Culture

R-rated rut

Culture | Hollywood typically defends its entertainment offerings by saying that it is simply giving the audience what it wants

Issue: "Iraq: After the rout," April 26, 2003

Hollywood typically defends its entertainment offerings by saying that it is simply giving the audience what it wants, while Hollywood critic and film critic Michael Medved has claimed for years that R-rated movies are not, in general, as profitable as other films.

The Hollywood trade magazine Variety is reporting several statistics that chart the decline of R-rated movies and seem to support Mr. Medved's argument. Studios, which bow to market pressures far quicker than any other influence, are getting the message.

Eminem's 8 Mile was No. 21 on the list of highest grossing films in 2002. Why is this significant? Because there wasn't a single R-rated film among the 20 films ranked above 8 Mile on this list. And while 58 percent of the movies made in 2002 were rated R, they accounted for less than a quarter of the total box-office take for the year.

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There are many reasons R-rated films aren't as big a box-office draw. Variety points to simple economic factors. R-rated films face tighter advertising restrictions and don't have tie-in campaigns with toy manufacturers or fast-food venues that bring exposure to kid-friendly films. Theater owners, too, have stepped up efforts to police R-rated ticket sales to minors. But Mr. Medved has long claimed that audiences also prefer entertainment without graphic depictions of sex and violence or bad language when given the choice.

Whatever the factors, R-rated movies are becoming a financially less-desirable product for studios. Compared to 2001, 2002's lineup had nearly 10 percent fewer R-rated films, and their percentage of the overall box-office gross dropped by 4 percent. Variety also notes that although the $200-million mark is now a regular target for big summer releases, only four R-rated movies have achieved this goal. 2000's Gladiator is the only R-rated film among the top 10 grossing films of the last five years.

The pitfall of this trend-and it's a big one-is that the rating system is losing what little significance it still held. As studios push harder and harder to get their films the most marketable rating (typically PG-13), more graphic and offensive content gets crammed into this rating. Studios regularly appeal R ratings, often trimming just seconds of footage from their final cut.

As always, the usefulness of the ratings system depends on discerning viewers-in particular, discerning parents. It has long been true that a significant number of R-rated films are more edifying in subject matter and presentation than many PG-13 films. To take a current example, compare current box-office leaders Phone Booth (see below) and Anger Management (lewd, crude, and originally rated R by the MPAA). The days when studios add story elements-a particularly nasty word or a quick flash of gratuitous nudity-to jump up to an R rating may be waning, however. c -

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