MPAA Ratings Are Better Than the Alternative

by on August 20, 2010 · 5 comments

Back in March, the Motion Picture Association of America re-launched its film-rating website, filmratings.com. While this may be old news to some, I just learned about it from a post on BoingBoing which makes fun of the rationales given for the ratings, which are available on the new website. Example: The movie “3 Ninjas Knuckle Up” was “rated PG-13 for non-stop ninja action.”

It’s fine to joke about particular ratings, but we shouldn’t forget that the MPAA’s rating system was created to avoid government censorship, which was a real possibility after the 1915 U.S. Supreme Court case Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, which ruled that “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.” By a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not apply to motion pictures because “they may be used for evil.” (There was also an issue of whether the First Amendment applied to state actions, but because the state constitution at issue was substantially similar to the U.S. Constitution, that was not a factor in the opinion).

After a number of Hollywood scandals and public outcry over the immorality of Hollywood in the 1920s, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (the precursor to the MPAA), adopted the Motion Pictures Production Code (known as the “Hays Code” after the first MPAA president) in 1930. The code required that “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”

This self-regulation led to the dissolution of many state and city censorship boards.

The 1952 case Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson directly overturned the earlier decision, but by that time the Hays Code was already well-established.

Under the Code, films were simply approved or disapproved based on whether they were considered “moral” or “immoral.” Two years after Jack Valenti became president of the MPAA in 1966, he replaced the Hays Code with what is essentially the rating system we have today.

Our current system is far from perfect. Kirby Dick made a whole movie about how he believes the current system is too focused on sexuality and not focused enough on violence and that it gives harsher ratings to independent films and films dealing with homosexual issues. But the beauty of the system is that theaters are free to show movies that have not been rated by the MPAA, consumers are free to buy such movies and watch them at home, and other groups (e.g. parent and religious groups) are free to provide their own ratings–and they do.

In summary, the MPAA’s ratings may sometimes be off the mark, but what would really be silly is suggesting that they stop rating films or that the government take over.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisLindsay9 Chris Lindsay

    The movie “Dinner with the Schmucks” seems to be getting a little bit of controversy for being PG-13 – and yet having brief nudity and strong sexual language/references. There's a little bit of word-of-mouth backlash about it on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Steve Titch

    You're on the mark here, Adam. The only unfortunate aspect is that, even after losing control of the notorious X rating to the porn industry, the MPAA allowed the NC-17 rating to be stigmatized in much the same way. Many exhibitor chains have policies against booking NC-17-rated films. Some newspapers won't accept advertising for them, and major retailers won't stock NC-17 DVDs (although they will, hypocritically, carry “unrated” versions). These policies, of course, are their right, but they do affect the marketability of an NC-17 film, no matter what artistic merit it may have. But the MPAA, rather than asserting the legitimacy of films that had content suitable for adults only–and validating filmmakers' rights to seek the audience they want–rolled over and allowed influential third-parties to equate NC-17 with porn and obscenity. More than anything, this gave the handful of people who rate the movies, as covered in Kirby Dick's documentary you mention, the degree of power they have. This is something that other industries that issue ratings or content advisories (e.g. video games, recording industry) largely avoided.

  • Jaquan

    Doesn't matter how they categorize movies, they'll just end up for free on YouTube sans any proper parental supervision: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/06/01/the-in

  • Mcsquared88

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  • Mcsquared88

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