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How the MPAA Works


What MPAA Movie Ratings Mean
Katy Butler, the 17-year-old high school student whose campaign to get the MPAA to change the ratings of the movie "Bully" from an R to PG-13, poses with newscaster Terry Moran at a screening and discussion of the movie hosted by the MPAA.
Katy Butler, the 17-year-old high school student whose campaign to get the MPAA to change the ratings of the movie "Bully" from an R to PG-13, poses with newscaster Terry Moran at a screening and discussion of the movie hosted by the MPAA.
Kris Connor/Getty Images

When the Ratings Board of the MPAA Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) votes on a film's rating, it must choose from the following five options:

  • General Audiences (G) -- No strong language, sexual themes, nudity, or any content that would offend parents of young children.
  • Parental Guidance Suggested (PG) -- No drug use, but there could be some violence, profanity and even brief nudity.
  • Parents Strongly Cautioned (PG-13) -- This is the trickiest rating to nail down. PG-13 was created in 1984 at the suggestion of director Steven Spielberg, who was concerned over complaints from parents who were offended by content in his PG-rated "Gremlins" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" [source: Windolf]. The difference between PG and PG-13 has to do with the intensity of the content. How bloody and realistic is the violence? How visible is the nudity? How strong is the language? The ratings board uses some math, too. One use of a "sexually derived" expletive warrants a PG-13, but two makes it an R. (Unless that one expletive is used in a sexual context. Then it is an automatic R). Any drug use will warrant a film at least a PG-13 [source: MPAA].
  • Restricted (R) -- With this rating, the MPAA suggests that no one under 17 be admitted without a parent, and that's the policy that most theaters enforce. An R rating signals the possible existence of hard language, sexually oriented nudity, graphic violence or other mature adult themes.
  • NC-17 -- This rating was created in 1990 to replace the X rating, which audiences exclusively associated with pornography [source: Burr]. NC-17 means that some content in the movie -- whether violent or sexual in nature -- is not suitable for children of any age, even with parental supervision. Most theaters enforce the rating by barring anyone under the age of 18.

A filmmaker can choose to accept the rating assigned by the MPAA, reject it, or edit his or her film to qualify for a different rating. In 2012, the anti-bullying documentary "Bully" initially received an R rating for profanity, prompting a huge outcry since the film was intended for a teen audience. "Bully's" producers briefly considered releasing it as unrated. Eventually, there was a compromise: The filmmakers cut out a few "f-bombs," and the MPAA awarded it a PG-13 rating [source: Sacks].

The MPAA also must approve all advertising for the films that carry its ratings [source: MPAA]. Still, the Federal Trade Commission has criticized both filmmakers and the MPAA for creating ad campaigns that market PG-13 and R-rated movies to young children [source: FTC].

Now let's look at the MPAA's other major focus: intellectual property theft.