind of power, you would think most people would have basic knowledge of the MPAA. When in reality, the MPAA remains unknown to many, often staying out of the Hollywood limelight.
Therefore, I find it essential that people have a general concept of who the MPAA is, what they stand for, and what they mean for the film industry as a whole. I will briefly discuss the history of the company, major criticisms they face today, and the impact film ratings have on the box office and the art of filmmaking itself.
Setting the Stage
Movies have become one of the largest forms of entertainment across the world. Over the past one hundred years, motion pictures have developed into a medium for filmmakers to creatively express different ideas. Through movies, filmmakers can transport an audience to an entirely new world, giving an experience unlike any other.
The creation of movies has developed into a multibillion dollar film industry, with currently over three hundred and five thousand directly employed by it (mpaa.org). Those employed hold many different positions relating (but not limited) to actor, writer, stagehand, accountant, and theater worker.
Since the creation of motion pictures, there has been a need for parents to assess the overall suitability of films for their children. This medium for which parents get “comprehensive and easy to digest resources” about movies, is the Motion Pictures Association of America (mpaa.org).
The Motion Pictures Association of America is a large Los Angeles based corporation that is in charge of the voluntary film rating process. Where filmmakers across the United States can submit their films to be rated for widespread release in theaters. The MPAA gives ratings for over sixty thousand films a year, and has achieved strong political ties with the United States government (filmratings.com). Through U.S. foreign policy, the MPAA helps to combat global piracy, uphold copyright laws, and defend the freedom of speech for filmmakers across the world (mpaa.org).
A Brief History of the MPAA
With the popularity of film dramatically increasing at the turn of the twentieth century, pressure from the public for filmmakers to censor offensive material began to build. Film censorship in the United States began in 1907, with the city of Chicago being the first to create laws allowing for censorship (Haberski). This led to an influx of censorship boards sprouting across the nation (ncac.org).
One such film affected by these censorship boards was the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation (Wormser). Directed by D. W. Griffith and released in 1915, The Birth of a Nation portrayed an inaccurate version of the Reconstruction Era South after the American Civil War. This included glorifying imagery of the Klu Klux Klan, and a demeaning portrayal of blacks. Led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the release of the film sparked protests and riots in multiple U. S. states, due to the controversial racial content (ncac.org).
The Motion Pictures Association of America was subsequently created in 1922 under the title of Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (Ellis and Conaway 65). Around this time, the American film industry was dominating the global market for movies, due to the European film industry being disrupted by World War l (Lee 373). Because of offensive films like The Birth of a Nation being produced, filmmakers in the early 1920’s were under enormous pressure from state censorship boards to cut their films. Thirty-six states were discussing censorship bills, and a major public outcry from parents began, claiming the film industry was producing too offensive material.
Because of this outcry, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America was created to protect films from government enforced censorship, and to promote a better public image of the film industry. The MPPDA was formed by the six major film studios at the time: Fox, Paramount, Universal, Sony, Warner Brothers, and Buena Vista, the film distributor of Disney (Ellis and Conaway 65).
The first rating system to be implemented was in 1930, where MPPDA president William Hays instituted the Motion Pictures Production Code, also popularly known as the Hays Code (Ellis and Conaway 36). This required scripts to be reviewed for too offensive material. The law restricted films to what was considered the “correct standards of life”, and each was either approved or disapproved on the grounds of morality. Acts that were deemed immoral and therefore banned included nudity, use of alcohol, passionate kissing, and even suggestive dancing (Mondello). Over time, this system became increasingly difficult to utilize, as there was an “exhaustive list of rules” that the films had to follow and be judged upon (filmratings.com).
In 1945, the MPPDA was renamed the Motion Pictures Association of America by the new president Eric Johnston, successor to William Hays (Edgerton). A former head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Johnston used his political influence to begin exporting American films around the world. By the end of his career in 1963, American films were being shown in eighty-seven foreign countries.
