The basic structure of the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) current movie rating system dates back to the late 1960s and has not had a significant change since the PG-13 category was added in 1984. In the intervening years the rating system has become broken. There is little consistency to the ratings, and the categories lump together movies that are so different in their content that any individual rating means very little anymore.
Here is how the ratings system was designed to work: a movie is submitted voluntarily by studios, and an independent board of parents, known as the Classification & Ratings Administration, gives the movie a rating based on its content.
Chart courtesy filmratings.com.
The need for a rating system is obvious. Parents need a way of gauging whether movies are appropriate before taking their children to see them. It's a great goal, but the current rating system isn't achieving it. The MPAA doesn't advertise information about content, just an overall rating. To get the details they really need to make an informed decision, movie-goers have to search the Internet or read fine print on posters. The latter isn't always easy. Ratings information is often relegated to a bottom corner or completely missing.
Additionally, the MPAA's descriptions and categories can be misleading. "Extended intense violence and frightening images" might sound like a description of your typical R-rated film, but that's actually a description of this year's Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film that has grossed over $1 billion worldwide and was approved for children as young as 11. The extended version of the film even managed to keep its PG-13 rating, despite its inclusion of nudity. In the past two years, the over-expansive PG-13 category has also included movies as far-ranging in content as The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, and Pitch Perfect. When enough movies are lumped together in a category, movie-goers can no longer predict what a film from a certain rating category will look like. Just slapping a blanket rating on a film is not enough.
The lack of consistency in rating decisions is also problematic. Nebraska, a film by Alexander Payne, who also directed The Descendants and Sideways, recently lost an appeal of the R rating the MPAA handed to it. In an age where violent and dark movies get PG-13 ratings, what terrible content got Payne's black-and-white film an R rating? "Some language." This is glaringly unfair, given that this year's Fast & Furious 6 managed to obtain a PG-13 rating, even with its intense violence, sexuality, and language.
With inconsistencies like that, it's impossible for consumers to have a clear idea of what movies contain before they watch them. The movie rating system needs a complete overhaul. It must become both more informative and more objective if it is to truly serve viewers.