Sure, Adam Sandler threw a touchdown over the Memorial Day weekend with The Longest Yard, scoring $59 million at the box office. But his remake was sacked by critics. At fault, some said, was the broadness of the movie’s humor and, specifically, how filmmakers took a crudely funny and violent R-rated Burt Reynolds picture from 1974 and turned it into a PG-13 comedy vehicle that’s just plain bland.
They were definitely onto something. As summer heats up, Hollywood studios are betting on a slew of potential blockbusters like Revenge of the Sith and Batman Begins, all armed with the rating designed to bait the widest audiences — PG-13. In fact, PG-13 movies now account for around half of the annual overall box office take, while only about a quarter of ticket sales come from R-rated films. Which isn’t to say that R-rated movies don’t make money — far from it (see sidebar). It’s just that Hollywood is taking fewer chances these days. Ever since a blistering 2000 FTC report on movie marketing, the major studios have veered away from films that confidently ignore the now coveted, cash-happy teenage demographic. The result is a sanitizing so deep that it may even be contributing to the current 14-week slump at the box office.
”Is the potential audience for a PG-13 film greater than for an R-rated film? More times than not, yes,” says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, whose low-budget R-rated drama Crash has grossed an impressive $36 million so far this summer. ”But does that mean that that’s an equation that works for all movies? No.”
Just to be clear, we’re not dissing the movie-ratings system or the idea of PG-13 films. But, as Ortenberg points out, cutting every movie to attract the biggest crowd possible can hurt box office more than it helps. ”We want to please the core audience,” Ortenberg says of such controversial R-rated Lions Gate releases as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Saw, ”and we don’t think that we’re going to do that by watering them down.” Look no further than Oscar for proof: Of the 20 Best Picture winners since the PG-13 rating began in 1984, 10 have been R compared with 8 PG-13s.
Some filmmakers are paying attention and going balls out, so to speak, this summer. While an R rating may limit their theatrical draw, it may actually help them with the DVD release, where R-rated and unrated cuts are a proven draw. ”The PG-13 rating has softened comedies,” says Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed August’s Steve Carell farce The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he pitched to Universal as an R-rated movie in the spirit of such raunchy classics as Animal House and Caddyshack. With that rating came greater leeway with improvisation, where much of comedy is born. And with a budget under $30 million, Apatow isn’t under pressure to earn tons in theaters. ”I’m not R because I want to blow people’s minds with how filthy it is. I’m R because it’s weird to have a movie about sex where people use the F-curse once [commonly believed to be the MPAA’s PG-13/R boundary].”