For today, another simple look at the statistics of the Oscars. This time around, I’m looking at the MPAA ratings assigned to the movies — just to see what sort of films get nominated for Best Picture, in terms of age-appropriateness.
Now, this doesn’t cover every Best Picture for a simple reason: Not every Best Picture has an MPAA rating. Early on, there was no regulation or rating system on films. The Hays Code was established in 1930, so for the first few years of the Oscars, it was pretty much “anything goes” as far as what filmmakers could do. With the Hays Code it was more restrictive, but the only rating was “Approved”.
It wasn’t until 1968 that the MPAA ratings were established as we know them today — sort of.
There are two pie charts, which I’ll explain in a little bit (though it’s reasonably obvious). There are a few things to explain about the first pie chart by itself. The first thing is the M/GP/PG category. From its inception, the MPAA rating system has had a grade in between G (General Audiences) and R (Restricted). Initially this rating was M (Mature); the use of the label “Mature” made some people think it was more adult-oriented than R, and so it was changed. It then became GP (“General audiences, parental guidance suggested”). This was eventually changed to PG, presumably because somebody told the MPAA that abbreviations are supposed to be straightforward. The three labels are all essentially the same rating, as — to my understanding — the criteria for the rating did not change, only the label did.
X, meanwhile, did not mean pornographic — although the pornographers appropriated it for their own term. This is why the MPAA later changed it to the more-easily-trademarked NC-17. Only two films with an X rating have ever been nominated for Best Picture — Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange — and it’s questionable whether either would have received an NC-17 today. Midnight Cowboy has since been re-rated as R, and a slightly edited version of A Clockwork Orange was re-rated as R as well. Both re-releases were during the 70s, so it’s likely that if they passed “R” muster back then they would today.
What we see in that breakdown isn’t too surprising — R and PG films make up the bulk of it. PG is actually the largest chunk, but Hollywood didn’t strive for the “R is for grown ups” rating quite as much in the 1960s as they did in the late 1970s and 1980s. And, of course, PG didn’t mean quite the same thing back then as it does now.
That’s why there are two pie charts. Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and a few other PG-rated movies were sufficiently gory that parents didn’t think they fit in the PG rating… but the MPAA didn’t feel they warranted an R. So in 1984 they established the PG-13 rating. Some PG-13 films would have been placed in PG before, and some of them would have been rated R. There’s no meaningful way for me to filter out what “should have” been PG-13 before 1984, so giving a proper idea of what the rating breakdown is requires me to split the charts at 1984 — the same as excluding the pre-MPAA rating films.
This does show a few surprises, though. That PG-13 makes up a sizable chunk of the post-1984 pie isn’t surprising. (Incidentally, the first PG-13 Best Picture nominee was The Color Purple.) What’s surprising is that its chunk appears to have come entirely at the expense of the PG rating. The R rating has actually shifted to being the outright majority rating — and G has virtually vanished. This probably doesn’t reflect anything on the mindset of the Oscar voters themselves, but rather the filmmakers. In recent years, there’s been a shift to thinking that PG movies earn more money than G-rated films (Disney being a steadfast holdout for the most part). There’s also been an apparent trend toward thinking that if a film is serious, it needs to be rated R. I’m not sure why “themes that only an adult will think about” means “we gotta have a sex scene”, but all right.
There’s one little oddity on the post-1984 chart, and that’s the unrated film. Theoretically there shouldn’t be any such thing in the MPAA rating era, but A Room With a View apparently squeaked by without one. As far as I can tell, this is because it had only a very limited U.S. release.
Other than that, it looks like the takeaway here is that the more mature the rating, the more likely a film is to get an Oscar nomination — as long as it doesn’t cross into NC-17 territory.