PG flicks -- ''The Secret Garden'' and ''Free Willy'' are among the family-oriented films on which studios are setting their sights

By Ryan Murphy
Updated April 16, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Hollywood, the new scarlet letter is R. After years of churning out films that dripped with gore, violence, and a zillion variations on the F-word, the , studios are becoming even more puritanical than the Church Lady.

At Columbia Pictures, for example, chairman Mark Canton has made sure that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s summer blockbuster, Last Action Hero, keeps expletives and excessive violence to a minimum, insuring a PG-13 rating. Over at Paramount, sources say, one of the reasons new chairman Sherry Lansing pulled the plug on Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop III was because the script’s abundant cursing made an R rating inevitable; the retooled Cop III has been cleaned up for PG-13 audiences.

While studios will always release R-rated fare (”Believe me,” says Canton, ”Columbia Pictures is not going to turn into Nickelodeon”), the dash to make and release more PG- or PG-13-rated pictures has begun. What’s causing the family-film boom? In addition to the success of fare like Home Alone and Beethoven, insiders are citing a September 1992 box office study by Paul Kagan Associates, an entertainment-research firm. The report shows nearly half of the 46 movies to reach the $100 million mark at the box office from 1984 to 1991 were rated PG. The study concludes, ”There is an underexploited segment that could be costing the studios millions of dollars: family comedies and dramas that are rated PG.” Hollywood is heeding the survey’s advice. Cases in point:

*Twentieth Century Fox just signed Michael Jackson to produce ”family-oriented films.” Many of the Jackson films will be animated — a nod to Disney’s G-rated Aladdin, the studio’s highest-grossing film ever ($197 million).

*Warner Bros. is releasing four ”family” pictures this year, including this summer’s The Secret Garden and Free Willy. The studio’s 1992 family fare was minimal.

*Columbia’s PG-rated hit Groundhog Day, a $60 million grosser, has replaced Terminator 2 as the film everyone wants to copy. One Paramount executive says that at a recent story meeting, the word from on high was ”find us the next Groundhog Day.”

A changing marketplace might not be the only reason Hollywood is suddenly committed to making more family films. Most, if not all, of the executives who are green-lighting PG projects now have families of their own. ”It’s typical Hollywood self-indulgence,” says one studio vice president. ”These executives think that whatever phase of life they are in, that’s the phase most Americans are in too. The PG trend is about business, yes. But it’s also about taking care of business at home.”