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New Research Finds Bias in Hollywood’s Parental Guidance Ratings for Movies

Mar 01, 2010
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College Park, Md. – March 1, 2010 – New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Yale University School of Management finds films from well-known producers and directors receive more lenient parental guidance ratings by the Motion Picture Association of America than those produced by independent distributors or unknown producers and directors, an advantage that can lead to wider distribution and higher revenues at the box office. Researchers also found films from directors with a history of producing “R”-rated features consistently receive more restrictive ratings.

“Producers and distributors want lenient ratings for a bigger splash at the box office, but sex and violence sell films,” said David Waguespack, assistant professor of management and organization at the Smith School and co-author of the research. “Filmmakers that push the envelope, adding racy content and more violence while avoiding a restrictive rating, have an advantage at the box office.”

Waguespack and co-author Olav Sorenson, professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, looked at the parental guidance ratings films receive and how those ratings are determined by the Motion Picture Association of America. The industry association classifies films based on the suitability of content for children, assigning the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 by process of panel review and majority vote. Because children account for roughly one-third of film receipts, movies with restricted ratings earn less, on average.

When comparing films with similar content, Sorenson and Waguespack found an uneven playing field in the ratings game. They looked at data from Kids-in-Mind, a Web site that provides parents with detailed information on film content, and found a gap between higher and lower status projects in the assignment of ratings to films. Films produced by major Hollywood studios, as well as those involving big-name producers and directors, consistently receive less restrictive ratings.

“According to our analysis, a film with a moderate degree of sex and violence, for example a Kids-in-Mind score of 12, might be twice as likely to receive an R rating if distributed by an independent rather than one of the major studios,” noted Sorenson. “And that translates into profits. In our sample, films with a PG or PG-13 earned 76% more at the box office than those with an R.”

The researchers attribute the biases in ratings to three factors: power, or influence, of the filmmaker or production studio; the “halo effect,” or reputation of the producer; or what they dub proto-typicality – the type-cast effect that has producers who typically receive a certain rating for their work consistently receiving that rating, regardless of content.

The research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Organization Science.

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.