Things changed drastically in 1966, when the new president of the MPAA Jack Valenti ushered in a new form of voluntary film rating, the system that is still used to this day. This voluntary film rating system was used to signal parents about possibly inappropriate content, allowing for films to be categorized by age group appropriateness (Ellis and Conaway 66).
This system started with the ratings of G, M, R, and X (Corliss). The G rating meant suitable for all ages, M meant there was some unsuitable content for children and parents should exercise caution, and an R rating meant that children under sixteen would not be permitted (Ellis and Conaway 66). An X rating later to be changed to NC-17, meant nobody under the age of seventeen would be permitted. Many rating and classification changes have occurred since it was implemented. One such example is the M rating being changed to PG due to ambiguity between M and R.
This revised code of G, PG, R, and X continued until the 1984 release of the films Temple of Doom and Gremlins. The graphically violent content of these two films caused a parental uproar because of the PG rating initially given (Ellis and Conaway 66). To fill the gap between PG and R, Steven Spielberg (director of Temple of Doom) suggested to Jack Valenti that a PG-13 rating be created (Pallotta). And only a few months later, the world got its first PG-13 rated film, Red Dawn.
With the PG-13 rating now in the system, this set the stage not only for how modern day films are rated, but also how they are made. Filmmakers now try their best to earn a PG-13 rating on their film to appeal to the widest audience, and to maximize profit at the box office.
In September of 2004, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman replaced Jack Valenti as MPAA president (Johnson). One of the more low-key presidents, Glickman focused his attention on tax incentives for film production companies, garnering over four hundred million in incentives (Puzzanghera and Eller). Unfortunately, Glickman struggled to rise to the challenge of presidency, facing issues that have never been approached by an MPAA leader, like internet film piracy.
After a relatively short term, Glickman was replaced in 2011 by Chris Dodd, a former Democratic Senator from Connecticut. Dodd is credited with bringing the MPAA into the digital age that exists today, constantly fighting piracy while making content protection around the world a priority (Petski).
Current Rating Classifications
The current rating classifications are as follows:
G – General Audiences
Films rated G contain little to no inappropriate content. This does not guarantee a film is fit for children. Rather, it signifies that a film includes no offensive material (filmratings.com).
Popular Films Rated G: The Lion King (1994), Toy Story (1995), Gone with the Wind (1939), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Ben-Hur (1959), Tarzan (1999), Beauty and the Beast (1991)
PG – Parental Guidance Suggested
Films rated PG are deemed necessary for parents to research and explore. Parents may find some of the content in the film unsuitable for their children. However offensive content like violence and language is overall minimal (filmratings.com).
Popular Films Rated PG: Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Shrek (2001), Ghostbusters (1984), Big Hero 6 (2014), Jaws (1975)
PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned
Films rated PG-13 surpass a PG rated film in categories such as sensuality, language and violence, with little to no sexual content. PG-13 films are deemed necessary for parents to review the film, and decide if their child under the age of thirteen is mature enough to view it (filmratings.com).
Popular Films Rated PG-13: Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009), The Dark Knight (2008), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), The Sixth Sense (1999), Crocodile Dundee (1986)
R – Restricted
Films rated R have much more adult content than any previous rating, with more sexuality and nudity, realistic violence, and harsher language. Children under the age of seventeen will not be permitted to see the film without a parent or guardian. Parents are strongly warned not to take children under seventeen to see films rated R (filmratings.com).
Popular Films Rated R: The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Exorcist (1973), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Good Will Hunting (1997), Straight Outta Compton (2015), Rain Man (1988)
NC-17 – No One 17 and under is Permitted
Films rated NC-17 have content that’s appropriate only for adults. Therefore, no one under the age of seventeen will be permitted to see the film. This rating can be due to any kind of offensive material, such as excessive violence, sexuality, and nudity (filmratings.com).
