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Let's say one opens a new movie theater in New York City that is accessible to the public. Are there any laws in New York state or the US in general that would force the cinema to adhere to MPAA ratings and age-restrict access to certain showings? Or is it all completely voluntary and there are in fact cinemas that don't care about the MPAA?

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It's voluntary.

Here's a little bit of an interview with a representative from the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO):

“The rating system is voluntary, but we strongly encourage theaters to enforce the rating age restrictions as applied to any movie,” a NATO spokesperson told theWrap.


MPAA Can’t Enforce Rating as NY Theater Ignores NC-17 for ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ - TheWrap

So, yes it is completely voluntary. In the same article, an example is provided of a theatre that ignored the rating provided by the MPAA.

One major New York theater, the IFC Center, has announced that it will not enforce the NC-17 rating given to “Blue Is the Warmest Color” — and there is nothing the Motion Picture Association of America can do to make them do it.


MPAA Can’t Enforce Rating as NY Theater Ignores NC-17 for ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ - TheWrap

So, theatres completely have the right to ignore the MPAA.

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    The voluntary rating system exists to pre-empt a forced rating system, so there is incentive for the movie industry to at least appear to “enforce” it, so that public outrage doesn’t grow to the point that laws are passed (or studios are boycotted). – Todd Wilcox Jun 6 at 2:19
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    For the reason @ToddWilcox mentions, the studios probably don't completely ignore compliance failures. As long as it's rare they probably won't do much, but if it becomes too widespread (and we can only guess what that would be in practice, I don't think a movie theatre in a major city like NYC probably could get away with doing it consistently) they will probably act. – Henrik - stop hurting Monica Jun 6 at 14:21
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    What does NATO stand for? – Acccumulation Jun 6 at 16:17
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    @Acccumulation National Association of Theater Owners. Answer should definitely clarify that. – yoozer8 Jun 6 at 16:20
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    @yoozer8: yeah, the only NATO I've heard of is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO), so I wondered what the military was had to do with this (for half a second until I realized it must be something else I'd never heard of.) Anyway, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Association_of_Theatre_Owners – Peter Cordes Jun 6 at 17:01

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