The ratings system established by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is ubiquitous in American entertainment, although few moviegoers understand how those ratings are assigned or enforced. The first thing to understand is that movie ratings are voluntary. Filmmakers are not required to submit their movies to the MPAA for a rating. In fact, they pay a fee for the service: $25,000 for the biggest-budget pictures down to $750 for a short [source: MPAA]. What filmmakers understand, however, is that most large American theater chains won't screen an unrated movie [source: Zeitchik]. So if you want to compete in the movie market, you need to have a rating.
Film ratings are assigned by the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA). The mission of CARA is not to censor films or pronounce a value judgment on whether a movie is "good" or "bad," but to provide parents with detailed information on the content of movies, particularly the existence of profanity, violence, sexual subject matter, nudity, drug use, and other material that might not be suitable for younger audiences.
When a film is submitted to CARA, it is viewed by members of an eight- to 13-person rating board, overseen by senior raters. CARA does not publically release the names of rating board members, but describes them as people unaffiliated with the movie industry who have children between the ages of 5 and 17 [source: MPAA]. Critics of the ratings board argue that the anonymity of board members frees them from accountability for their ratings decisions. If the board and its ratings process were more transparent, some filmmakers argue, then artists and the viewing public would have a greater voice in the process [source: Bowles].
The rating board members watch the films individually and then write on ballots what rating they think the majority of parents in the U.S. would give it. They then discuss it as a group and vote for a rating with a simple majority rule. A senior rater will provide the filmmaker or distributor with the rating and an explanation for it.
In addition to the letter rating, the rating board also writes a brief description of the movie's content that appears in all previews and advertisements. As an example, the PG-13 "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" included this description: "Intense Sequences of Adventure Violence, Including Frightening Images."
On the next page we'll discuss what each rating means and how ratings impact the industry.