Have you ever wondered why movies are rated the way that they are? The rating a film receives can have a significant impact on its audience size and, by the same token, on its box office revenue. But, what do all of the various letter ratings really mean? We will be explaining each of the current movie ratings as well as all of the former ratings that are no longer used. Let’s tackle each rating in escalating order of severity, but first, a bit of background on the rating process.
Movie Ratings Explained
Who determines movie ratings?
The organization in charge of assigning ratings at their discretion is the MPA, or Motion Picture Association, but most people will likely be more familiar with the previous name of the organization, the MPAA, which formerly stood for Motion Picture Association of America. The name and acronym were shortened relatively recently in 2019 after operating for 74 years as the MPAA.
To learn more about this organization, be sure to read our What is the MPAA? article. The documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated also offers a compelling deep dive into the behind the scenes operations of the MPA.
Movie ratings are assigned by different organizations around the world and sometimes level judgements based on entirely different criteria. These ratings are specific to the United States film industry. Let’s get started with the rating given to films that are perfectly safe for all ages.
Film Rating Organization
When the Hays Code was repealed in 1968 and replaced with the voluntary film rating system, the G rating was one of the four initial ratings and is still used to this day. The G rating is given to films considered appropriate for “General Audiences,” meaning these films do not contain any objectionable content and are suitable for viewers of all ages.
The G rating is still around to this day but it has become less frequently used over the years. The G rating used to be more widely applied to films of varying content but now it is reserved for only the absolute safest and squeaky-clean of films. The PG rating has even largely replaced the G rating as the de facto rating for most children’s movies. Check out our list of the best kids movies of all time and see where they land on the G to PG spectrum.
Cinema Ratings Explained
There is a decent chance that you have never heard of the M rating. This short-lived rating was given to films considered appropriate for “Mature Audiences.” But it was quickly the subject of much confusion as some films assigned the M rating were still considered appropriate for most children. The exact meaning of “Mature” was unclear to the general public and, because of this, the rating was changed.
The M rating was only used between 1968-1970 when it was replaced by the GP rating, which stood for “General Public.” However, the GP rating was also ill-fated as it was soon replaced again with a rating that finally stuck, the longstanding PG rating.
What Are the Movie Ratings
Preceded by the M and GP ratings, the PG rating has remained in use ever since it was first introduced in 1972. The PG rating is given to films where “Parental Guidance” is suggested. PG films are typically considered safe for kids to watch but may contain suggestive content.
Before the introduction of the PG-13 rating, PG films were often able to push the envelope much farther than they can today. Over the years, the general MPAA ratings have both loosened and tightened in accordance with the perceived social norms of the times.
For a deeper dive into these fluctuating social norms, check out our exploration into the history of film censorship in America.
For example, in the '70s, a film with violence, gore, swearing, and even nudity could land a PG rating, such as Jaws. Whereas a film containing those elements released in the current year would never land a PG rating. Find out where Jaws ranks on our rundown of the best Spielberg films ever made.
Ratings for Movies
The PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984 as an intermediate level between the PG and R ratings. A number of films fell into a grey area where they contained more objectionable content than the average PG film but didn’t push enough boundaries to land an R rating.
Films like Jaws and Poltergeist landed PG ratings upon release, but these days, they would be far more likely to land PG-13 ratings.
The one-two punch of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom directly led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. It was Steven Spielberg himself who suggested the addition of a new rating between PG and R to accommodate films that landed in this as-yet undefined gray area. Spielberg directed and/or produced all four of these risque PG rated films. Learn more about Steven Spielberg’s directing style in our guide to how Spielberg directs a long take.
Movie Rating Organization
The R rating was one of the four initial ratings when the voluntary film rating system was first introduced in 1968. The R stands for “Restricted,” meaning no one under the age requirement would be admitted to an R rated film on their own. However, someone below the required age can still be admitted as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Even though this rating has been around since the beginning, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed at all over the years. The initial age requirement for admittance to R rated films was 16 before being raised to 17 in 1970.
