Note: the videos used in this article aren't marked with the usual "Property of Platypus Comix So Hands Off" messages because they're from YouTube. They're on my server, as opposed to just linking from YouTube, because videos of this nature have a tendency to disappear from there. And I can't lose such rare trailers; they're a big part of this page.
Upon the death of Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004, I'd like to take this page to discuss the MPAA's fascinating rating system.
If a movie is rated G, then everyone can go: Dad, and Mom, and Buffy and Jody and Grandma and Grandpa and even Sargeant Scruffy!
If the movie's rated PG then there might be some sensitive material, so Mom might want Buffy to stay home. Along with Grandma, who didn't want to go to the movies anyway.
If the movie's rated PG-13, then it might contain some material that the parents wouldn't want the little kids to see, so Jody just might have to go home. Bye-bye, Jody!
Now if the movie's rated R, then it's going to contain some a-dult material, so Dad, who's got a lazy tummy, might want to stay home.
But if the movie's rated NC-17 that means kids can't get in; only a-dults can get in. Mom doesn't want to see a-dult movies. But Grandpa was in the army, and he's not bothered very much, so he decides to stay. Along with Sergeant Scruffy, who's just a dumb dog anyway.
You know what's really scary? I typed all that from memory.
Jack Valenti did not have many friends. Just type "MPAA" into any search engine and see how many angry rants you can count. Valenti often fell victim to Aesop's old adage "He who tries to please everybody pleases nobody," but that's the impossible task a rating system is supposed to attempt.
And besides, I'd much rather live under the rule of Valenti than under Will Hays, the first guy they put in charge of regulating the movies. The Hays Code (or "The Production Code of America" as it was more technically called) put a clamp on creative freedom that did not ease until the end of the 1950's. History-making films like Hitchcock's "Psycho" were only possible if they were released without a submission to the MPAA, which more and more studios ended up doing.
By the time Valenti took charge, the MPAA was facing redundancy and future extinction. No one would pay for the organization if no one really used it anymore. Valenti started revising the Production Code as well as the MPAA's policies. It was time to experiment with a rating system instead of banning or censoring. Other countries had been using them for decades prior, but ratings guides were a new concept to Americans.
Let's take a look at what they came up with first.
Yep....that was it. Just a small box on some movie posters that said "Suggested for mature audiences." And one trailer starring Miss Poppins that parents could miss by going to the snack bar. I wonder why this didn't work. (I also wonder why the very similar ratings system used on the music industry DID work.)
Not all movies on the more explicit side got "Suggested for mature audiences" on their ads (or "SMA" as it became known). It wasn't mandatory in 1967 that a picture had to be sent to the MPAA, and it isn't a law today either. What the MPAA had to do was come up with the kind of rating system parents would actually notice, care about, and start demanding from movie studios.
After two years of the SMA policy, there was virtually no difference, and public outrage grew. A movie based on James Joyce's Ulysses came out that was so faithful to its source material, it kept in the part where someone said the Eff Wurd. With no prior warning, and the few children who were interested in an Ulysses movie now unreversably corrupted, it was time for Valenti to go back to the drawing board.
On November 1, 1968, the MPAA gave its first go at a letter-based rating system. Have a peek:
The "Jim Rex" system, as it was never called, lasted about as long as the SMA system. It seems kind of harsh, doesn't it? "M" for what would count as "PG" now? The humans of 1969 had the same thoughts. They had just gotten used to the initials SMA equaling "do not touch, kids," and any of those letters used to describe anything other than a violent skin flick didn't make sense to them. Many parents ended up thinking an "R" film was better for children than an "M."
The MPAA made one other mistake: they left the "X" rating out of the copyright for their new system. This was on purpose. You could get an X from them, sure, but you could also voluntarily X yourself. Any theater that wasn't going to stick to MPAA guidelines could just stick an X on their film, and save themselves parental confusion and litigation, as opposed to no indicator at all. Yet good intentions or not, the missing copyright was going to cause some problems later.
Now it's 1970, and after more complaints, it was time for another revision:
Mmmmm....hot dogs.....wait! "GP"?? "Guidance Parental"??
It actually originally stood for "General Patronage," which sounds exactly like "General Audiences." At first the middle rating was too harsh, but now it was too nice. What was the real difference between a "G" and a "GP"?
