How the MPAA Works

By: Dave Roos
Frank Sinatra, Kim Novack
Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak get up to something shady in the 1955 film "The Man with the Golden Arm." Despite not being approved by the Hays Code, this film was a hit and helped usher in the current MPAA ratings system. Want to learn more? Check out these Movie Making Pictures.
United Artists/Getty Images

Even if you think you don't know much about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), you do. This is the organization responsible for movie ratings.

It created the ubiquitous letter system -- G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 -- and hands down the ratings through an anonymous rating board. But the MPAA also represents the movie studios in their battle against intellectual property theft, particularly the use of peer-to-peer file sharing to distribute pirated copies of movies.


The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is a powerful, influential and often controversial trade organization representing all of the major American movie studios. It was formed in 1922 as a way of protecting movie studios against overzealous censorship boards. Back then, every state and many cities had their own censorship boards that could ban movies for local distribution on grounds of "immorality" [source: MPAA].

The MPAA's first president, Will Hays, sought to avoid government censorship by encouraging the movie industry to police itself. Hays helped develop the production code, a strict list of moral do's and don'ts -- no passionate kissing, no drug use, no criticisms of religion -- that the MPAA used to stamp films as "moral" or "immoral" [source: MPAA]. Failure to pass the "Hays Code" meant studios wouldn't distribute the film. Threatened with financial ruin, filmmakers toed the line, at least for a while.

By the 1950s, the taste of postwar movie audiences had matured beyond the Hays Code restrictions. Frank Sinatra received an Oscar nomination for his role as a heroin addict in "The Man With the Golden Arm," a movie that failed to get MPAA approval, but was booked by theaters based on good reviews [source: Mondello]. By the time "Some Like It Hot" debuted in 1959, no one cared that the cross-dressing comedy didn't pass the production code. It was still a box-office smash. The MPAA and its code needed to evolve with the times.

The stakes grew higher with the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Ginsberg v. New York, which ruled that states could "adjust the definition of obscenity as applied to minors" [source: Justia]. Worried that the ruling could revive the idea of local censorship boards, new MPAA chief Jack Valenti conceived of the voluntary ratings system [source: Breznican]. Under the self-policing system, filmmakers would submit movies to the MPAA for a rating of G, PG, R or X. Even though the ratings carried no legal authority, parents could use the MPAA rating as a guide in deciding what movies to see with their children.

Keep reading for more details on how the MPAA rating system works.


MPAA and Movie Ratings

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.


What MPAA Movie Ratings Mean

Katy Butler, Terry Moran
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.


The MPAA and Movie Piracy

Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean
We're not talking about this kind of movie piracy! But Johnny Depp's movie did receive a PG-13 rating for "Intense Sequences of Adventure Violence."
Brad Barket/Getty Images

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is a trade organization created to advocate and fight for the interest of its members, the six major Hollywood movie studios:

  • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
  • Paramount Pictures Corporation
  • Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
  • Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
  • Universal City Studios LLC
  • Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The MPAA and its members consider movie piracy, particularly the sharing of illegal files on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, to be the biggest threat to the film industry. To fight piracy, the MPAA actively lobbies the U.S. and foreign governments to write and enforce stricter laws against intellectual property theft.


At first glance, the movie industry is hardly suffering economically. Annual revenue from theatrical ticket sales now tops $10 billion, but fewer people are going to the movies than a decade ago [source: Nash Information Services]. Studios increasingly rely on digital distribution -- online downloads, streaming and digital rentals -- to make up for flat ticket sales. If digital piracy is allowed to flourish, the MPAA believes that 2.4 million American jobs could be at risk [source: MPAA].

The MPAA has helped create anti-piracy laws to combat several forms of intellectual property theft:

  • Peer-to-peer (P2P) theft -- The MPAA helped push through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to criminalize the sharing of illegal digital files over decentralized P2P networks.
  • Camcorder theft -- The majority of pirated movies -- both digital files and bootleg copies sold on the street -- are recorded directly off the screen by a video camera. "Camcordering" is a federal felony in the U.S. and 41 states enforce their own laws [source: MPAA].
  • Signal theft -- Stealing cable or buying a satellite descrambler to get free access to premium movie channels is certainly against the law.
  • Illegal public performance -- This one is surprising to many people, but not if you read the FBI warning screen on every DVD. It's against the law to publicly exhibit a purchased or rented movie outside of your home. Technically, if you want to show a movie to the kids at your church, you need to buy a public performance license [source: MPAA].

The MPAA has been a vocal advocate for prosecuting both the owners and users of illegal file-sharing Web sites. In 2012, the MPAA filed an amicus brief (or "friend of the court" statement) supporting the Justice Department's piracy suit of Kim Dotcom, the owner and operator of MegaUpload, a "cloud storage" site that's allegedly a repository for pirated movies [source: McCullagh].


MPAA and Lobbying

As a trade organization, one of the chief missions of the Motion Picture Organization of America (MPAA) is to lobby elected officials and government agencies on behalf of its members, the large movie studios. Jack Valenti, who served as president of the MPAA for 40 years, began his career as a close aide to President Lyndon Johnson and became a fixture in Washington, D.C. as Hollywood's "top lobbyist" [source: Breznican].

