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I recently re-watched The Imitation Game and I noticed during the startup on Netflix the rating includes "historical smoking":

A screenshot showing that the movie "The Imitation Game" is rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material, and historical smoking.

For those who'd like a copypasta version:

Rated PG-13
some sexual references, mature thematic material, and historical smoking

I did some Google searching and after several pages have still come up empty-handed.


What is meant by "historical smoking", and how is this different from a typical "smoking" rating element?

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    I think it means the people who did the smoking are dead now.
    – AJFaraday
    Nov 9, 2022 at 8:59
  • @AJFaraday - a bit tenuous but "The Final Season" (2007) set n the 1990s, based on a true story, had a "historical smoking" descriptor and the characters are still alive. Nov 9, 2022 at 15:27
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    Keep in mind the MPAA and ratings they give are technically optional for movie studios to use. I suspect there is quite a large amount of subjectivity as to what counts as smoking, "historical smoking", "tobacco depictions", etc. Personally, I'd bet the MPAA says that the studio must note there's smoking. Then it's up to the studio to phrase it in a way that won't deter people from otherwise seeing the movie. . "Smoking" bad, "historical smoking" less bad?
    – BruceWayne
    Nov 9, 2022 at 18:00
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    @BruceWayne: Nope, it's all or nothing. Either you accept the rating and descriptor you are given, you negotiate with the MPAA to get a different rating and/or descriptor, or you don't have your movie rated at all (and then you lose a boatload of money because nobody will screen it without a rating). See these rules for the gory details, specifically Article II, Section 2, Paragraph G.
    – Kevin
    Nov 9, 2022 at 19:57
  • @Kevin - Oh, thanks for that! I didn't know the MPAA also gave the descriptors.
    – BruceWayne
    Nov 9, 2022 at 23:09

1 Answer 1

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TL;DR:

Some distributors have context-related descriptors for their movies:

Disney for example says NO to new characters smoking in new films, but if a historical figure is portrayed smoking, because it was what they really did back then, then it gets a "historical smoking" descriptor.

(Following criticism from senators and pressure groups, the group responsible for the rating systems, MPAA, announced a shift in policy in 2007 to consider the use of smoking when rating films from then on. That policy has been updated since then to include anyone seen smoking in films, and the descriptors used showed added context (ie. 'historical' for period-relevant smoking depiction)

The following does give light to where the meaning comes from and its distinction form normal smoking: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/alan-horn-talks-disney-fox-merger-streaming-pixar-post-john-lasseter-1187054/

With Fox, we can make movies that right now I say no to. Take Bohemian Rhapsody, which is PG-13. It’s a hit movie and very, very good. But there’s no way we could make it under the Disney label because the characters smoke cigarettes and other content. Nor could we have made [Warner Bros.’ R-rated] Oscar-winning Argo because the characters smoke and use the F-word.

We always have to think about the smoking policy. The audience for a Disney movie may not know what they are going to see, but they know what they aren’t going to see. There are certain things we just can’t include because we’ll get letters.

So, smoking and bad language, that explains why we don't see those in the films.

However there is a caveat to the smoking ban if it is period accurate!

Speaking at the Disney shareholder meeting in 2015, executive and former CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, said: "We are extending our policy to prohibit smoking in movies across the board: Marvel, Lucas, Pixar and Disney films.

"In terms of any new characters that are created for any of those films, under any of those labels, we will absolutely prohibit smoking in any of those films."

However, he added: "Except when we are depicting a historical figure who may have smoked at the time.

"For instance, we've been doing a movie on Abraham Lincoln, he was a smoker, and we would consider that acceptable."

https://www.mirror.co.uk/film/disney-films-ban-meaning-you-23548771

The Motion Picture Association of America has announced that, along with swearing, sex and violence, smoking on screen will help determine what audience-rating a film receives. The MPAA says it will consider how much a movie glorifies tobacco use, and who's doing the puffing. The movie board says they will weigh historic context, as well.

