How are film ratings awarded? Film industry relies on obscure aperture

A Motion Picture Association movie ratings poster hangs next to a poster with a message about new cleaning procedures in the lobby of Cinemark’s Century 16 at the South Point Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ethan Mueller | Getty Images

How many F-Bombs can a film have before it gets an R rating?

That’s up to Kelly McMahon and a secret advisory board tasked with dishing out the film industry’s five most important designations – G, PG, PG-13, R, and the ultra-rare NC-17.

Though it labors in relative obscurity, the panel’s ratings of about 700 films each year can help determine whether films are appropriate for children and have a major impact on a film’s box office performance.

For example, one of the group’s rules states that the F-bomb may only be used once as an expletive in a film that is rated PG-13, meaning it is suitable for anyone aged 13 and over.

“Used more than once as an expletive, it gets promoted to an R,” said McMahon, chairman of the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), a Los Angeles-based division of the Motion Picture Association.

Warner Brothers’ For example, “The Batman” has a lot of profane dialogue, including the use of s—, b—-, and a——. However, the F-word was only used once, allowing it to remain PG-13.

There are exceptions, usually when the word is only briefly repeated or used as part of an emotional scene, McMahon said. But any film with more than three F-bombs probably couldn’t stay PG-13, she said. And when the word is used to describe sex, the film automatically gets an R rating.

To protect the integrity of the screening process, six of the 10 CARA members are anonymous. But in an interview with CNBC, McMahon lifted the curtain on how the group incorporates nudity, violence and other elements to provide ratings for movies like blockbusters like Paramount and Skydance’s Top Gun: Maverick and streaming titles like Netflix’s Spiderhead forgive.

Three films a day

Established in 1968 as a guide for parents, the MPA Board is made up of full-time and part-time employees who have no other affiliations with the entertainment industry. To be selected, candidates must have a child between the ages of 5 and 15.

Most members serve about seven years — or until their youngest child is 21, McMahon said.

“We seek to have a diverse group of raters across race, gender, ethnicity, geographic upbringing, religious beliefs, and political views,” she said, adding that a majority of American parents would ideally agree with the panel’s ratings.

The panel screens about three films a day and watches each film from start to finish – including the credits. Evaluators pay attention to sex, nudity and language, which are consistently top concerns for parents, McMahon said.

“We get a lot of our advice from surveys and conversations with other parents,” she said.

Before the pandemic, raters would watch films together in an office screening room and then meet to discuss and vote on the film’s content. During the pandemic, the committee met virtually. At least five raters must have seen the film for CARA to rate; The group tries to get an odd number of voters to watch films so the votes don’t end in a tie.

“It’s a simple majority that governs,” McMahon said.

What’s in a review?

Although movie ratings were originally intended as a guide for parents, they have since evolved into a part of studio marketing, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

For example, an R rating can signal that a film is intended for adults and may contain strong language, intense or sustained violence, sexually oriented nudity, substance abuse, or other adult elements. Children under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult legal guardian to view R-rated films.

R-rated comic book movies like “Deadpool,” “Deadpool 2,” and “Logan” were explicitly labeled as dark, grim, and violent, and had strong box office success. The “Deadpool” films each grossed $780 million worldwide, and “Logan” grossed more than $600 million in 2017.

Ryan Reynolds stars in Deadpool 2.

20th century fox

Rating can also signal that a film is violent, gory, or psychologically disturbing—all elements of a good horror film.

“Horror fans have long coveted films that bear the stamp of an R rating,” said Dergarabedian.

Universal’s “The Black Phone” also received the rating for violence, gory imagery, strong language and some drug use. So does David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, with disturbingly violent content and grisly imagery, graphic nudity and some strong language.

If they are not happy with their rating, filmmakers can challenge CARA’s decisions through an appeals process, or simply re-edit their films to get a different rating. That could mean trimming a recording that the raters felt tipped the scale towards an R-rating, or reducing the frequency of use of a swear word.

Most choose to re-edit, McMahon said. But there have only been two appointments in the past two years, she said.

“The reason we have a lot less appeal now is because we work so closely with filmmakers,” McMahon said. She and the other three public members of the panel act as liaisons with filmmakers and studios to preview scripts and help translate guidelines.

Exactly what rating a studio or filmmaker wants depends on the audience they are targeting. The G rating, for example, is for a general audience with no age restriction and means that the film does not contain nudity, sex, violence, profane language, or disturbing themes. The most recent film to receive this rating was 2021’s Paw Patrol.

PG is a notch higher and means the film contains material that may not be suitable for children, including some profanity, depictions of violence or brief nudity. However, films must not depict drug use in order to receive the rating. Universal and Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” received the PG rating for action violence and rude humor.

Minions: The Rise of Gru is the sequel to the 2015 film Minions and a spin-off/prequel to the main Despicable Me film series.

Universal

PG-13 is a stronger warning for films that may depict violence, nudity, sensuality, profane language, or other more mature subjects. A variety of films and genres can fall into this category for different reasons.

Warner Brothers’ “The Batman” received the rating for violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language and some salacious material. Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” received the rating for action sequences with violence, strong language and short lewd comments.

The rules

The CARA rules can also evolve.

As with the F-bomb, movies are now allotted a single use of the word mother——with a PG-13 rating. Though it was once considered a sexual word, McMahon said the term is now more commonly used as an expletive.

If particularly rough words are used in a sexually charged manner, the film will be slapped with an R rating, McMahon said.

The word s— can appear in a PG movie, but only to a limited extent. Repeated use of the word b—- is acceptable in PG-13 films.

When it comes to sex and nudity, too, context matters.

Showing the side of a woman’s breast — often referred to as “side breasts” — or a person’s posterior may be considered a PG or PG-13 if the appearance is brief and not associated with a sexual act. For example, in Paramount’s The Lost City, actor Channing Tatum briefly bares his butt during a scene. The film retained a PG-13 rating as the nudity was for comedic effect.

With violence, the likelihood of triggering an R rating depends on how realistic it is and how much of it is there, McMahon said.

Evaluators also weigh “thematic elements,” a collective term within the PG and PG-13 ratings that encompasses anything that is not violence, language, or nudity, such as bullying, death, crime, discrimination, self-harm, or war.

The rarest rating, NC-17, means that people under the age of 17 cannot be admitted to view the film. This rating does not automatically mean that a film is obscene or pornographic, but it does signal that the content is appropriate for adults only. Most films that receive this rating are re-edited to achieve the generally acceptable R rating, including Midsommar in 2019 and The King’s Man in 2021.

Sometimes CARA adds short explanations to ratings, which may appear during a film’s trailer or on promotional materials such as posters. Filmmakers could suggest their own descriptors, but the evaluators ultimately assign them.

The descriptions can be comically specific. For example, for Team America: World Police, a satire of the South Park team, the panel stated that the R rating was for “graphically crude and sexual humor, violent imagery and strong language – all with puppets.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of Minions: The Rise of Gru and The Black Phone.

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