Popular Films Rated NC-17: Showgirls (1995), Henry & June (1990), Orgazmo (1998)
The MPAA Raters
Film ratings are actually assigned and administered by an independent branch of the MPAA, called the Classification and Ratings Administration (mpaa.org). CARA, as they are known, is made up of a board of eight to thirteen anonymous parents whose children range from the ages of five to seventeen (Dick). The parents’ names are confidential and are kept from public knowledge, so that they are not under any pressure or influence from outside sources. To become a CARA board member, there are no special qualifications or requirements. Only a “parental mindset and mature judgement” are needed for a candidate to qualify (Kilburn 259).
The Film Rating Process
To receive a rating by CARA, filmmakers currently start by creating an online profile on the MPAA’s website. From there, filmmakers can send in a copy of the film on Blu-Ray, DVD, or other various video formats to the MPAA, where the film will be viewed by board members of CARA. Filmmakers also must pay a fine according to the total net cost of producing the film (mpaa.org). After viewing the submitted film, the CARA board members fill out a special form that rates the film on overall theme, sex, nudity, and violence (Dick). The board then discusses the film and assigns the film a rating (Kilburn 259). Filmmakers can expect to receive a rating certificate and a phone call by the MPAA within forty-eight hours of the film being screened by the board members (mpaa.org). Filmmakers are then free to recut their film and try for a different rating, if displeased with the rating that’s given (Kilburn 259).
If the filmmaker is unsatisfied with the rating given, they also have the option to submit the film to the appeals board (Dick). The appeals process starts with the appeals board viewing the film and gathering to discuss it. The filmmaker is then brought in front of the board and is able to defend their movie with the help of an assigned MPAA attorney. Filmmakers are not allowed to argue past precedents with the film ratings of other movies. The board then calls a final vote and decides whether or not to overturn the previous rating. Unfortunately for filmmakers, overturning the previous rating is a fairly rare occurrence.
Criticism of the Rating System
The rating system of the MPAA has received especially harsh criticism in recent years from outspoken filmmakers, film critics, and parents. This criticism is directed towards both the nontransparent way films receive their ratings, and those who are actually rating the film being unknown to the public. Of all the rating systems around the world, the MPAA is the only one that does not disclose the names of who actually assigns the ratings (Dick).
The CARA film raters seem to be very restrictive towards sexuality, language, and nudity, but oddly relaxed towards violent content. In fact, “nearly four times as many films receive an NC-17 for sex as opposed to violence” (Dick). This contrasts greatly from other rating systems around the world, with European systems being much more open towards sexuality and more restrictive on violent content. CARA has also been criticized on rating preferences towards MPAA member studios, as well as rating preferences for traditional movie themes over nontraditional themes (Kilburn 262).
Due to these “mysteriously flexible guidelines” that the MPAA follows with film ratings, disparities sometimes appear between films on their suitability for families and children (Ebert).
Inside Out vs. Tarzan
In 2015, Disney Pixar’s Inside Out earned a rating of PG for mild thematic elements and some action (Docter). However, the film itself contains very little content not suitable for children of all ages, including characters experience scenes of danger and peril as well as a young girl runs away from home. In 1999, Disney released its film Tarzan, which earned a G rating for general audiences. Tarzan is full of violent and frightening scenes that may scare young viewers. This includes one very frightening scene where the villain of the film accidentally falls and is hung to death after attempting to kill the main character with a machete (Lima and Buck). Viewers can even see the shadow of the villain hanging from a tree.
Comparatively, Tarzan has far more unsuitable scenes for children than Inside Out, yet it was given a lower rating. This could reflect a change in sensitivity that the MPAA has for unsuitable content since the release of Tarzan. Backing this idea is the claim from CARA that, “as American parents’ sensitivities change, so too does the rating system” (filmratings.com). However, it may also reflect what some critics of the MPAA would call the nonspecific and nonpublic standards that films are rated by, using unknown criteria to judge each film (Kilburn 262).