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10141697

MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman said his group's ratings board, which previously had considered underage smoking in assigning film ratings, now will take into account smoking by adults, as well.

Film raters will consider the pervasiveness of tobacco use, whether it glamorizes smoking and the context in which smoking appears, as in movies set in the past when smoking was more common.

Descriptions on sex, violence and language that accompany movie ratings now will include such phrases as "glamorized smoking" or "pervasive smoking," Glickman said.

If rated today, a film such as 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck," about chain-smoking newsman Edward R. Murrow, would have carried a "pervasive smoking" tag but probably would have retained its PG rating because of its historical context in the 1950s, Graves said.

https://escholarship.org/content/qt5sr9w2s1/qt5sr9w2s1_noSplash_8e29988a7d738adc7ad7c334a752c557.pdf

Are MPAA’s tobacco labels protecting movie audiences?

The MPAA has never used the phrases “pervasive smoking” or “glamorized smoking,” as it originally proposed. Instead, it has either used “smoking,” with nothing to indicate the harm potential, or modified “smoking” with terms that minimize or even justify (“historical smoking”) the film’s tobacco content.

Overrated? It’s a PG-13 world; we’re just living in it

Drug use, teen drinking and even smoking can give the MPAA ratings mavens the conniptions. “The Imitation Game,” another decorous period piece, was tagged PG-13 because of “historical smoking.”

https://eu.galesburg.com/story/entertainment/movies/2015/08/13/ben-steelman-overrated-it-s/33685140007/

https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/mpaa-adds-smoking-film-rating-factor-29444/

https://www.cnsnews.com/mrctv-blog/eric-scheiner/warning-historical-smoking-and-e-cigarettes-are-visible

Smoking Makes a Cinematic Comeback

Smoking also raises ratings issues in movies. It was seldom seen on TV for a while (TV ads for tobacco products have been banned since 1971) but has returned with vigor, especially on streaming services. Some historical figures, such as Winston Churchill with his cigar in Darkest Hour (2017), would not seem accurately portrayed without their tobacco products.

These widely accepted, but not universally true, ideas about how much people used to smoke in the old days have given rise to the interesting MPAA rating description “historical smoking.”

https://publicsquaremag.org/media-education/for-mature-audiences-only-relabeling-crass-media/


The linked PDF also includes a list of various descriptors applied between 2007-2010:

https://escholarship.org/content/qt8hn866tt/qt8hn866tt_noSplash_7901ea31c2ee8889a48bd25c4fdde316.pdf

  • not many include "historical" smoking, but at least one does where the real-life characters portrayed are still alive (as of 2022).
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    So could Disney make Alice in Wonderland today due to the hookah-smoking caterpillar? Or does the fact that the fictional character smoked in the source book make him 'historically smoking'?
    – Kirt
    Nov 8, 2022 at 1:35
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    @Kirt: I'm pretty sure that caterpillar is not smoking tobacco... can you imagine a Disney movie getting an "illegal drugs" content warning?
    – Kevin
    Nov 8, 2022 at 8:01
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    It's hard to imagine a depiction of Harold Wilson without his trademark pipe. Though I read somewhere that he only used it for effect: in private he preferred cigars, but that would have sent the wrong message... Nov 8, 2022 at 9:29
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    Now, does historical have to mean "long dead"? You gave the example of Abraham Lincoln, but you don't have to go back nearly that far. Barrack Obama was known to sneak out for the occasional cigarette as well while in office, and he's still alive and well. (I don't believe either Trump or Biden smoked, but maybe?) Would an accurate portrayal of a still-living historical figure be allowed to light up on screen? Is it different if it's the actual person and not an actor portraying them? Nov 8, 2022 at 21:53
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    Pinocchio 2022 remake: "children can’t handle things like tobacco or the image of a child shapeshifted into a donkey wailing for his mother. Nobody smokes on Pleasure Island and they dubbed in a line about the frothy mugs being root beer." Nov 8, 2022 at 22:02

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