LOS ANGELES - Rating films often is an inexact science, but if there's anything precise about the Motion Picture Association of America's guidelines, it's the rules on the dreaded F-word.
The MPAA, which is funded by the industry's seven major studios, is so specific that it outlines what it thinks is the exact number of times that a movie should use the expletive it refers to as "one of the harsher sexually-derived words."
When it comes to rating pictures, any single appearance of the word in a film automatically warrants a PG-13. Using it twice, or even just once in a sexual context, results in the R rating.
Well, most of the time, anyway. Despite its specificity on use of the word, the MPAA on some rare occasions has made exceptions and allowed PG-13 ratings when the F-word gets used.
"It's not a mathematical formula. It's a guideline," says Rich Taylor, MPAA spokesman.
The F-word rule came into practice with the creation of the PG-13 rating category in 1984. Since then, it has caused several filmmakers to make changes in the embryonic stages of making a movie to avoid an R rating, which limits the potential audience.
Early scripts circulated online for Sony Corp.'s 1998 PG-13 film Stepmom show there were 11 F-words, but only one made it to the final cut.
Films such as Warner's The Bridges Of Madison County, Sony's My Best Friend's Wedding and As Good As It Gets have appealed and won. Both Bridges and Wedding used the word once in a sexual setting.
Sony wouldn't comment on why it appealed those films. Warner officials say that with Bridges, the studio targeted an audience interested in romance novels, moviegoers who might be turned off by an R rating. The MPAA declined to discuss its decisions on individual films.
"An appeal can be made for context and other sorts of things," Taylor said. Asked why the MPAA is specific at all, Taylor said that's a reflection of what parents are seeking.
Other countries' film boards don't monitor language this closely. Britain, for example, keeps a closer eye on violence.
There are some instances, though, where U.S. filmmakers didn't even have to appeal at all.
Sony's The American President and Warner's Ocean's Eleven remake from 2001 got through without an R rating. President has three uses of the word while Ocean's uses it twice.
MPAA ratings officials have wiggle room. Taylor says there are instances where the ratings board will simply decide on its own that a film deserves a PG-13 without an appeal.
According to MPAA guidelines, "These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote, the Rating Board feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents."
So what happened prior to 1984, when there was no PG-13? The F-word still was a factor in decision-making, and filmmakers appealed and sometimes won. But those that won ended up with a PG rating - and there often were more uses of the word.
Two notable exceptions: 1983's The Right Stuff and 1976's All The President's Men, two Warner films about critical junctures in U.S. history.
The Right Stuff came away with five uses of the term, while All The President's Men had seven.