In 2010, the MPAA spent $1.66 million on federal lobbying, focusing its attention on the U.S. president, congressional leaders, and the Departments of Justice, Commerce and State, as well as the Patent and Trademark Office.


Anti-piracy has been a recurring theme of the MPAA's lobbying efforts. In the early 1980s, Jack Valenti famously railed against the VCR as a tool of movie pirates. Lucky for Valenti, his congressional testimony didn't sway legislators; VHS became a huge moneymaker for Hollywood [source: Barro].

The MPAA rallied behind its sister organization, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to fight against P2P file-sharing sites like Napster and Grokster and prosecute individual perpetrators. Thanks in part to MPAA lobbying, a provision was written into the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 stating that any college or university that accepts federal student financial aid must develop and implement a plan to combat illegal file-sharing on the school's computer network [source: MPAA].

In 2011 and early 2012, the MPAA fought a very public lobbying battle in support of two pieces of legislation aimed at curbing online piracy: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP [source: O'Leary]. SOPA in particular drew widespread outcry from the Web community over charges that the law would allow copyright holders to block access to Web sites without a court order or even a cease and desist letter [source: Plumer]. On January 18, 2012, Web sites like Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Wordpress went "dark" in a massive online protest -- the world's largest -- against SOPA. Congress quickly dropped the legislation.

Since online piracy is a global epidemic, the MPAA has regional offices in five countries outside the U.S., and it partners with antipiracy organizations in more than 30 countries to lobby for tougher intellectual property protection worldwide [source: MPAA].

For lots more information on the movie industry and government lobbying, check out the related HowStuffWorks links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How the MPAA Works

As an avoid movie-watcher (mostly on my laptop screen, sadly), I think that movie ratings play an important -- if sometimes subconscious -- role in the marketing of a movie. We have three young children, and even the older ones have been known to cry during movies if it appears that the hero of the story has been hurt. As parents, my wife and I know that our kids simply cannot handle anything beyond a G rating, and we trust the MPAA to label those movies correctly. For myself, I admit that it's hard for me to take a movie seriously unless it's rated R. I don't go for lots of violence and nudity, but I like realistic dialogue in movies, and people tend to swear a lot in real life. An R for language is a signal to me that this is a movie for adults. And that's why bedtime is 8:30 sharp.

Related Articles

  • Barro, Josh. Forbes. "Thirty Years Before SOPA, MPAA Feared the VCR." January 18, 2012. (Nov. 9, 2012)
  • Bowles, Scott. USA Today. "Debating the MPAA's Mission." April 10, 2007 (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • Breznican, Anthony. USA Today. "Jack Valenti Dies at 85." April 27, 2007 (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • Burr, Ty. The Boston Globe. "Curious history of rating NC-17." December 4, 2011. (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • Federal Trade Commission. "FTC Renews Call to Entertainment Industry to Curb Marketing of Violent Entertainment to Children." December 3, 2009 (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • U.S. Supreme Court Center. "Ginsberg v. New York (1968)" [Nov. 9, 2012]
  • McCullagh, Declan. CNET. "MPAA: No MegaUpload data access without safeguards." October 30, 2012. (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • Mondello, Bob. National Public Radio. "Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On." August 8, 2008. (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration. "Advertising Rules" [Nov. 9, 2012]
  • MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration. "Camcorder Laws" [Nov. 9, 2012]
  • MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration. "FAQs" [Nov. 9, 2012]
  • MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration. "The Movie Rating System: Its History, How it Works and Its Enduring Value." December 21, 2010.
  • MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration. "Public Performance Law" [Nov. 9, 2012]
  • MPAA. The Classification and Ratings Administration. "Submittal Agreement" [Nov. 9, 2012].
  • MPAA. Theatrical Marketing Statistics. (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • Nash Information Services. "Domestic Movie Theatrical Market Summary 1995 to 2012" [Nov. 9, 2012]
  • Newkirk, Zachary. "Ex-Sen. Chris Dodd Takes a Spin Through the Revolving Door to Motion Picture Association of America." March 1, 2011. (Nov. 9, 2012)
  • O'Leary, Michael. MPAA Blog. "Targeting Internet Piracy Will Preserve American Jobs, Encourage Innovation and Uphold Free Speech." Nov. 28, 2011 (Nov. 9, 2012)
  • Plumer, Brad. The Washington Post. "Everything you need to know about Congress' online piracy bills, in one post." December 16, 2011. (Nov. 9, 2012)
  • Sacks, Ethan. New York Daily News. "MPAA gives 'Bully' a PG-13 rating after compromise." April 5, 2012 (Nov. 9, 2012)
  • Windolf, Jim. Vanity Fair. "Q&A: Steven Spielberg." Jan. 2, 2008 (Nov. 9, 2012).
  • Zeitchik, Steven. Los Angeles Times. "'Bully': Does going unrated solve anything?" March 27, 2012. (Nov. 9, 2012).