6 Bizarre Realities of How Movies Get Their Ratings

Unless you have kids (or still are one), you probably stopped paying much attention to movie ratings a while back, but they're actually the secret gatekeepers of Hollywood. The rating even determines whether a film can advertise via TV spots (NC-17 movies cannot). This means millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars lie between an R rating and an NC-17 rating. Even more money lies between PG-13 and R.

The MPAA is the final arbiter of exactly how many boobs we get to see in a given summer, and that is too much power for any one organization to hold. So who are they, and why are they qualified to choose our entertainment? In the course of our research, we spoke with Kirby Dick, director of the MPAA investigation documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

#6. The MPAA Is Owned by the Big Studios and Exists to Shut Down Independent Films

Oreos

The MPAA is comprised of and funded by the Big Six studios -- Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Sony, Disney, NBC Universal, and Paramount. Together, they make about 90 percent of all movies in the United States. But remember, the MPAA rates all films: everything from Transformers to obscure foreign films like Die Hartseer van Lewe.

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And Cracked's own French art house flick, Le Zizi Grincheux: Une Comedie d'Pipes.

Independent and foreign film companies are not part of the Big Six, which means they're completely at the mercy of a regulator owned by their competition. The Big Six dominate American film like ACME dominates the roadrunner trap and TNT markets. If you're an independent film trying to explore human sexuality as an art form (which would actually get a fairly low rating in Europe), you'll have a harder time sliding in under the dreaded NC-17 bar than an Eli Roth/Quentin Tarantino crossover film, provided the latter is produced and backed by one of the major studios that run the MPAA, of course. Hell, even Clerks got an NC-17 rating when it was first released as an independent film, but after its sequel went through a major studio, it got an R.

The Weinstein Company/MGM
Remember? The one where the dude fucks a donkey?

European rating systems typically give violent movies high ratings, but MPAA raters consider the murder of dozens of human beings via machine gun to be perfectly safe for a 13-year-old, as long as there's not much blood. But two girls making out? That shit is dangerous. Violence can be traumatizing for kids, but we'll let them watch Heath Ledger pencil a man to death because hey, it's PG-13! Meanwhile, should Heath choose to kiss a man, well obviously that shit deserves an R. But hey, the nightmares and sleep disorders that little Billy is suffering from after a summer spent bingeing on violent blockbusters surely don't hold a candle to the horrors that would await him if he saw two dudes consensually makin' out.

#5. The Ratings and Appeals Boards Are More Secretive Than Hydra

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When the ratings board started in 1968, Lyndon Johnson chose his friend and JFK assassination witness Jack Valenti as its head. And that ... actually kind of makes sense. That guy saw some serious shit, why not make him the judge of who gets to see what shit? But from the beginning, Valenti put a stranglehold on the organization. He decided that members of the board would remain a secret to "protect the organization from outside influence." But that's absurd, because the United States has a justice system where judges are public figures. Make laws that govern an entire country? Your face is front and center -- you're on your own, and best of luck. Decide how many times Sam Jackson can call a cartoon penguin a motherfucker? You clearly need the utmost protection.

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"We got the same guys who guard unreleased Harry Potter books."

Since 1968, several newspaper investigations have tried to find out who the members of the ratings board were, only to hit brick walls. So in 2005, Kirby and his producer decided to give it a try: They hired a private investigator and went after the men and women behind the curtain. The process wasn't easy. Only one name is known to the public: the leader of the raters since 2000, Joan Graves.

Being filmmakers, Kirby's team apparently took all of their cues from classic noir flicks: They started by parking outside the MPAA building and following cars, checking license plate information and tailing suspects. They eventually found themselves rooting around in garbage cans outside people's houses (which is totally legal, even if it is totally unjustly frowned upon by your fascist homeowner's association). There, they found the telltale rating forms, and the rest was easy: After they found one rater, the identities of all the others fell quickly into place. It was just a matter of seeing who they mingled with in the parking lot. Kirby soon found himself with the MPAA's entire roster. Surely it was a roll call of the most powerful and sinister forces in Hollywood. A rogue's gallery of brilliance and corruption. The veritable Legion of Doom of film. Or ...

#4. The Raters Are Wildly Unqualified and Wholly Incompetent

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All of the raters on the board in 2005 were white. That doesn't seem to have changed today in 2014. And, despite having to view a diverse selection of films, they also are all upper-middle class, all live in the San Fernando Valley, almost all have no children, and almost all have been on the board more than seven years (despite Graves' insistence that no member can stay on the board longer than seven years). These people are uniquely suited to judge the selection of cheese at the local Whole Foods, but they're also who decides the ratings of most of your art and entertainment.

When Kirby researched the MPAA, he found that there was no sort of test or evaluation for membership. None of them are experts, or even trained in a relevant field. If you were trying to put together the least qualified group of people to do this job, the McHale's Navy of film rating, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than the MPAA's current board. And not only are parents rare on the board, but there are no child development experts (which all of the European systems have) involved in the process at all. So it turns out these MPAA folks, who are so very concerned about "the poor children," only barely know what children are. They're, like ... the mythical beasts with the heads of a lion and a snake, right? No wait, they're those Mexican fried burritos!

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They may not be clear on what exactly sex is, but they'll be damned if any children know more than they do.

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