A word about ratings. This is not a conversation about movie ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, or the number of stars on a review site, IMdB or Amazon. This discussion concerns the MPA rating. In the United States the MPA (Motion Picture Association) which is one of the prominent trade organizations of the movie industry, i.e., controlled by the studios and streamers, governs itself by rating movies for certain audiences.
Motion Picture Association Movie Ratings
There are a variety of movie ratings based on movie content, that alert audiences which age ranges should watch a movie. Within that group (find out more here: https://www.filmratings.com) there is a group of people who decide which rating a movie should get and why. The why part matters, is completely subjective, and sometimes a filmmaker can change the finished movie in the hopes of being assigned a certain rating. For screenwriters, since we're working right at the beginning, stay aware of the potential rating by the content you include.
These are general guidelines, and will be informed by your genre. In general, consider that your script must adhere to very particular rules if it is to be shown in a movie theater. If the movie will be streamed, on a streaming platform, or on pay cable channel, then there is more leeway. The point for writers is to understand in writing a low budget screenplay is to know their audience, what they want, and deliver that. You don't have to obsess about a potential rating since that is ultimately the producer's concern, just bear it in mind.
The Classification and Rating Administration ("CARA") and the Classification and Rating Appeals Board were established by the Motion Picture Association, Inc. ("MPA") and the National Association of Theatre Owners, Inc. ("NATO") as part of a voluntary system to provide information to parents to aid them in determining the suitability of individual motion pictures for viewing by their children. CARA is operated as an independent division of MPA. The CARA Rating Board issues ratings for motion pictures exhibited and distributed in the United States.
What Is The Purpose Of The Movie Rating System?
Movie ratings provide parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what movies are appropriate for their children at any age. After all, parents are best suited to knowing each of their children’s individual sensitivities and sensibilities to pick movies for them. Ratings are assigned by a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug use, then assign a rating they believe the majority of American parents would give a movie. Depending on the type of movies that you enjoy, it can be an interesting exercise to attempt to determine why a movie was given a PG-13 over an R, or PG, and often the rules seem fuzzy.
Ratings do not determine the quality of a film, audiences and film critics make these determinations. The ratings are not intended to approve, disapprove or censor any movie, just to indicate certain types of content All movies do not have to be rated, and submitting a movie for a rating is a voluntary decision made by filmmakers. However, the overwhelming majority of filmmakers have their movies rated, and each member of the Motion Picture Association has agreed to have all its theatrically released movies rated. Most theaters will not release a non-rated movie for a general audience. Here is the quick guide to what the ratings mean, according to the Ratings Guide of FilmRatings.com.
Specific MPA Ratings
G - General Audiences. All Ages Admitted. A G-rated motion picture contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture.
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children. A PG-rated motion picture should be investigated by parents before they let their younger children attend. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in a PG-rated motion picture.
PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13. A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them. A PG-13 motion picture may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category
Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating.
More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context
R - Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian. An R-rated motion picture, in the view of the Rating Board, contains some adult material. An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.
NC-17 - No One 17 and Under Admitted. An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean "obscene" or "pornographic" in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.
Once you have a basic idea of your rating, get writing!