LOS ANGELES — The movie business has never been known for turning its back on profits. But observers are questioning whether the industry is shortchanging itself — and moviegoers — by churning out R-rated films at the expense of family fare.
A recent study by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) found that, last year, Hollywood produced 177 R-rated films that grossed almost $3 billion domestically. That’s an average of $16.8 million per R-rated film.
Compare that with the 119 PG-13 rated movies that brought in $5.6 billion in 2012, for an average of $47.3 million per film.
The NATO study found that every other rating (aside from NC-17) brought in more dollars per movie: The 49 PG films in 2012 generated $2.1 billion, or $43 million per film; and eight G-rated movies brought in $184 million, or $23 million per movie.
Observers say the industry’s reliance on R-rated films put the box office in a hole this year that it has yet to escape. There were 13 R-rated movies released in the first quarter of the year, up from nine the previous year. And box office fell by double digits.
“PG-13 is the sweet spot,” said NATO head John Fithian at the industry’s state-of-the-union address in March, adding that this year’s attendance drop comes from “the weight of too many R-rated films. Make more family-friendly films and fewer R-rated titles. Americans have stated their choice.”
While studios have infused this summer’s slate with more teen-friendly films and evened the tally to 19 R-rated movies and 19 PG-13 rated movies, “balance in what we offer audiences is what we’re looking for,” says NATO Vice President Patrick Corcoran. “That balance is probably off.”
Filmmakers counter that movies should be less about generating money and more about pushing the artistic envelope, which requires a less-restrictive rating. And studio executives say it’s a film’s quality, not rating, that determines box office.
“Blaming R is overly simplistic,” Universal Studios chairman Adam Fogelson said in response to Fithian’s comments at the industry gathering, adding that last year’s R-rated “Django Unchained” and “Ted” weren’t hurt by their ratings or content.
Jeff Bock, vice president of Exhibitor Relations, says R-rated films appeal to studios because they usually cost less to make than teen-oriented movies, which rely more on special effects than dialogue and theme.
“If an R-rated movie connects with audiences at large, the payoff can be a lot bigger,” Bock says. “Look at the original Hangover . That movie cost $35 million and went on to be a goldmine,” with $277 million in domestic ticket sales. “Studios keep searching for that lightning in a bottle.”
Indeed, adult-themed films will pepper the calendar, beginning Friday with “The Heat,” a buddy-cop comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy that hopes to play off the success of 2009’s R-rated hit “Bridesmaids,” which also featured McCarthy and did $169 million.
In some cases, filmmakers are not only happy with an R-rating, they seek it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose sex comedy “Don Jon” hits screens Sept. 27, says he would have been disappointed with anything less than an R, and included scenes and dialogue to ensure it got the more restrictive rating.
“If you want to connect with audiences with certain messages, that rating is perfectly appropriate,” he says. “Life is rated R.”
That philosophy could be at the crux of the difference between those who make films and those who watch them, says Aaron Fink, producer of PBS’ television and film critique program “Just Seen It.”
“I’m sure there are many filmmakers who see having an R-rating as a symbol that their story is not being censored,” he says. “There’s a lot that today’s PG-13 movies can get away with, but filmmakers may feel (an R rating) lets them tell their story more realistically and with more personality.”
But Corcoran warns that studios could make a deeper connection with audiences with a more varied slate. He notes that last year, only two of the 20 highest-grossing films had R ratings (“Ted” and “Django”).
“The rating is self-limiting,” Corcoran says. “R-rated movies that are going to be the big hits are far more rare than movies aimed at broader audiences.”
And making movies for younger moviegoers allows you to sell them on R-rated movies down the road, he says.
“Part of what we want to do is get them when they’re young, when they go to movies with their families,” he says. “Once you build that love of going to the movies, the desire to keep going stays with them as they get older.”
Some stars of films that run the ratings gamut say that the industry has become too obsessed with the letter attached to a poster. John Goodman, a favorite of the Coen brothers’ R-rated movies and star of this weekend’s hit cartoon “Monsters University,” says he never considers a movie’s rating when he decides to participate.
“I don’t really care, and I’m not sure how hung up people get on it,” he says. “What we’re all looking for is a good story. That isn’t dependent on a rating.”
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