Another film that has been effected by this rating disparity was the 2012 documentary Bully, which depicts real school events about real children being bullied (Hirsch). The MPAA gave the film a rating of R solely because of language, therefore children most effected by bullying were not able to go and see the film in theaters (Kilburn 261). Because of a huge public outcry over the film rating given, the MPAA changed the rating to that of PG-13. Critics of the MPAA argue that this was another example of the disparity in film ratings caused by having nonpublic standards (Kilburn 262). If only a few harsh words are what separates a PG-13 rating from an R rating, than how can parents reliably trust the MPAA for guidance (Banks)?
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games, a film directed by Gary Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence, contrasts greatly from the documentary Bully. Based on the fictional book by the same name, The Hunger Games involves children between the ages of twelve and eighteen killing one another for entertainment purposes (Ross). Chock-full of violent content (including the murder of dozens of children), The Hunger Games was controversially rated PG-13 by the MPAA.
This emphasizes what kind of offensive material the MPAA tends to prioritize. Harsh language, nudity, and sexuality are much more likely to earn an R rating than violent content. Referring to the MPAA’s guidelines, film critic Roger Ebert said it best with: “Violent action is okay. You can kill people as long as you keep your clothes on and watch the F-word” (Ebert).
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Orgazmo
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, a raunchy and satire-filled comedy, was submitted to the MPAA six times in an attempt to receive an R rating (Natale). It wasn’t until the sixth viewing of South Park that the film got its desired R rating. The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, argued that the film only got the R rating because the film studio Paramount put pressure on the MPAA. Parker and Stone cited other experiences with the MPAA as evidence of their leniency for large studios, including one with their film Orgazmo.
A small, independently produced film, Orgazmo featured vulgar sexual language, but included very little actual nudity. Yet, the film was immediately given an NC-17 rating, with no specifications on how Parker and Stone could alter Orgazmo to receive an R rating. This cold shoulder treatment changed drastically when they directed the South Park movie only two years later, where they were given specific directions on how to receive the rating they wanted. Again, Parker and Stone argued this was due to the involvement of Paramount in the creation of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, who may have pressured the MPAA into leniency.
President Jack Valenti denied all allegations of leniency and preference towards MPAA member studios, including Paramount (Natale).
Empirical Evidence of Rating Effectiveness
These discrepancies present between films and their ratings have led researchers to test just how well film ratings reflect the content that they are being based on.
Research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that film ratings have steadily become more lenient from 1992 to 2003 (Waxman). Using 1906 films released between 1992 and 2003, researchers created a scale for measuring violent and sexual content, rating each film accordingly. The study found an increasing amount of sex and violence in PG, PG-13, and R films spanning over a decade. Researchers also found that today’s PG-13 films are beginning to look how R films looked in 1992.
Another study conducted from St. Mary’s College of Maryland attempted to quantify the risk behaviors in popular films, based on the amount of seconds that behavior is present (Tickle 758). The measured variables of risk behavior are very similar to those the MPAA uses for rating films, such as tobacco use, drug use, sex, violence, and alcohol use. Researchers used the top one hundred films of every year from 1996 to 2004 and counted the mean number of seconds each film showed these risk behaviors.
The empirical results yielded from the research study concluded that MPAA ratings may not clearly distinguish age appropriate movies from non-appropriate. With a lot of overlap in content observed, this may demonstrate that ratings are not a useful indicator of certain risk behaviors in film (Tickle 764). The research study suggests that lower rated films have just as much alcohol and tobacco use as R rated films. The study also concluded that G rated films have unusually high amounts of violence in them, very similar to that of PG and PG-13 films (Tickle 761). This was considered an alarming discovery, as evidence has shown adolescent behavior being influenced by what they see in popular media, including film. Viewing tobacco use and sexuality in film can lead to an early adolescent initiation into smoking, as well as a sexualized attitude (Tickle 757).
