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Turns out it’s an R-rated world, at least on the big screen.
Of the 29,791 films OK’d by the movie ratings board since its inception in 1968, the vast majority — 17,202 — have been assigned an R. The findings were detailed in a comprehensive report released Monday by the Motion Picture Association of America that’s timed to the 50th anniversary of the voluntary ratings system on Nov. 1.
The MPAA, whose members are the major Hollywood studios, administers the ratings system in tandem with the National Association of Theater Owners.
The next biggest grouping are titles rated PG (5,578), followed by PG-13 (4,913) and G-rated releases (1,574). The PG category also includes movies that were given the briefly used “M” and “GP” ratings. A mere 524 movies have been given the dreaded NC-17 rating, previously known as “X.”
The R-rated domination has been consistent across the years, including after the PG-13 rating was added in 1984 and despite changing standards. One exception was the first few years of the ratings system, when the PG category was the leader. An R means that anyone under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult or guardian.
In 2003, there were a record 645 movies rated R, followed by PG-13 (186), PG (79) and G (29). R-rated hits that year included The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Last year, there were 307 R-rated pics, including horror sensations Fifty Shades Freed and Get Out, almost double the next-closest category, PG-13.
Going back to 1982, An Officer and a Gentlemen, 48 Hours and The Verdict were among the 374 titles rated R. A decade later, A Few Good Men, The Bodyguard and Lethal Weapon were on the respective list of 394 films.
In today’s times, R-rated pics as a class generate less revenue overall than PG or PG-13 offerings. Generally speaking, a studio knows what the rating will be at script stage. For example, more than one use of the word “fuck” or another “harsher sexually derived” word initially guarantees an R, although a PG-13 will be allowed with a special two-thirds majority vote by the ratings board. (The rules of the board have long been public.)
At the same time, less expensive genre fare such as R-rated horror offerings, raunchy comedies and adult dramas can generate huge profits, since they cost far less than big-budget superhero pics or franchise installments attempting to play to the broadest possible audience by going out with a PG-13 (one superhero series that broke with recent tradition and sought an R was the Deadpool series).
The late Jack Valenti, a shrewd Washington player who ran the MPAA for years, was the architect of the voluntary ratings system, which was designed to fend off censorship and protect the creative process by proactively assisting parents in making informed choices.
“My predecessor Jack Valenti created the MPAA ratings in 1968 amid mounting calls for censorship and the specter of government intervention. It is important to remember the context of the transformative year and decade for American life — the sexual revolution, Vietnam, political assassinations, racial strife — and how the expansion of mass media was seen as a threat by many corners of society,” current MPAA chairman-CEO Charles Rivkin writes in the report.
The L.A.-based ratings board, made up of parents, has handled 587 movies a year on average, whether product from MPAA members or indie companies (theaters are loathe to play a film that isn’t officially rated). An all-time high of 940 films were rated in 2003, the zenith of the DVD boom. In more recent years, the major studios have cut back somewhat on their slates. In 2017, 563 films were rated.
Of the total 29,791 movies rated across the decades, 428 (1.4 percent) have filed an appeal, and 165 (0.6 percent) successfully. Generally speaking, the number of appeals has dropped since the advent of PG-13. In more recent times, one producer who repeatedly tried to get a rating overturned was the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein, who said the ratings board was out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist.
Also included in the MPAA report is a new survey of 1,559 parents concluding that 95 percent are familiar with movie ratings, and find them helpful, including rating descriptors. And 84 percent agree the ratings are accurate.
“We often find that when people have problems or issues with the ratings, they are based on misconceptions about our purpose and role. It is our hope that with the release of these materials, we can promote a greater understanding how the MPAA ratings serve parents, young audiences and filmmakers alike,” says Joan Graves, chair of the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) and MPAA senior vp.
Adds Rivkin: “Given the extraordinary changes in our culture, environment, entertainment and society over the past 50 years, this anniversary feels particularly hard-earned and special. We could point to many factors behind the ratings’ success, but the clearest of all comes directly from our founding mission: to maintain the trust and confidence of American parents.”
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