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In the USA the MPAA rates movies according to the appropriate audiences on a scale of G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. Only the last two impose any constraint on who can see it (for R an adult must accompany the viewer, for NC-17 only people 18 or older can see it).

In the UK the ratings are U, PG, 12-A, 15, 18 and R18. The numeric ratings mean nobody under that age can see the movie (except for 12-A where an adult must accompany under 12s but they really shouldn't be shown to under 12s according to the advice; R-18 is reserved for, basically, porn shown in specially licensed premises). Other European systems are usually similar to the UK but with different details.

Many Europeans are mystified at the American system which seems very tolerant of violence but puritanical about anything sexual. They are also mystified that the American system's lax attitude to age restriction leaves a whole category (NC-17) which many cinemas won't show when the European mandatory age restriction avoids this by making the rating clearer so audiences can safely choose appropriate content.

But the criteria for putting movies in different categories also seem to be very different. What are the key differences between the movie content that generates the different categories in US-style and European-style ratings systems?

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  • @Paulie_D I was hoping to see examples taken from actual movies with ratings so we don't need the explicit criteria form the MPAA. What are the broad determinants according to what actually movies show?
    – matt_black
    Jul 26 '18 at 12:00
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    @Paulie_D I think you are stretching the definition of "opinion" in this context. IF an analysis of features of movies shows that, for example, full frontal nudity only occurs in R-rated but never in PG-13, then it isn't an opinion but strong evidence that this is an important part of the criterion for an R-rating.
    – matt_black
    Jul 26 '18 at 12:10
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    The British Board of Film Classification has a very useful guide to its system on its webpage.bbfc.co.uk/what-classification/classification-guidelines .Click on the rating to see their criteria.
    – Sarriesfan
    Mar 16 '19 at 14:07
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Wikipedia has a comprehensive chart comparing how different rating systems around the world are structured.

One important difference between MPAA ratings and some other countries' rating systems is that the MPAA is a non-governmental organization and its ratings are voluntary, whilst in many countries ratings are mandatory and/or given by a governmental agency; for example, France's Ministry of Culture is in charge of ratings in France. In the United States it is not a crime to permit a child of any age to view any non-pornographic film, whereas in some countries admitting children to films of certain ratings is illegal.

It's hard to compare the criteria other countries use against those in the U.S. because the MPAA is famously opaque about what criteria they use. For a deep dive on this topic, I recommend the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Moreover, what criteria do exist have changed over the years: early G ratings like Head and Tora! Tora! Tora! contain graphic war violence, whilst the formerly X-rated Midnight Cowboy was later reduced to an R rating without editing.

Broadly speaking, sexuality and coarse language are more likely to inflate a rating in the United States than elsewhere, though this is of course a gross generalization. Conversely, certain types of content are treated more seriously outside of the United States, such as "incitement to violence" and "incitement to hatred", and it is difficult for any film to receive an NC-17 rating from the MPAA on violence alone. These countervailing forces have resulted in an overbroad R rating that includes films with merely moderate coarse language alongside films with extremely violent scenes and adult themes. Some European rating boards tend to be more consistent and transparent.

Slightly off-topic, my favourite MPAA rating is Twister's PG-13 "for intense depiction of very bad weather". Somehow, The Wizard of Oz, whose tornado terrified generations of children, received only a G rating.

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