In the U.S, movie ratings are the dominion of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Among other functions, the MPAA administers a film ratings system, to offer guidance to the audience about the suitability of a film for different age groups. Unlike its UK equivalent, this system is neither mandatory, nor enforced by law. It is preferred by exhibitors, though, and as such, a non-rated film may find itself without a cinema screen upon which it can play.
The ratings labels G and PG indicate that content is generally suitable for everybody, while PG-13 implies that some parental caution should be employed for under-13s, due to the inclusion of some challenging material. The next label in the system is R, which means ‘Restricted’ – indicating that the content is considered potentially problematic for anyone below the age of 17 years. Beyond that lies the realm of NC-17, which means nobody below the age of 17 is allowed.
Ratings are very important in relation to the bottom line – which is obviously the main consideration when studios consider bestowing the ‘green light’ upon a project. An MPAA rating of some description is needed to gain space in the biggest, most easily accessible cinemas, and it is clearly desirable that the rating not prevent too many people from seeing the movie. An NC-17 rating is generally considered the ‘kiss of box office death,’ for example, precisely because a large section of paying moviegoers are not allowed to see it in theatres – meaning the chance of seeing a return on investment is instantly reduced.
The thing about the R rating is that it is a very broad church. Bridging the gap between PG-13 and NC-17 means that a wide variety of titles – from the seemingly harmless Little Miss Sunshine, to ‘torture porn’ such as Saw – are all included. To be clear, Hostel Part II and Before Sunset have the same U.S rating – which sounds pretty nonsensical when you say it out loud, but clearly demonstrates the breadth of that ratings category.
The rating label ‘R-Restricted’ therefore makes studios understandably nervous. Though the actual definition is, basically, ‘caution for those under 17’ – leaving the decision about the ‘hardness’ of the R up to the movie-goer – the psychological impact of the word ‘restricted’ on those booking movie tickets is cause for studio concern. In the U.K, while PG-13 films usually translate to ‘12a’ (suitable for under 12s accompanied by adults) or ‘12’ (suitable for 12 and above), R-rated films translate as either ‘15’ or ‘18’ – both of which are self-explanatory, but illustrate the possible impact on the size of the target audiences covered by U.S ‘Restricted.’ For investors hoping to see a return on their money, the R-rated arena represents a much higher-stakes gamble.