First Draft: Should Screenwriters Write With MPAA Ratings in Mind?

In partnership with the blog ScreenCraft, we’re publishing “First Draft,” a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


Yes, story and character—and the delivery of each of those elements within any given script—are the most important factors to writing a screenplay. Without solid and engaging stories and characters, there is nothing else to talk about. Yet screenwriters looking to turn their screenwriting passion into a screenwriting career need to be smart.

The notions of “just write what you feel” and “be true to yourself and your story, no matter what the content might be” are naive and false in terms of professional screenwriting. When you’re trying to sell something, it’s different.

Writers need to research and develop their concepts. They need to know what the demographics are for such concepts, and what types of companies produce such concepts.

There is another layer to this that screenwriters often forget to consider: ratings. I can feel the eyes of some of the more cynical screenwriters out there rolling reading that sentence, but anyone that’s actually in the trenches trying to get their scripts read and taking meetings knows that this element is important.

You can’t pitch a screenplay that has sex, violence and bad language to Disney. In turn, you can’t pitch a G-rated flick to a company like Nu Image that thrives on violent action movies.

When you’re trying to sell a spec script or be considered for an assignment, you need to cater the script to the demographic and do your homework on what audience-types that demographic is comprised of. You’re giving the reader, producer or development executive an excuse to reject you if your script has 20 F-bombs and a sex scene when their company thrives on PG-13 fare.

Ratings matter. You don’t have to be obsessed with them and their stipulations, but you have to be aware of their restrictions.

We recently spoke with former MPAA employee Barry Freeman, who has rated over 8,000 movies while serving on the Classification and Rating Administration at the MPAA. He started a consulting site to help producers and directors maneuver through the ratings approval process, whether during on-location shooting, post-production or MPAA submissions.

“The MPAA is much more than the ratings board. They are the voice behind the major studios—Disney, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal and Warner Brothers,” Freeman stated.

The MPAA has changed over the years. It started out in 1922 as a trade association for member companies. The current version of the MPAA’s ratings board was put into effect in the mid 1960s when former LBJ aide Jack Valenti took over as president, instituting a system of voluntary film ratings.

“The main responsibility of this new system was to provide parents with information about the appropriateness of films for children,” Freeman added.

The current rating system allows for five possible ratings:

Rating symbol Meaning
G rating symbol
G – General Audiences
All ages admitted. Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children.
PG- rating symbol
PG – Parental Guidance Suggested
Some material may not be suitable for children. Parents urged to give “parental guidance.” May contain some material parents might not like for their young children.
PG-13 rating symbol
PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.
R rating symbol
R – Restricted
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.
NC-17 rating symbol
NC-17 – Adults Only
No One 17 and Under Admitted. Clearly adult. Children are not admitted.

Changes have been made over the contemporary years of this rating system. In the early 1980s, there were often complaints about violence and gore in PG-rated films, with movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins turning heads when both received PG ratings despite some very disturbing and intense imagery for children (eating monkey brains, ripping the heart out of someone’s chest, gremlins killing people left and right, gremlins being mutilated in blenders and microwaves, etc).

Gremlins

It was Steven Spielberg himself, the director of The Temple of Doom and executive producer behind Gremlins, that suggested a new intermediate rating between “PG” and “R.” Thus, PG-13 was born.

The first film that received such a rating was the 1984 classic Red Dawn.

In 2007, smoking was added as a possible ratings factor. This added an additional ratings element to “violence,” “sexual content,” “language,” “drug use” and “theme.”

Screenwriters should research and study the below guidelines and keep them in mind to increase the odds of getting your screenplays and your writing considered. Why let some full frontal nudity, profanity or a little onscreen drug use get in the way of your spec option, sale or possible assignment?

The following breakdowns are taken from Motion Picture Association of America film rating system:

Violence

The violence in a G-rated film must be cartoonish in nature or minimal in quantity. If the violence is little more than minimal, it requires a PG rating. If the violence is stronger than mild, it requires a PG-13 rating. If the violence is too rough and persistent, it requires an R rating. If the violence is extreme and exaggerated, it  requires an NC-17 rating.

Language

G-rated films usually can’t have language beyond polite cusses—”heck,” “rats,” “dang,” “darn,” “shoot,” etc.—but rarely, if ever, profanity.

