Movie industry letter-rating system survives
30 years of criticism
First Amendment Center
When writer-director James Toback took his movie "Two Girls and
a Guy" before the Motion Picture Association of America last winter,
the group's rating board slapped it with an NC-17, the adults-only
Specifically, the board objected to an oral sex scene between two
Ten times Toback trimmed the scene in an effort to secure a more
audience-friendly R-rating, but MPAA appeals board members turned
down every edit. Eventually, Toback relented and cut the entire
scene from the film.
"They say they're not censors, but they are," Toback said in published
reports. "They say, 'You can go out with an NC-17,' but no studio
is going to go out with an NC-17 rating."
Syndicated film critic Michael Medved says blame shouldn't rest
on the rating board, adding that Toback should have released his
movie as an NC-17 film if he was truly worried about his vision.
"The problem is, whenever filmmakers try to release NC-17 films,
no one goes to see them," Medved said. "The complaints shouldn't
be with the people doing the ratings as much as with the audience.
The audience doesn't seem to welcome NC-17 films."
Nearly 30 years in existence the MPAA introduced the ratings
on Nov. 1, 1968 the leading code denoting movie content continues
to generate debate. While free-speech advocates, filmmakers, critics
and rating supporters disagree on the effectiveness and constitutionality
of the system, they all agree: The MPAA ratings serve as the standard
against which all other rating programs are measured.
At its inception, the rating system raised concerns that such an
effort violates the First Amendment. Some worried that the MPAA
found itself forced to enact the ratings to stave off censorship
efforts from state and local officials.
Supporters of the MPAA system say it's by far the best system yet
developed for an industry that has faced rating systems almost since
Soon after the first nickelodeons opened at the turn of the century,
state and local officials formed censorship boards to monitor film
content. In response, a group of film producers formed the National
Board of Censorship in 1909 to screen their own films and to pre-emptively
delete those scenes that might be deemed unsuitable by public officials.
The Supreme Court didn't help stave off censorship. In 1915, the
court ruled in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of
Ohio that movies were "a business pure and simple" and, thus,
not due the kind of constitutional protections books and newspapers
In 1921, the industry formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors
of America (later renamed the Motion Picture Association of America)
and named former postmaster general Will Hays as its director. The
organization, better known as the Hays Office, drafted a list of
11 "Don'ts" and 25 "Be Carefuls."
Even stricter censorship surfaced in the 1930s when a group of
Roman Catholic bishops formed the National Legion of Decency to
rate movies on their own. Movies deemed to be immoral faced Catholic
Not to be outdone, Hays reconstructed his office and drafted the
even stricter Production Code. Code violations brought fines as
high as $25,000 per film.
A Supreme Court decision in 1952 in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson
called the "Miracle" case after the Roberto Rossellini film
reversed the court's 1915 ruling. The court ruled that the
motion picture was, in fact, an important communication medium and
worthy of First Amendment protection. But the code remained in effect
through the 1960s.
Jack Valenti says on the MPAA Web site that when he became the
group's president in 1966 the "stern, forbidding catalogue of 'Dos
and Don'ts' [bore] the odious smell of censorship." At the same
time, he says, a new kind of movie, "frank and open," was beginning
Worried that states and cities would form censorship boards, Valenti
says the MPAA worked with other film industry groups to come up
with a voluntary, but consistent, system to rate the content of
In his 1972 book The Movie Rating Game, Stephen Farber wrote
that the MPAA rating system was designed to give filmmakers "unprecedented
creative freedom, while at the same time maintaining a system of
'self-regulation' that would ease the pressures for some forms of
More than 25 years later, Farber says that the system quickly degenerated
into a censoring tool. Although the rating system is a voluntary
one, Farber says studios are forced to get the ratings because most
theater owners won't show unrated or NC-17 films, claiming that
many patrons refuse to see such movies.
"In theory, it's not supposed to be censorship," says Farber, now
a columnist for Movieline magazine. "It's just supposed to
be advising people of the content. I don't see anything wrong with
that. It all sounds very inoffensive."
Farber contends problems with the ratings began to develop as studios
pushed filmmakers to keep their work within a certain rating category.
"Once you give it a rating category, there is a lot of pressure
to move it into a less restrictive category" particularly from an
NC-17 to an R, he says. "That's when the censorship pressures come."
Medved disagrees, saying Valenti reworked the ratings in 1968 in
response to a new wave of filmmaking, sparked by the sexuality of
"Blow Up" and the frank language in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
"If you take a look at what's happened since the new rating system
was instituted, there is a great deal more flexibility than with
the old Production Code," Medved said. "For better or worse."