The end of the year represents a high point for the movie industry, as the year's highest regarded films, vying for Oscar attention, rush to theaters. But as 2013 drew to a close, the movie industry, namely its chief trade association, the Motion Picture Association of America, found itself facing a barrage of criticism and the subject of controversy, as many both inside and outside the industry questioned the effectiveness and fairness of its ratings system.
Two studies that examined the rise of various forms of violence in PG-13 movies made headlines in November and December. The first, conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University, Amsterdam's VU University and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that gun violence in the most popular PG-13 films had tripled during the last three decades, even exceeding the levels found their R-rated counterparts. A second study, also sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that PG-13 and R films exhibited similar levels of violence in conjunction with other risky behaviors like sex, tobacco and alcohol.
"We think they figured out violence sells," says Dan Romer, the director of Annenberg's Adolescent Communication Institute. He worked on both studies. "Hollywood has figured that out because it will attract the male audience and then the female audience along with them, and especially younger people."
While the MPAA was criticized for not being stringent enough when rating violence, it was also criticized for rating other films too harshly for profanity and/or sexual content. The filmmakers behind "Philomena" – a sentimental film about a humble Irish woman on the search for her long lost son – went on a public crusade to have the film, initially rated R for the use of a few F-words, brought down to a PG-13.
However, despite the recent fuss, Joan Graves, the head of the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration, is standing by the current system. "When we talk to parents," Graves says, through various surveys and other outreach programs the MPAA does with parents across the country, "What we find with the violence category is that they think they're getting correct information from us."
According to Graves, parents continue to feel very strongly about the presence of profanities and crude sexual content in films. "They have much more confidence in their own children sorting out through the violence and they think that what they are getting in PG-13 is something that they're kids can handle," she says.
She says for now the MPAA is focused on its "Check the Box" campaign, a revamp to its ratings display launched in April that includes "descriptors" – the reasons a film was rated the way it was – along with its typical demarcation.
Films are not required to have MPAA ratings (and many believe the rise of VOD and other new platforms will eventually render them obsolete), but most theater owners require them on the films they distribute. A studio submits a film to a panel of 10-13 anonymous reviewers, all parents, who determine its rating – G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 – according to the level of violence, sex, profanity, drug and alcohol use, and other adults themes presented.
Since its beginning, the MPAA process of rating films has never been free of controversy. "People have always been complaining about MPAA ratings, and before that they were complaining about the production codes" says Jonathan Kuntz –a UCLA professor of American cinema history – referring to the system of censorship that the ratings code replaced in 1968. "It's something that's been going on for 100 years."
The MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration – known as CARA – was established by then-MPAA president Jack Valenti so parents could determine which films were appropriate for their families rather than the industry censoring films themselves. Controversy has forced the MPAA to make major changes to its ratings systems before. It had to phase out its X rating in the 1970s as it had become synonymous with hardcore porn films; the MPAA eventually replaced it with the NC-17 rating, which prohibits admission to people 17 and younger, in 1990. In 1984, it created the PG-13 rating as a midway point between PG and R, after the PG rating of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" – which included the infamous heart removal scene – provoked outrage among parents.