PG-rated films may have mild profanity—”damn” and “hell”—while PG-13 rated films may contain stronger language. Depending on the target audience—rather than a film’s actual age rating—an F-bomb can be used, provided that the word is not used with a sexual meaning.

The F-Bomb

“Most films,” said Freeman, “are allowed one use of the F-word (if not used in sexual context) in PG-13. Some films are allowed two. One major exception to the language standard was the war documentary Gunners Palace, which had ‘strong language throughout.’ Note that this film won the rating based on an appeals process, and is not the norm.”

If the F-word is spoken more than once or used in a sexual context, it is routine today for a film to receive an R rating. There have multiple exceptions to the “two F-word” ruling so far: Bully, a 2011 documentary about bullying, the aforementioned Gunner Palace, a documentary of soldiers in the Second Gulf War (the film has 42 uses of the word, two of which were sexual), The Hip Hop ProjectPhilomena, Adventures in Babysitting (the word is used twice in the same scene), and more recently, The Martian, which used the word twice.

Also, the word “motherfucker” cannot be spoken at all in films rated lower than R because it is considered too offensive. Perhaps the most famous issue regarding that word and the ratings system came with Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth Die Hard movie and the first that was rated below R (it was deemed PG-13). John McClane’s famous catch phrase was cut short by a gunshot, partly in order to attain the studio’s desired PG-13 rating to broaden the film’s audience (which backfired somewhat as it angered Die Hard fans).

Any explicit and grotesque sexual dialogue will require an NC-17 rating; in some cases, an R-rated film will contain some strong sexual dialogue (i.e. The To-Do List). So tread careful on that front.

Additionally, some notable PG films contain uses of the F-word, including BigBeetlejuice, All the President’s Men, The Front, Spaceballs, Sixteen Candles, Terms of Endearment and Tootsie. The first two were released in 1988, four years after the PG-13 was introduced, whilst the latter four were originally rated R for language, but their ratings were overturned on appeal. Spaceballs was released in 1987 three years after the introduction of PG-13.

Drug Use

A reference to drugs, including marijuana, usually gets a film a PG-13 rating. An example of an otherwise PG film getting a PG-13 for a drug reference: Whale Rider. The film contained only mild profanity but received a PG-13 because of a scene where drug paraphernalia were briefly visible. Critic Roger Ebert criticized the MPAA for the rating and called it “a wild overreaction.” Having illegal drug use and/or abusing drugs, as well as onscreen drug overdose, requires an R or NC-17 rating.

“When [drug-use] involves children and teens, or happens more often than adults fairly briefly smoking pot recreationally, a film will more than likely be rated R,” added Freeman.

Nudity

As of 2010, the MPAA has added “male nudity” to its description of films featuring sexual content. A brief scene of nudity (non-sexual) will require a PG-rating. More than a brief nudity (non-sexual) will require a PG-13 rating. Sexually oriented or full-frontal nudity will require an R rating. Explicit or violent sex scenes, including scenes of rape or sexual assault, will require an NC-17 rating.

So what does this all mean for the screenwriter?

Whether they agree with the MPAA Ratings Board restrictions or not, screenwriters should be aware of ratings when writing a script. You, the screenwriter, don’t have to obsess about these rating restriction factors. But you should at least be aware of the broad strokes.

There can always minor rewrites to tone down the sex, violence and language of any given script under consideration. A producer or development executive isn’t going to dismiss a script that they otherwise want because the hero drops a few F-bombs rather than one.

The larger point here is that screenwriters need to do their best to cater to the needs of any given demographic, in regards to what ratings that demographic usually watches. That’s what the people who may be making your movie need to do. Don’t give them a reason to say no.

Freeman noted, “I’ve found that when producers have a strong plan to reach their rating objectives, it only helps them in securing budgets and time.”

And it can aid your writing as well. If you’re looking to cut scenes, the knowledge offered above may help you make that decision. Do you need that sexy, but perhaps too graphic, sex scene in your script? Do you need that character to drop the F-bomb every other sentence? Do you need to showcase that gratuitous violent moment? If the answer is no—or if you can alter those moments to lessen the extremeness—you have an easy cut, and can probably open a couple more doors of opportunity for your script and writing. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

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