How are movie ratings assigned? The film industry leans on an obscure panel

A poster of the Motion Picture Association’s movie ratings hangs next to a poster displaying 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 Miller | Getty Images

How many F-bombs can a movie have before it’s rated R?

It’s up to Kelly McMahon and a secret panel of evaluators responsible for handing out the film industry’s five most important designations – G, PG, PG-13, R and the extremely rare NC-17.

Although it works in relative obscurity, panel ratings for approximately 700 films each year can help determine whether films are suitable for children and have a big impact on a film’s box office performance.

One of the group’s rules, for example, states that the F-bomb can only be used as a swear word once in a PG-13 rated movie, meaning it’s suitable for ages 13 and older.

“Used more than once as a swear word, it becomes an R,” said McMahon, president of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), a division of the Los Angeles-based Motion Picture Association.

Warner Bros.’ “The Batman”, for example, has a lot of profane dialogue, including the use of s—, b—- and a——. But he only used the F-word once, which kept him PG-13.

There are exceptions, usually when the word is simply repeated within a short period of time or used as part of an emotional scene, McMahon said. But any movie with more than three F-bombs probably couldn’t stay PG-13, she said. And if the word is used to mean sex, the movie automatically gets an R rating.

To protect the integrity of the selection process, six of CARA’s 10 members are masked anonymously. But in an interview with CNBC, McMahon pulled back the curtain on how the band considers nudity, violence and other elements when assigning ratings to films, including blockbusters like ‘Top Gun: Maverick’. from Paramount and Skydance and streaming titles like “Spiderhead” from Netflix.

three movies a day

Created in 1968 to guide parents, the MPA panel is made up of full-time and part-time employees who have no other connection to the entertainment industry. To be selected, applicants must have a child between the ages of 5 and 15.

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

“We strive to have a diverse group of reviewers in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, geographic education, religious views, political views,” she said, adding that the majority of American parents would ideally agree with the group’s assessments.

The panel screens about three films a day, watching each film from start to finish, including the credits. Evaluators monitor sex, nudity and language, which are consistently among parents’ top concerns, McMahon said.

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

Before the pandemic, reviewers would watch films together in an office screening room, then meet to discuss film content and vote. During the pandemic, the panel met virtually. At least five reviewers must have seen the film for CARA to assign a review; the group tries to get an odd number of reviewers to watch movies so that votes don’t end in a tie.

“A simple majority rules,” McMahon said.

What’s in a note?

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

An R rating, for example, may signal that a film is intended for adults and may contain coarse language, intense or persistent violence, sexual nudity, drug addiction, or other mature elements. Children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult guardian to view R-rated films.

R-rated comic book movies like “Deadpool,” “Deadpool 2,” and “Logan” were explicitly presented as gritty, dark, and violent and performed well at the box office. The “Deadpool” films each grossed $780 million worldwide and “Logan” over $600 million in 2017.

Ryan Reynolds stars in ‘Deadpool 2’.

20th century fox

The rating can also indicate that a movie is violent, gory, or psychologically disturbing – all elements of a good horror movie.

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

Universal’s “The Black Phone” also earned the rating for violence, gory imagery, foul language and drug use. So did David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future,” for its disturbing violent content and gruesome imagery, graphic nudity, and coarse language.

If they are unhappy with their ranking, filmmakers can challenge CARA’s decisions through an appeal process or simply re-edit their films to get a different ranking. That could mean cutting a shot that raters found tilts the scale toward an R rating, or reducing the number of times a swear word is used.

Most choose to reissue, McMahon said. But there have only been two calls in the past two years, she said.

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

The exact rating of a studio or filmmaker depends on the audience they are looking for. The G rating, for example, is intended for general audiences with no age limit and means that the film contains no nudity, sex, violence, profane language or disturbing themes. The most recent film to earn this rating was 2021’s “Paw Patrol.”

PG is a step above and means the film contains material that may not be suitable for children, including profanity, depictions of violence, or brief nudity. But movies can’t show drug use to get the rating. Universal and Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” earned a PG rating for action violence and crude humor.

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

Universal

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

Warner Bros.’ “The Batman” earned the mark for violent and disturbing content, drug-related content, coarse language, and some suggestive material. Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” earned the mark for violent action sequences, strong language, and brief suggestive commentary.

The rules

CARA’s rules may also change.

As with the F-bomb, films are now assigned a single use of the word mother —— with a PG-13 rating. Although it was once considered a sex word, McMahon said the term is now more commonly used as a swear word.

If particularly rude words are used in a sexually charged way, the film is slapped with an R rating, McMahon said.

The word s— may appear in a PG movie, but only in limited quantities. Repeated use of the word b—- is acceptable in PG-13 movies.

With sex and nudity, context is again key.

Showing the side of a woman’s breast – often referred to as a “side breast” – or a person’s rear end may be considered PG or PG-13, if the appearance is brief and not associated with a sexual act . In Paramount’s “The Lost City,” for example, actor Channing Tatum briefly exposes his butt during a scene. The film maintained a PG-13 rating because the nudity was for comedic effect.

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

Evaluators also rate “thematic elements,” a catch-all in the PG and PG-13 ratings that encompasses anything that isn’t 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 see the film. This rating does not automatically mean that a film is obscene or pornographic, but it signals that the content is only suitable for adults. Most movies that receive this rating are re-released to achieve the most widely acceptable R rating, including 2019’s “Midsommar” and 2021’s “The King’s Man.”

Sometimes, CARA adds short explanations to ratings that may appear during a movie’s trailer or on promotional materials like posters. Filmmakers may suggest their own descriptors, but reviewers ultimately assign them.

Descriptions can be comically specific. For “Team America: World Police,” a satire of the “South Park” team, for example, the panel explained that its R rating was for “crass and sexual humor, violent imagery and coarse language – all involving 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”.

About Michael Sauers

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