History of Movie Ratings

Mary Gormandy White

The history of movie ratings can be traced back to 1907, when the city of Chicago created a local board appointed to regulate, or some would say censor, films. From 1907 throughout most of the 1920s, many communities passed their own laws regarding acceptable film content. As is often the case with industries facing increasing legislation, leaders in the motion picture industry decided to come up with a way to regulate itself. The system of self-regulation that began in the 1920s has evolved into the current movie rating system.

Movie Ratings System Began with MPPDA

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors (MPPDA) was formed in 1922. The purpose was to develop a way to implement standards to keep cities, towns, and other government entities from getting even more involved in controlling the content of movies. The organization's initial regulatory efforts simply involved the establishment of a list of do's and don'ts for movie content that members voluntarily agreed to observe.

This system was effective for a while, but the development of talking movies late in the decade introduced additional issues regarding movie content and potential censorship. In 1930, members of the MPPDA adopted a specific code detailing standards for appropriate content. These guidelines are known as the Hays Production Code, named for MPPDA founder Will Hays.

Examples of Hays Code Criteria

  • Films should not lower the moral standards of viewers.
  • Audience should never be encouraged to sympathize with crime, evil, sin, etc.
  • Movies portraying criminal and adulterous behavior should show negative consequences.
  • The law should not be ridiculed.
  • Clergy should be presented in a positive light.

Motion Picture Association of America Introduces Movie Rating System

Over time, the MPDAA changed it's name to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Even by a different name, the organization and its members continued to utilize the Hays Code to guide movie making. However, the social climate began to shift greatly in the 1960s. As society began to reflect a more open mindset during the turbulent decade, the association began to feel pressure to update the Code to reflect less stringent standards for acceptable film content.

Under the leadership of MPAA President Jack Valenti, a new movie ratings system replaced the Hays Code. The first movie ratings system was created by MPAA in conjunction with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) and the International Film Importers & Distributors of America (FIDA). In 1968, the first movie ratings system was announced and formally adopted.

The rating system removed the restriction regarding what type of content could be included in movies. This system gives filmmakers the ability to create any types of movies they want without censorships. At the same time they give people the information necessary about whether or not certain films contain content they want to view or will allow their children to see.

1968 Movie Ratings System

  • G Rating = General Audiences, all ages admitted
  • M Rating = Mature Audiences, all ages are admitted, but parental guidance is suggested
  • R Rating = Restricted Audiences, children under 16 had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian
  • X Rating = No one under 17 years of age admitted

History of Movie Ratings Continues to Evolve

The movie rating system utilized in today's motion picture industry is very similar to the four-part rating system first introduced in 1968. As time went by, additional guidelines were established and the ratings were clarified.

Current Movie Ratings System

  • G Rating = General Audience, content suitable for all ages
  • PG Rating = Parental Guidance suggested, content may be inappropriate for children
  • PG313 Rating = Strong Caution for Parents, content may be inappropriate for children under 13
  • R Rating = Restricted, Children under 17 admitted only if accompanied by an adult guardian
  • NC-17 Rating = No one under 17 years of age admitted

How are Movie Ratings Determined?

The MPAA does not rate movies. Assigning ratings to movies is the responsibility of a full time rating board based in Los Angeles. Board members are employed by the Classification and Rating Administration (CRA), and the board chair is selected by the president of the MPAA. Film producers and distributors who choose to participate in the movie rating system pay a fee to have their films rated, and this money is used for the CRA's operating expenses. Participation is not mandatory, although the vast majority of filmmakers do choose to have their films rated. At any given time, there are between 8 and 14 rating board members, who view films and assign ratings, by majority vote, prior to release.

Mission Has Remained Unchanged Throughout Movie Rating History

The movie ratings system began as, and still is, simply a system for helping adults decide which films they want to see, and giving parents guidance in helping them determine which movies their young children and teenagers will be allowed to see. With the exception of the original "X" rating and the current "NC-17" rating, no one of any age is barred from viewing any particular film or types of films. The responsibility for determining acceptability of content for children remains with parents.

History of Movie Ratings