Movie Ratings Explained – What You Need To Know

Some of us might remember a time when movies didn’t have ratings and we would get away with watching movies that certainly were not for our age bracket. But I’m sure most of us remember our parents forbidding us to see a certain movie because it wasn’t appropriate.

So what’s all that about? Did they have reasons to do so? Well, yes. The Motion Picture Association of America has a very clear rating available for parents to confidently know when to take their children to see a movie and when not to.

The five different ratings are G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. 

When Was Movie Rating Born In The USA?

The movie Carmencita (1894) by William K.L Dickson about a Spanish dancer was the first form of censorship that we can track. Actually, this movie also had the first woman to appear in an American film. In the movie the dancer shows her legs (below the knee) which created chaotic scenes at the movie theater such as when a Priest in Boston walked out of the movies and called it “sinful.” Ultimately, the movie became censored. 

In 1897 Encoh Rector filmed the fight between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. It was the first documentary to be shown at a screening. Many think that this is where movie censorship originated. Indeed, the movie was censored in every state aside from Nevada, since it was commonly believed that watching boxing made people more violent. 

In the United States, Chicago was the first city to enact movie censorship in 1907. How did that work exactly? The police would be allowed to watch every movie and determine if they should be allowed in theaters or not. If it wasn’t’ the case, the movie wouldn’t get a permit to be screened. 

In 1930, the Motion Picture Association created a division called the Classification & Ratings Administration which launched the use of ratings for movies in the form of A, B or C. It took many years (actually until 1968) for them to come up with the system that we know today. 

The goal of rating was to help parents make informed choices for their children. What is taken into consideration when rating a movie is language, mature themes, violence, nudity, sensuality, depictions of sexual activity, adult activities and drug use. 

The Motion Pictures Association ratings has existed for about fifty years and rates approximately 600 movies a year.

What About The Rest Of The World? 

Most countries use a movie rating system. And sometimes countries rate the same movie in different categories (one movie can be PG-13 in one country and be deemed R Rated in a more conservative country).

It’s important to note that America wasn’t the first country to censor movies. Britain established film censorship in 1912. America followed only a decade later.

The Ratings Explained 

1. G – General Audiences 

All ages are admitted. When a movie is G-Rated it means that there is nothing in the movie that a child shouldn’t be allowed to see. Nothing in term of themes, language, no nudity, sex, violence, drugs or anything else of the sort. 

Characters can still get angry and snip, but never in a vulgar way, never with the use of vulgar language, and never beyond words used in everyday expressions by everyone. 

Examples of G Rated movies:

The Land Before Time (1988)

The Rookie (2002)

The Jungle Book (1967)

2. PG – Parental Guidance Suggested

What does PG mean? It means that the movie might be suitable for children but parents should watch it first themselves. It basically means that the Board finds that some scenes might be considered unsuitable for children in the eyes of some parents and not others. 

When a movie is rated PG, it’s up to the parents to further explore what the movie is about and make that informed decision.

Those movies might show violence or brief nudity and might showcase inappropriate language. But the parts that might showcase any of these are not deemed intense enough that the parents shouldn’t let their children watch the movie – again, in this instance it’s up to them. 

It’s important to note that a PG movie will never show use of drugs or sex scenes. 

Examples of PG Rated movies:

Jumanji (1995)

Up (2009)

Back to the Future Franchise (1985 – 1990) 

3. PG- 13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned

The movie is not appropriate for children under 13. 

The parents are cautioned to avoid this movie if their child is under 13, however it is still up to the parent to make that decision. Usually, in a PG-13 movie the language, nudity and violence will go a step further from a PG movie. 

If there is brief nudity (a side boob is briefly depicted in a non sexual manner or someone’s behind exposed for comedic reasons for example), the movie will get a PG-13 rating unless the nudity is sexually oriented, in what case the movie will get an R for Restricted.

Generally, the PG-13 movie is basically a little more crude in the use of words and maybe a little more violent, but there still isn’t sexual activity depicted with nudity. 

Examples of PG-13 Rated movies (examples are all Disney movies):

Prince of Persia (2010) because of violence and intensity of scenes.

Cruella (2021) because of violence and themes of abuse.

Hamilton (2020) because of language and suggestive scenes.

4. R – Restricted

Children under the age of 17 need to be accompanied by a parent to watch an R Rated movie. 

An R Rated movie is a movie that contains adult scenes. It means there might be harsh language, intense violence, nudity that is showned for sexual purposes, drugs and anything else that parents need to take extremely seriously. 

Children under 17 will not be allowed in the theater for movies that are R Rated if they are not accompanied by a parent. 

