Summer 2006

What Should Christians Know About Movie Ratings?

By Marc T. Newman

Since many Christians are concerned about the content of movies, Biola Connections decided to learn more about the rating system from Dr. Marc Newman (’82), a film reviewer and the president of MovieMinistry.com.

How is a movie given its rating?

A film must be submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings Board. While this process is voluntary, many newspapers won't carry ads for unrated films, and some theater chains refuse to screen them. The Ratings Board is made up of 10 to 13 parents, not industry insiders. The members are anonymous and are selected by the MPAA. The Ratings Board attempts to apply a standardized criterion, and the rating is assigned by majority vote.

What does each rating mean?

G-rated films don’t contain profane language, sex, nudity, drug use or harsh violence. But a G-rating doesn't necessarily mean "children's film." David Mamet, director of the profanity-laced Glengarry Glen Ross, also made The Winslow Boy, a G-rated drama about the sacrifices people make to restore their good name. PG-rated films may contain some profanity, tense or frightening scenes, some sexual references and non-sexual nudity, such as Waking Ned Devine. The line between PG and PG-13 can be murky. PG-13 films contain more language, sex, violence and drug use than PG films, such as The Aviator. One of the quirks of PG-13 films seems to be the “1-F standard.” Somewhere in the film, a character may utter the most taboo profanity, but only once. But exceptions are already sneaking in, such as Something's Gotta Give (two uses) and Antwone Fisher (three uses). R-rated films can contain graphic violence, sexuality, drug use, profanity or some mix of all of those, such as Munich.

Is it possible for the same movie to receive different ratings?

Some studios require directors to deliver a final cut of their films that can earn a PG-13, and not an R, to maximize the potential audience. Filmmakers can appeal if they think the Ratings Board was too restrictive. Michael Moore, for example, appealed to the Ratings Board after Fahrenheit 9/11 was slapped with an R-rating for profanity and disturbing war-related images. The Ratings Board offered a PG-13 if Moore would remove the offending footage, but he refused. The documentary Gunner Palace — rated R for the same reasons as 9/11 — won its appeal and was released with a PG-13. It is widely understood in the film industry that some filmmakers pad their movies with offensive scenes they later intend to cut to secure a lower rating. This is an adult form of the kid strategy – "Mom, can I have a bazooka? No? How about an Uzi? A slingshot?"

Have the standards changed over the years?

Maybe. Lord of the Rings, a PG-13-rated film with decapitation and spouts of blood, would have received an R-rating years ago. I certainly sense a ratings creep. I don't think that MPAA ratings are particularly useful for parents. I use the Web site ScreenIt, which provides an accurate assessment of film contents (www.screenit.com).

What can Christians do to help promote faith-friendly films?

Vote with your wallet. Hollywood will make more of what people buy. I was disappointed when Christians failed to turn out for The Winslow Boy or Mark Gordon's excellent film Her Majesty (available on DVD in August). Hollywood doesn't listen to orchestrated protests; they look at the box office. More importantly, Christians need to learn to be media literate. Movies are the secular sermons of our age. The sooner we realize that film is an ideal vehicle for introducing ideas below a viewer's critical radar, the sooner we will take entertainment seriously and properly respond.

Marc T. Newman (’82) is president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization based in Southern California that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards all drawn from popular films. Newman earned a B.A. in communication from Biola.

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