GUEST COLUMN: Celebrating 50 Years of Movie Ratings

by Joan Graves, SVP & Chairman, CARA

Since 1988, my job has been watching movies. I have seen more than 12,000 films of every genre, style, and type as part of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). 

CARA was established nearly 50 years ago by former MPAA CEO Jack Valenti. The voluntary system replaced the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code as it was called, which outlined what was morally acceptable and unacceptable for films produced between 1930 and 1968. CARA provided an alternative to government censorship—a practice that had persisted at the state level. Jack’s remarkable vision created a system to inform parents, while also protecting filmmakers and the creative process from government intervention. 

Since its inception on November 1, 1968, CARA has provided American parents with advance information about the level of content in movies to help them determine what’s appropriate for their children, factoring in their own family values and the individual sensitivities of their children. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it is clear that CARA has withstood the test of time and remains a valuable tool for parents across the country. 

I have witnessed the evolution of the movie rating system firsthand. In 1988, I joined the CARA board as a part-time rater, and in 2000 I took on the role of chairman. In that time, I have seen shifts in parental concerns and perspectives on everything from violence and language to drug use and sexuality. I’m proud to note that CARA has continuously adapted, rating movies to reflect those societal shifts. 

Part of the reason our system works so well is because CARA’s board is composed of parents. We hire parents of different backgrounds, from different parts of the country. They have no prior affiliation with the film and television industry—the primary qualification is the perspective of parenthood. Usually the 10 to 13 parents on the board have children between the ages of five and 17 when they are hired. Once their kids reach adulthood, they rotate off the board. 

We keep the identities of our raters anonymous to shield them from any sort of outside influence. However, we do make public the identities of our senior raters, including myself, to increase transparency in the process and allow communication with filmmakers and moviegoers. Our website, filmratings.com, includes access to our policies and procedures, a database of all films rated since 1968, and a Contact Us link for any questions or feedback. 

On a typical day, we watch two to three movies—always in their entirety. We rate everything in context on a case-by-case basis. You may have heard that we try to schedule violence in the morning and sex in the afternoon. There is some truth to that—and popcorn is always available! We, of course, also watch animated films, family comedies, documentaries, and everything in between. 

The process and our job are focused on asking the question any parent would ask: What would I want to know about this film before I decide to let my child see it?

That question is why our system has evolved so well over time. We are celebrating five decades this year, because our purpose is to reflect the standards of American parents, not set them. Not one of our ratings indicates whether a film is good or bad; each merely indicates the level of content. Most of the so-called “rating controversies” over the years can be traced to a misunderstanding of this key fact.

We are constantly working to evaluate and improve our system. We regularly ask parents, through surveys and focus groups, about their perceptions of movie elements like violence, language, drug use, and sexuality. And then we mirror our ratings to reflect contemporary concerns and better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices.

Over the years, we have also made distinct enhancements to the system. The most notable change was the addition of the PG-13 rating in 1984, created to alert parents of more intense film content. Unique rating descriptors for movies rated PG or higher were added in 1990. And in 2007, we decided to consider tobacco imagery as a factor in assigning ratings and their accompanying descriptors.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not credit the success of CARA to the strong relationship with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), which goes back to the very beginning. When Jack created the ratings, NATO agreed to support them. This endorsement allowed the rating system to be taken seriously by all stakeholders, audiences and distributors alike. Over the years, we have worked closely with NATO members to help them give rating information as well as to encourage feedback about the ratings themselves. I look forward to the ongoing success of this important partnership.

In the last 50 years, American audiences have adjusted their views on almost everything. Our values and opinions have evolved as the movies we watch address tough issues and encourage discussion of challenging themes. I am proud that CARA has played a role in that discourse—and that by helping American parents make the right viewing choices for their families, we are also protecting the rights of filmmakers to express themselves freely. 

Even after watching thousands of movies, I cannot predict, unfortunately, what we may see on-screen in the years ahead. But I can confidently say the ratings system will continue to adapt and stay true to our role of keeping parents informed. 

Joan Graves is SVP and Chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration.

Boxoffice Staff

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