The Motion Picture Association of America is a trade association that represents Disney, WB, Fox, Paramount, Universal and Sony. It was founded in 1922 as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and has devised guidelines for film content which resulted in the Production Code and later the film rating system. They also work to protect creative content and curb copyright infringement.

The first president of the MPAA was Postmaster General Will H. Hays, whose main focus was producing strong public relations to make sure Hollywood was financially stable and able to attract Wall Street investment as well as maintain a clean moral tone in American films.

Before the organization was formed, filmmakers could make movies about anything they wanted but some states censored their films, which resulted in some movies appearing incoherent and therefore less profitable. In those days 50% of Americans were subject to watching edited films in the theaters, so Hays instituted a formula for self-censorship in the film industry. At first filmmakers were under no obligation to abide by these rules and they went largely ignored throughout the 1920s.

In 1930, the Production Code, aka the Hays Code, was created and this time studio executives endorsed it. In the early 1930s the Catholic Legion of Decency and many protestant and women’s groups planned to boycott films they deemed immoral. To avert boycotts, which could hurt a film’s profitability, the Production Code entered the mainstream with the full support of movie studios, and by 1934, films that did not follow the rules of the Production Code would not be allowed in American theaters.

Production Code rules included:

  • No scenes of passion unless essential to the plot.
  • No profanity, vocal or visual.
  • No sex perversion.
  • No adultery.
  • No sympathetic treatment of criminals or crime.
  • No indecent dancing.
  • No depictions of white people as slaves.

Even in the 1930s some people thought that censorship could be affecting film’s profits in a more negative way than lack of censorship. Nonetheless, the code was accepted by the public and American films followed its rules from the ’30s to the ’60s.

In 1945, Hays stepped down as president and his replacement U.S. Chamber of Commerce Eric Johnston rebranded the MPPDA as the MPAA. Johnston had a slightly less restrictive nature, allowing references to previously forbidden subjects like abortion and narcotics (as long as it was within the limits of good taste) but he also introduced new restrictions such as not allowing blasphemy or mercy killings to appear on film.

In 1966, former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jack Valenti, became president of the MPAA following the death of Eric Johnston, and in 1968, Valenti replaced the Production Code with film ratings. The film rating system would inform parents about the content of movies so that they could determine which movies are appropriate for kids as well as limit censorship and give filmmakers more freedom. Valenti also fought to prevent video piracy and bootlegging in the 1980s, something future MPAA presidents would continue to do in the internet age.

Film ratings are the norm for American movies now, and unlike the Production Code the system is voluntary – ratings have no legal standing, but many theaters will not play unrated films so it is usually in the best interest of filmmakers who want their films to make a profit to get an MPAA rating. For more insights, the history of film ratings is explored in Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.

Film ratings guide:

  • G (General Audiences): does not include anything offensive or inappropriate for children and is usually the go-to rating for filmakers who wish to target a family audience.
  • PG (Parental Guidance Suggested): may contain content that parents do not want their kids seeing and may be best viewed as a family.
  • PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned): the teenage version of PG. May be inappropriate for pre-teens and contain curse words and suggestive material.
  • R (Restricted): contains adult material throughout. Kids are not allowed to see these in theaters without a parent or adult guardian.
  • NC-17 (No One 17 and Under Admitted): clearly only for adults and completely inappropriate for children.

There used to be an X-rating but Jack Valenti replaced it with NC-17 in 1990 when it became too associated with pornography.

Most people don’t take the ratings system seriously (including filmmakers) and the MPAA has been ridiculed for deeming films with nudity and cursing more inappropriate than films with violence, but their rules reflect the views of most Americans. Whatever we are most uptight about gets the most restrictive rating. That’s why parents don’t want their kids watching porn but are perfectly okay with their kids watching Batman punch Joker in the face. That’s just the kind of country we live in, at least for now.