The idea of ratings not distinguishing content is a notion that of course goes against what the film ratings are supposed to be about. The official purpose for film ratings released by the Classification and Ratings Administration and the MPAA is as follows:
Movie ratings provide parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what movies are appropriate for their children at any age. After all, parents are best suited to knowing each of their children’s individual sensitivities and sensibilities to pick movies for them. Ratings are assigned by a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug use, then assign a rating they believe the majority of American parents would give a movie (filmratings.com).
CARA distinguishes the content of movies suitable for children based on how they think the average American parent would feel about that movie. All while considering all the major risk factors parents typically watch out for.
CARA also claims that 80% of adults with children find the MPAA ratings and their descriptions useful, based on a survey of 2000 American parents (filmratings.com). The data collected by CARA differs significantly from other data found by St. Mary’s College of Maryland, that 40% of parents don’t find the ratings useful or descriptive enough at all (Tickle 757).
Rating’s Effect on Box Office Performance
Much research has been done to show the relationship between ratings given by the Motion Pictures Association of America and box office revenue. The former president of the MPAA Jack Valenti firmly believed that “if you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, then no rating will hurt you. If you make a movie that few people want to see, then no rating will help you” (Kilburn 267). However, recent research may say otherwise.
According to a reach study conducted out of Georgia State & College University, films with a rating of PG-13 will earn fifteen to thirty-four million more a year at the box office than R films (Ellis and Conaway 84). Of the top ten grossing films of all time, eight are rated PG-13 (boxofficemojo.com). And of the top one hundred grossing films of all time, seventy are rated PG-13.
Many studies conducted ranging from 1983 to 2008 have found no correlation between MPAA ratings and these dramatic differences in box office performance with PG-13 ratings (Ellis and Conaway 67).
However, the 2015 Georgia State research study found a significant correlation between film rating and box office. The study involved 1635 films released from 2001 to 2012, and calculated the box office performance of each film. Taking into consideration many factors, including MPAA rating, critical acclaim, Oscar nominations, and genre (Ellis and Conaway 71). The empirical result of the study suggested MPAA ratings are important determinants of domestic box office performance, as PG-13 films will make much more at the box office then R films (Ellis and Conaway 84). Researchers suggest this goes against previous studies because those studies used much older samples of films. Proposing that film ratings have become much more important to revenue over time.
Rating’s Effect on Artistic Vision
With film ratings becoming increasingly correlated with box office success, filmmakers are now caught in the struggle of making a film with the intent of showing artistic vision, while also maximizing profits for the studios. As film director Ridley Scott puts it, “The question is, do you go for the PG-13, or do you go for what it should be, which is R? Financially, it makes quite a difference” (Ellis and Conaway 64). Directors like Scott can produce a movie exactly how they want to and receive an R rating, but possibly suffer financially in the end. They could also be restrictive and hold themselves back so they can receive a PG-13 rating, having better financial prospects. Directors having this mindset has the potential to drastically alter the content seen in movies released to theaters. Resulting in movies having less artistry and creativity and directors going for bigger economic profits.
The MPAA have always been publicly adamant that a film does not legally have to receive a rating for it to be released. Therefore attempting to justify that a filmmaker does not have to submit their film for a rating for it to do well. However, large distributors like Wal-Mart will not sell films that have not received a rating, and most theaters across the United States will not play films that are not rated, or that receive a rating of NC-17 (Dick).
These economic drawbacks for filmmakers to not submit a film for rating gives the MPAA complete control over the film industry. “The MPAA comprises a share of 95% of the domestic theatrical gross sales”, with 78% coming from films released by the six MPAA member studios (Kilburn 269). The economic powers resonating from the MPAA have caused them even more public scrutiny, with filmmakers arguing they are no more than one big monopoly (Dick). A monopoly that gives preference to large studios, and purposely hurts small, independent filmmakers by more frequently assigning an R rating to their movies.