The R rating is the highest rating level that most films receive, but there is one rating higher.
Movie Ratings Meaning
The X rating was the fourth and final initial rating when the system was first instituted in 1968. However, the X rating is a bit of an outlier in the system. The X rating was not an official rating assigned by the MPAA but rather a rating that producers could self-assign to their films in lieu of submitting for an official MPAA rating or after being rejected from any of the lower ratings.
When the X rating first came into being, the age requirement for admittance to X rated films was 16 years old. As opposed to R rated films, no one under the age of 16 could be admitted to an X rated film under any circumstances, even if accompanied by a parent or guardian. In 1970, the age requirement was bumped up one additional year to 17.
Noteworthy films such as Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange received X ratings. Though A Clockwork Orange later had it’s rating lowered to an R after approximately 30-seconds of footage was re-edited. Read about A Clockwork Orange and other great examples of satire to learn more.
Receiving an X rating could drastically reduce the audience size and box office potential of a film. So filmmakers and producers were highly incentivized to avoid landing an X rating. Most theaters would refuse to screen X rated films, and TV stations would not air even censored versions of X rated films.
Many advertising options offered to other films were not available to X rated movies. There have been many instances of the MPAA refusing to issue R ratings to films, requiring additional cuts in order to avoid an X rating hurting the film’s bottom line.
Movie Ratings Explained
In 1990, the X rating was retired and replaced with the NC-17 rating. The X rating had become closely associated with pornography, and filmmakers objected to their films being classified in the same category. The MPAA did not assign X ratings to pornographic films, but since the X rating was a self-assigned rating in lieu of an official MPAA rating, pornographic filmmakers adopted the X rating and used the label with relish.
The two films that most directly led to the creation of the NC-17 rating were Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Both films received X ratings, frustrating their respective filmmakers for the limitations the rating imposed on their films.
Many advertisers refused their promotional materials, theaters refused to screen the films, and rental stores even refused to stock their X-rated tapes. The latter accepted the X rating while the former chose to remain “Unrated.” After the NC-17 rating was instituted, the first film to receive the new rating was Henry & June, which had previously received an X rating as well.
When first introduced, the wording for the NC-17 description read: “No Children Under 17 Admitted.” In 1996, the wording was changed to: “No One 17 and Under Admitted,” effectively raising the age requirement by one additional year to 18.
Films rated NC-17 still faced additional promotional and distribution challenges not faced by films rated R and lower. But they were less severely hampered than they would be by an X rating or remaining unrated in some cases. The introduction of the NC-17 rating has been the last significant update to the movie ratings system thus far.
Movie Ratings Meaning
NR and UR labels
If a film doesn’t fit any of the previous labels, it may wind up labeled NR or UR, which stand for “Not Rated” and “Unrated” respectively. At first glance, the NR and UR labels might look like they mean the same thing, and they are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is also an important distinction.
The Not Rated label is usually applied to films that are not yet rated or that have chosen to remain “Not Rated” rather than accept the rating assigned by the MPAA. A film might be promoted in trailers and other advertisements ahead of receiving an official MPAA rating with the disclaimer “This Film is Not Yet Rated.”
On the other hand, the “Unrated” label is most commonly applied to alternate cuts of a film that differ from the initial theatrical release. An “Unrated” cut of a film often exists alongside a rated cut of the film. It commonly appears on home video releases or re-releases that contain additional footage or do not maintain the cuts initially made to ensure a lighter rating from the MPAA.
Because of the voluntary nature of the film rating system, some filmmakers would choose to leave a film as “Not Rated” rather than take on an X rating. Films like Day of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 remained “Not Rated” after being refused R ratings from the MPAA. NR films received some of the same screening and advertising limitations as X-rated films but were sometimes afforded more leeway and avoided the pornographic connotation of the X rating.
What is Pre-Code Hollywood?
What is pre-code Hollywood? Before the movie rating system was introduced and before the Hays Code was enacted, the state of Hollywood censorship was vastly different. Learn all about pre-code Hollywood, up next.