The MPAA rating system is outdated and irrelevant. But at one point, it made sense.
It was created in 1967 to allow the industry to self-govern itself and avoid government interference and censorship (which occasionally threatens, but never gets beyond the talking stage). It positioned itself as the industry-sanctioned guidance committee devoted to help concerned parents choose and monitor what films their children should see in theatres.
It never had the force of law. But it was generally in a theatre's interest to follow the ratings.
Allowing underage kids to see adult material would have the local parents up in arms. It wouldn't do to have immature kids or giggling teens into films where they'll just misbehave, throw spitballs, or jeer when Brad Pitt drops his toga.
We don’t like it when adults giggle, smoke, or talk either. But it’s harder to identify them ahead of time (there are exceptions). The age cut-off is arbitrary but a useful profiling guideline. And may not entirely be legal. But in the age before cable TV, the internet, and the glut of media information, it placed a certain power in our hands.
Unfortunately, many of the parents dropping off these kids didn’t seem to understand the ratings. Too often, when presented with the fact that the film is rated “R," for either gore, sexuality, or drug use, the parents of these underage kids, wanting to go have a night of adult entertainment for themselves, invariably say, “It’s okay, they’ve seen worse at home."
Presumably, on TV, and not at the dinner table over dessert.
The parents wave at us from the car, smiling, “It's okay!" They don't realize they should be interested in what material their kids are consuming (whether it’s “The Matrix Reloaded,” (rated “R” for overly silly fighting), “Half-Baked” (rated “R” for insistent drug use), or “The Passion of the Christ” (rated “R” for graphic images of our Savior being beaten to a pulp).).
Households are filled with images and words nowadays: double entendres on sitcoms, T&A cable movies, and porn and beheadings on the internet - the potency of all this material has been deluded by its sheer mass.
It’s impossible to impose a rigid age deciding when people are able to handle certain material. Immature people (of all ages) will not treat the sight of Anthony Hopkins eating brains in “Hannibal” the respect it deserves. It would be nice to be able to filter jerks and assholes out at the door when we sell tickets, but in the absence of actual membership cards to these large and growing clubs, restricting people by an arbitrary age is the most effective if imperfect first step to reduce problems.
The age of 17 is a guideline rather than a rule. There's an error rate of 2 or 3 years in either direction.
We once kicked a group of four 15-year-olds out of "Kill Bill Vol. 2," in spite of their best efforts to get in, including buying tickets to “Home On The Range.” Pissed and defiant, they walked down the street to the local drug store, bought a copy of "Kill Bill Vol. 1"on DVD and walked back over waving it in their hands at us, proving they did have practically infinite access to as dangerous material as they could find (and “Vol. 1” was so much bloodier, more immoral, and narratively transgressive than “Vol. 2").
So why stop them from coming in?
An old co-worker of mine once let a 14-year-old kid in to see an “R” rated film he was trying to sneak into back at the old UA, With this caveat: he had to sit down and watch it, then tell him about it at the end. No playing, no letting his friends in the exit, you wanna sneak it to see it - go do it. But sit. And watch.
Well, the kid left after 11 minutes. The prize was so much less sweet when not earned.
More than one mom took their 2-year-old in to see "Se7en" The other customers in the theatre were made insane seeing these very impressionable babies watching that deviant behavior up on the big screen. (With wide silent eyes.) They demanded we call the cops.
We’re not the parents. We only show the movies. But we try to preserve order as best we can.
These kids, they say "The MPAA sucks" and I ask them why, and they say "Because they censor stuff." They don't. "Because they put an R rating on sex but not on violence." And I ask them what film exactly they weren't able to see because of an MPAA rating? What image was withheld from them - what deleted scene on "The Girl Next Door" wasn't on the DVD they BitTorrent'd last week? Exactly what effect the MPAA really has, when they merely slap an advisory label, intended solely for parents, on a film in which the parents pay not attention?
How nice to be in the movie theatre business, and feel like you’re making a difference in these kids’ future.