MPAA Political Influence
The MPAA’s control of the film market, as well as their large economic profits, have given them significant political influence in world politics (Kilburn 259). Since movies are one of the United States’ biggest and most profitable exports, the MPAA and the U.S. government work their best to keep counterfeiting and global piracy as low as possible (mpaa.org). The MPAA loses over six billion dollars a year to piracy, and in the past few decades have seized tens of millions of illegal CDs and DVDs (Lee 381). The MPAA constantly works through the U.S. government to advocate Hollywood interests in international trade relations, usually dealing with film privacy (Lee 396).
These efforts of influencing trade relations are often successful, because of lobbying through the U.S. government to push certain policies that financially benefit the MPAA (Lee 381). With this, the MPAA has been able to enforce policies in other nations, such as raiding millions of illegal DVDs in both Russia and the United Kingdom (Lee 386).
Many countries that oppose the MPAA and the United States’ exportation of films argue that they must keep the amount of U.S. films released in their country low, to preserve their cultural identity (Lee 391). As U.S. films are released to foreign markets, those nations become more Westernized and begin losing interest in the arts of their own country. Notable countries to use this argument include South Korea, Canada, and the entire European Union. However, the MPAA argues that because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminates all trade barriers between the U.S. and Canada, they should be allowed to sell films on Canadian markets (Lee 382). The MPAA also argues that since Korean films are very successful and internationally competitive on the global market, there is no reason to protect their cultural identity from U.S. films (Lee 391).
One of the MPAA’s most difficult battles fought against film piracy is with the government of China. China has very strict film import laws, allowing for approximately twenty foreign films to be imported every year (Lee 389). This falls very short of the high demand that the Chinese people have for foreign films. Even for the films that are released into China, the censorship process takes fifteen to thirty days for the films to be released. This takes about two or three times longer than any other Asian censorship system.
The MPAA argues that all of these restrictions are only in place to “limit the legitimate importation of U.S. films, and thus create a large and extremely profitable market for DVD pirates to satisfy the vast Chinese demand for Hollywood films” (Lee 389). The MPAA estimates that China has the highest piracy rates in the world, and continues to financially benefit off of this. Due to the Chinese government resisting to enforce on anti-piracy laws, the MPAA and MPAA member studios have acted on their own. Such as taking multiple Chinese DVD companies to Shanghai courts for selling pirated films, with much success (Lee 390).
Russia is currently the largest online film piracy marketplace (O’Connell). Russian websites like VK.com and Rapidgator.net allow for the illegal downloading and streaming of many films. The MPAA reported losing hundreds of millions of dollars due to Russian piracy in 2003 alone, which is why the MPAA constantly campaigns against piracy (Lee 388).
The United Kingdom remains one of the most profitable sources of Hollywood revenue in the world (Lee 385). While the United Kingdom today has been using subsidies to build a high quality film industry, the MPAA has focused its efforts on U.K. piracy (Lee 386). Seizing millions of pirated discs a year, the MPAA and other anti-piracy groups (like the Federation Against Copyright Theft) have now started lobbying for harsher punishments for film copyright infringement (Clark).
Despite constant criticism and trade barriers, the Motion Pictures Association of America continues to thrive and adapt to new, younger audiences. The MPAA now incorporates social media formats like Facebook and Twitter to reach larger audiences and younger generations with their ratings (filmratings.com). Now smart phones allow for parents to quickly check the rating of a film and see its overall suitability for their children (Ellis and Conaway 79).
The MPAA continues to successfully combat global piracy and influence world politics with the help of their mutual benefactor, the United States government. Despite their loss of six billion dollars a year due to piracy, they continue to be a strong economic power, dominating the film ratings market (Lee 381).
Surrounded in a globalized culture obsessed with cinema, the MPAA’s economic and political power continually grows every day, showing no signs of slowing down.
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