Valenti felt they needed to clarify....but only for certain films. A few movies released in 1971 had the rare rating of GP*, and that asterisk pointed to some text that said not everything was suitable for people twelve and under. GP-Asterisk was in a sense the precursor of PG-13, but a lot harder to understand.
Nevertheless, it never crossed the collective minds of the MPAA that they might need a PG-13-like rating. Both GP and GP* were retired in the next biannual update, giving birth to the familiar PG.
"Pre-Teenagers"? Why not just say "children"?
They were ahead of us on that remark...or behind us, actually. "Pre-Teenagers" was changed to "Children" in the late 1970's. Many PG-rated films from the 70's and early 80's would have been rated PG-13 if that rating had existed, and there was no way to know if the film "guidance was being suggested for" was barely above a G or almost an R. The MPAA's only exception to the usual descriptor was attached to Jaws in 1975.
"Okay, we're REALLY serious this time..."
The problem became worse when the ratings started affecting public perception of the films themselves. Gradually, movies aimed at adults that got G ratings became fewer and fewer. Then more and more family-aimed films started getting PG ratings...and eventually G began to carry as much of a stigma as X, only in the opposite direction. Any G film was for "babies" in the eyes of older kids, and PG became the only acceptable rating at all. This posed a problem when any perceived family movie turned out to be straddling the R line.
The final straw came in 1984 when George Lucas was going through an ugly divorce, and decided to take it out on America. Every kid had to see the sequel to Raiders, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was one dark squeamish situation after another, from monkey-brain dinners to vermin-infested death traps. By the time a man's heart was graphically ripped from his body, parents had had enough. A mass mid-movie exodus took place, and an angry public demanded justice for all the wet beds they had to change the following morning.
Then, just as the controversy over Doom was dying down, Gremlins came out and ads promised a rollicking family film, and so did the PG rating. Instead people whined about the dark humor and violence (hey, it's life, okay? Gremlins explode). Spielberg was going deaf from the complaints, and as he held a cold ice pack to his sore ear, he asked his old buddy Valenti, "Can't there be a new rating or something?"
Valenti was happy to oblige, and the first PG-13 movie to appear in theaters was "Red Dawn." (The invading armies planned for everythingexcept for eight kids called The Wolverines.) Doom and Gremlins, however, were not re-rated. Instead punishment was handed to their sequels. The Last Crusade and Gremlins 2 were by no means PG-13 worthy, yet they got the slap over their more intense predecessors.
Back to the problems created by
the uncopyrighted X rating. MPAA's plan backfired. Their original
naive theory was that X would come to mean independent unrated
films, but it instead came to mean porn. The rating became a
gimmick of the adult film industry, and the black mark of death
for any well-meaning piece of work that was too elitist to edit
itself to an R. The only thing to do in this area was to start
afresh. In 1990 the MPAA introduced the rating NC-17, intended to
make it easier for more serious adult films to set themselves
apart from the raw sleazy side of things.
It didn't work. "You can't fool me," said the theater owners of America, and they refused to run anything with the NC-17 label, automatically giving it the same stigma. The newest MPAA rating is utterly useless and studios will do anything to avoid it, and seemingly, so will the MPAA...several films that would have been rated NC-17 were given mercy Rs, which of course riled those on the parental side. More recently, any film that cannot pass with an R is just released unrated.
There have been no new ratings introduced
since. The only major change since the 90's has been the addition
of microscopic content descriptors below the ratings to make the
judgments clearer. You know the ones....they typically say things
CRUDE HUMOR AND SLAPSTICK
EXTREME VIOLENCE, FRANK SEXUALITY, AND SCENES OF INTENSITY, ALL INVOLVING PUPPETS
FRIGHTENING IMAGERY, ADULT THEMES, AND SOME BURPING
There's been the charge that the ratings squelch creativity because studios demand just about everything be written at the PG-13 level, but seriously, who's so simple-minded that they think ratings are the only thing preventing creativity in Hollywood? As always, the MPAA still has no shortage of critics demanding further change. Movie makers think the system is too strict and parental activist groups think it is too lenient, and no matter what happens, they always will.
I have to wonder...does the Canadian Ratings Board have to put up with this?