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ID checks and balances

Culture | Why Hollywood is suddenly cutting back on R-rated movies

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

Adult-rated movies are not necessarily for adults. Teenagers under the R limit of 17 and even pre-teens have been the major clientele for many R-rated movies. But now the free economic marketplace seems to be clicking in to tone down, at least to some extent, the moral licentiousness that has become a trademark of Hollywood movies. (See WORLD, June 16.)

When the Federal Communications Commission released its study proving that Hollywood was marketing R-rated fare to children who, by the industry's own rating system, were too young to see it, a rare thing happened in the culture wars. Virtually everyone agreed that this practice is a bad thing. Not only conservatives but liberals were appalled at the way R-rated movies were pitched to Girl Scouts, advertised on kiddie-TV, and focus-grouped to teeny-boppers. No one could defend this sort of thing, not even members of the film industry.

Facing bipartisan attacks from Congress, Hollywood promised to do a better job of regulating itself. Local movie theaters took the lead, vowing to check IDs and, in the words of the rating policy, not to admit anyone under the age of 17 to an R-rated movie unless accompanied by a parent or a guardian. The publicity flacks and the TV stations agreed to stop airing ads for adult movies during cartoon time and on pre-teens' favorite shows, saving them for late at night, after bedtime. The Motion Picture Association of America, the arm of the film industry that administers the rating system, set some specific policies: R-rated films are not to be advertised on TV shows for which more than 35 percent of their audience is under 17; and no longer may previews for R-rated movies appear ahead of G or PG-rated features.

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Although young people are still slipping into R-rated movies-or are accompanied by overly obliging parents-the new policies are having an effect. Deprived of the pre-17 audience, R-rated movies this summer have been bombing like the Zeroes at Pearl Harbor.

For example, Angel Eyes, starring pop singer Jennifer Lopez, took in only $9 million its first week, against a projected opening of $14 million. The Mexican, starring the teenage girls' heartthrob Brad Pitt, took in $20 million, against expectations of $28 million. Gross-out comedy Tomcats pulled in a mere $6.5 million, 30 percent less than expected. Despite stars and subject matter that appeal to teenagers more than adults, these movies had enough sex, violence, and bad language to earn an R rating.

Teenagers wanted to see these movies, according to a study by industry pollster MarketCast, but they were deterred by the crackdown, not wanting the embarrassment of being refused admission when they tried to buy a ticket (an effect especially strong among teenage girls).

As reported by Sharon Waxman in The Washington Post, MarketCast concluded that on the average, R-rated movies were losing 12 percent of their revenue by excluding younger audiences. This is a big hit for the movie industry, especially considering that teenagers make up the biggest movie-going demographic, with 49 percent going to the movies at least once a month, more than any other age group.

Those kinds of numbers are enough to make movie moguls forget about their vaunted "artistic integrity" and go to the cutting room. Studios are editing out enough sex, gore, and bad language from R-releases to earn them at least a PG-13. Ms. Waxman quotes Joe Roth, producer of Tomcats, who says that he is giving up on making rude, crude, and lewd comedies. "This is material that's mostly innately appealing to 12- to 16-year-olds, so you're really stuck."

Not that movies are completely cleaning up their act. There has been a bracket creep in the ratings, so that movies that once would have earned an R now are mild enough for a PG. The PG-13 rating allows for brief nudity, innuendoes, and language unacceptable to most families. Thus Moulin Rouge, the musical about a decadent French nightclub featuring Nicole Kidman as a high-priced prostitute, scores a PG-13 rating.

PG still stands for "parental guidance," something often in short supply when children go to the movies. Furthermore, since the rating system only looks at obvious surface negative elements, the film's message, which can be even more harmful, is never factored in. Even G-rated cartoons can convey a New Age or left-wing message that parents may not consider appropriate for their kids.

Still, it is refreshing to see the power of the economic marketplace acting as a brake on some of Hollywood's worst tendencies.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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