The Board suggests that parents do more research before taking their children to see these movies and strongly suggest against it.

Examples of R Rated movies:

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Die Hard (1988)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

5. NC- 17 – No one under 17

No children under 17 are admitted to an NC movie. This is the last rating of the list. An NC movie is not necessarily a movie that is obscene, but it is a movie that is not suited for children. 

It simply means the content is for adults only. It might be because of the violence, sex scenes, drug abuse, or anything else that parents shouldn’t put their kids in front of. 

Examples of NC- 17 movies:

Blonde (2022) is Netflix’s first NC-17 rated movie because of its very graphic sexual assault scenes.

Crash (1996) because of the numerous sex scenes. However, while the movie came out with NC 17 rating in theaters, the director did a new cut for the movie to get Rated R for the DVD release.

Shame (2011) for the themes, especially when it comes to the sex scenes. Fox Searchlight didn’t appeal nor made a new cut to make it R Rated.

For movies that are rated, the ratings are required on any promotional materials put out for the movie including movie posters or trailers. 

According to the Motion Picture Association’s 2016 survey, 94% of adults with children have heard of the rating system and 75% of them find the ratings useful.

What’s The Process For Rating?

The Rating Board is made of a Chairperson and staff members with Raters selected by the chairperson. All of the people selected have experience rating movies. 

Another criteria to be a rater is to have children between the age of five and fifteen and to not be affiliated to the entertainment industry in any form.

Six or seven members of the Motion Picture Association get to see and rate about three movies a day.

Usually, the movie is watched from beginning to end, credits included and the raters then discuss the movie and vote on the rating, taking into consideration language, violence, nudity and sex. 

What if they disagree on the rating? The majority wins. 

How To Submit a Movie For Rating?

File out the application online and pay the fee to get your movie rated. Once the Board has watched your movie they will inform you on the rating and the reasoning behind it.  

Is it a Requirement To Have a Movie Rated?

No, there is no legal requirement that filmmakers put their films up for rating by the Motion Picture Association. 

So why do it? Because it’s the right thing to do. Ultimately, you might run into a problem with bad press and reviews if your movie is marked as “unrated” and seemingly okay for all audiences but is actually an R rated movie.

However, legally in America, no one is obliged to get their movie rated. 

So why do most movies get a rate? Well, because most big productions and distributions such as Walt Disney Studios, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros and many more are members of the Motion Picture Association, and therefore they have to agree to get their theatrically released movies rated. 

When Does a Movie Become PG-13 or R Rated?

You might be surprised to hear that if the F-word is in your film just once, your movie immediately becomes PG-13. 

Now, you might think that your movie will stay PG-13 and you can live with that but if the F-bombs are in your movie more than once, then the movie becomes an R movie. 

Yes, you heard that right. If your movie doesn’t have nudity, only little violence, but uses the F-Word three times, it’s now an R Rated movie. 

Now, there are exceptions to this. If the word is repeated several times in a short period of time and part of an intense scene filled with emotions, you could get away with a PG-13. But… usually if you reach the 3 F-bombs marks, your movie is becoming Restricted. 

And, well, if the F-word is used in a sexual manner even just once, your movie immediately is rated an R Rated movie.

Same rule applies for words such as s*** and mother******. They can appear once (in a non sexual manner) in a PG-13 movie. If they appear more than once, the movie will most likely become R Rated. 

So, while you might be right to assume that your themes are PG or PG-13, the amount of F-bombs can completely change the rating of your movie and that can be problematic later on for distruction. 

The good news is that if a filmmaker isn’t happy with the rating given by the Motion Picture Association, they can appeal (which can take quite some time and will most likely not be overturned) or the filmmaker can re-edit their movie to make it more inclusive of younger audiences and re-apply for rating. 

If it makes you feel any better, even some Disney movies get a PG rating (or worse), because of relative violence and rudeness (Gru, anyone?)

You might think that this whole rating system doesn’t matter for you, as the screenwriter. 

And yes, sometimes the ratings don’t matter because your comedy script is clearly meant for adults. But you might be writing a movie that you’d like everyone to see, so be mindful about the words you use and what you depict because ultimately, a producer will care about the rating if your movie could and should be inclusive of all. 

Children are a huge demographic, especially for movies that come out in the theater, so having a movie that immediately leaves them out might not always be the smartest move for a filmmaker, especially if it’s only because of the language you use in your screenplay and not the themes. 

So if your movie is meant to be a G or PG movie, make sure you write the script in the appropriate manner. 

Happy Writing – and don’t forget to stay within your desired rating 😉

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