November 24, 1999Escaping 'R'
Note: The part of this article
relevant to LOTR is highlighted in orange.
James Bond has X-ray glasses and a missile-firing BMW in The
World Is Not Enough, but the device that earned 007's new movie its record-breaking
crowds was its PG-13 rating.
The action picture placed No. 1 at the box office this weekend, grossing an estimated
$37.2 million - the largest opening in MGM's history. It is the fourth consecutive Bond
movie to be rated PG-13, and that's no accident.
"It is a very intentional thing," says Larry
Gleason, MGM's president of worldwide distribution. "If there was ever a statement of
the strength of PG-13, it is this movie. Sixty percent of our male audience was under 25.
We are getting a very young audience. (They) have to be credited for our increased
Over the past decade, PG-13 has become almost essential for big-time box office success.
Since PG-13 was created in July 1984, 21 films have grossed more than $200 million.
Thirteen of those mega-blockbusters were PG-13 - 10 more than R or PG, the ratings that
tied for second on the list.
The reason: "PG-13" signals that the movie isn't kiddie fare - but anyone can
get in. Adopted in response to violence in the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple
of Doom and Gremlins, PG-13 comes with this advisory: "Parents strongly
cautioned - some material may be inappropriate for children under 13." But parents
are not required to accompany their kids - unlike R-rated movies, which those under 17 are
not allowed to attend unless accompanied by an adult.
That means a bigger pool of viewers from the get-go.
"As long as you can avoid diminishing the creative integrity of the film, I don't
think any film should be released with an R rating," says Gary Barber of Spyglass
Entertainment, which co-financed the PG-13 The Sixth Sense." PG-13 opens up
a vast audience - especially in the American heartland."
That is particularly important today because the National Association of Theater Owners in
June said it would crack down on teens sneaking into R-rated movies by requiring
A PG rating also can be toxic to a film because it's perceived by many moviegoing teens as
being less mature than a PG-13.
"I'm 16, and I don't see PG films anymore," says Alex Lerchen of Fairfield,
Conn. "They are for younger audiences. They are usually, like, childhood
"I'm a parent of four, and my children want to see something that they will enjoy and
that they can say to their peers, 'I saw this movie,' " says producer Steve Stabler,
who has done such PG-13 films as Bats and Dumb and Dumber. "It
impresses their friends a lot more when they've seen a PG-13 movie as opposed to a PG
Yet it's hard to define what will get a PG-13 rating. The Motion Picture Association of
America's ratings board does not have a specific policy on which types of films will
receive which ratings. Though PG-13 usually means less nudity, violence and foul language
than an R, the content varies with the tastes and tolerances of the board, made up of a
rotating group of eight to 13 parents.
It shows. Mrs. Doubtfire, Jurassic Park, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Dirty
Dancing and Twister have all earned the PG-13 rating.
Figuring out how to get a PG-13 can prove vital to studios for reasons other than getting
young fans into theaters. Most notably: corporate tie-ins. Studios can defray marketing
costs by teaming with an outside company for a cross-promotional media blitz. But many
companies shy away from R-rated films.
The new Bond has tie-ins with BMW and Omega watches, among others. And MGM has a
comprehensive pact to advertise The World Is Not Enough worldwide on MTV - a deal
that would have been extremely difficult had the film been rated R.
"It is rare for an R-rated film to get corporate" involvement, says Universal
marketing chief Marc Shmuger. "If that becomes an essential component of the
marketing, then the need to have a more toned-down rating becomes heightened."
Aware of what's at stake, studios are making sure that, whenever possible, their most
commercial prospects turn out PG-13. For years, filmmakers signed contracts promising
their movies would get at least an R rating. The concern was that a film rated NC-17 (the
rating that replaced X) could not make money because no one under 17 may be admitted -
even with a parent. Now contracts often are written to ensure that a movie comes in with a
rating no more restrictive than PG-13.
As part of his deal, director Sam Raimi, for example, had to make sure that For Love
of the Game wasn't going to be R-rated. Filmmaker Peter
Jackson, now shooting the three Lord of the Rings films, is obligated to do the
Even when there isn't a binding mandate, industry players aim for PG-13. Filmmakers often
pre-emptively cut scenes the MPAA board might find objectionable, and a rating can always
Last week, for instance, actor Kirk Douglas personally persuaded the board to switch his
upcoming film, Diamonds (opening Dec. 10), from an R to a PG-13. Douglas and the
movie's distributor, Miramax, argued that the comedy, which has no violence or nudity but
does have sexual content and drug use, shouldn't have a restricted rating.
For some, Hollywood's PG-13 efforts are unsettling.
After the high school shootings in Littleton, Colo., President Clinton railed against
PG-13, putting out a statement that asked the movie industry to "re-evaluate its
ratings system, with a specific focus on the PG-13 rating."
"When a movie is labeled PG-13, parents should not have to worry about their
teenagers watching it," the Clinton statement said. "Yet many of these movies
contain gratuitous and graphic violence - violence of the kind that parents want to and
properly should know about."
Other critics concur. Joe Zanger, managing editor of PG-14, an online newsletter
run by parents and teachers that reports on movie content, believes that PG-13 should be
abolished and that studios should have to choose between PG and R.
"PG-13 was designed, I believe, to apply the friendly PG symbol to movies that have
no business even being considered for viewing by most young teenagers and preteens,"
he says. " The age assignment for the rating is deceptive, and it lulls parents into
a false sense of security."
Zanger points to the PG-13 Martin Lawrence comedy Blue Streak as "an R-rated
film that slipped through the system."
"It was almost wall-to-wall violence, with two coldblooded, premeditated murders
central to the plot," he says. "In addition, the bad guy got away with the
There are no plans to alter the ratings system, MPAA chairman Jack Valenti says. The
organization did announce last week that language explaining why a film received its
rating will appear on all print advertising beginning next year.
In defending the ratings, Valenti points to a Opinion Research Corp. poll that says 76% of
parents with children under age 13 found the ratings to be "very useful" to
Valenti acknowledges that the criteria for PG-13 have become more lenient. But he believes
that's a function of current culture, not an effort by the ratings board to be more
permissive. "The society isn't what it used to be. The worst thing that can happen in
a democracy is rigidity - an unwillingness to change. The same can be said for the ratings