Once, the R-rated movie was king. But the MPAA’s Restricted rating, which is about to turn 50, has seen its fortunes fade over the years with the rise of PG-13. Nonetheless, the R rating lives on. It is the bloody, sexy curse word whispered in the midst of the family-friendly amusement park that modern moviemaking has become.
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“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is a weird one.
The film, in theaters this weekend, is an unlikely sequel to a critically acclaimed and morally ambiguous 2015 action thriller about the ongoing battle between the U.S. government and the Mexican drug cartels. Instead of bringing Emily Blunt’s protagonist back to the series, “Day of the Soldado” focuses on the misadventures of professional anti-heroes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).
But it’s odd in another way — it’s odd in that it’s a big middle-of-the-summer release that’s rated R. And that it’s not a horror movie or an Apatow-esque gross-out comedy (typical R-rated fare) but an honest-to-god action movie.
It’s not going to beat “Jurassic World 2” at the box office this weekend, but with its solid reviews and tremendous trailer, it will put up some respectable numbers, regardless.
Which is encouraging. Because the second “Sicario” violates one of the key tenets of modern studio moviemaking. Which is this: If you want to make the most money on your investment, make your movie PG-13.
PG-13, king of the box office
The R-rated blockbuster (and even the PG-rated one) is an outlier these days.
Through the first 25 weekends in 2018, a PG-13 movie was No. 1 at the box office for 22 of them. Just one PG movie (“Incredibles 2”) and two R-rated movies (“Fifty Shades Freed” and “Deadpool 2”) won their respective opening weekends. For the remainder of the year, only two more R-rated movies stand a clear chance at winning their opening weekends: September’s “The Predator” and October’s “Halloween.”
This year so far, PG-13 movies have made up 62 percent of the domestic box office; R-rated films account for 21 percent; PG movies make up 16 percent; and G-rated movies less than 1 percent.
But here’s something interesting and a bit counterintuitive: There are actually far more R-rated movies each year than there are PG-13 movies. So far this year there have been 81 movies rated R versus 44 rated PG-13.
That’s consistent over the last 23 years. Since 1995, we’ve seen nearly 5,000 R-rated movies (I’ve literally seen all of them) versus about 3,000 PG-13 movies.
But while there is still plenty of entertainment for adults only, the vast majority of R-rated movies are coming out in limited release, on far fewer screens than their PG-13 competitors. To offer some perspective, my four favorite films of the year so far (all little R-rated movies) played at fewer than 1,000 screens combined. Last weekend, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opened in 4,500 theaters. That’s one reason the average R-rated movie has grossed $13 million this year and the average PG-13 movie has grossed $70 million.
The chasm between the box office potential of the two ratings is so clear that in 2013, the National Association of Theater Owners protested the number of R-rated movies, calling for the studios to make fewer of them. John Fithian, president of the trade group, noted that “Americans have stated their choice” for more family-friendly entertainment.
He’s not wrong. But this wasn’t always the case. A long time ago, the R rating reigned.
The arrival of PG-13
Let’s back up here for a tick for a very brief history lesson on the PG-13 rating.
In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the longtime Hays Code (which had stringent censorship guidelines influenced by the Catholic Church) with the film ratings system we still use today. It started with the ratings G, M (later changed to PG), R and X.
The first R-rated movie was “The Split,” a 1968 noir starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman.
The X rating basically just meant “not rated,” and restricted anyone under a certain age, even if they had an adult guardian with them. But unlike the other ratings, X was never actually trademarked by the MPAA, and the porn industry gladly co-opted it for a marketing strategy. (“It’s not just X! It’s XXX!”) This eventually led to the MPAA creating the NC-17 rating, which came to distinguish those artfully sexually explicit films from the meat-and-potatoes smut of traditional porn.
Theaters and advertisers agreed to adhere to the MPAA ratings, with many businesses refusing to play or advertise unrated films.
The PG-13 rating came much later, and credit goes largely to one man: Steven Spielberg.
In the ’80s, Spielberg was catching flak for a few of his pretty darn violent movies — like “Gremlins” (which he produced), “Jaws” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (“Kali Ma!”) — getting a PG rating. In a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair, Spielberg said that in response, he called the president of the MPAA and suggested a rating between PG and R.
“Let’s call it PG-13,” he said.
In 1984, the new rating was born. The Swayze/Sheen action thriller “Red Dawn” became the first PG-13 movie.
R, king of the box office
But while PG-13 was getting established, the R-rated movie continued to reign supreme.
The ’80s and ’90s were boom years for adults-only blockbusters, when R-rated movies outpaced PG-13 and PG-rated movies at the box office.
In fact, comparing the ’80s/’90s box office to that of today is a good way to see just how much mainstream moviegoing has changed.
They used to mostly make movies for adult filmgoers. But since about 2000, the roster of major films released each year has shifted ever closer to that family-friendly middle.
Some have argued that PG-13 movies are too violent overall and that the MPAA places too much emphasis on sex and profanity. Another argument against PG-13 is that it creates an overall dip in the quality of films. In his call to abolish the rating, CinemaBlend writer Gabe Toro said that “with the arrival of PG-13 came the proliferation of the modern blockbuster, aimed at both the smallest in the audience as well as the biggest, creating watered-down product that has the same appeal to everyone.”
The need to appeal to everyone has spread like a virus in popular entertainment. But it wasn’t always so!
In my formative moviegoing years (’80s/’90s), the R-rated action movie was having a moment.
Hard-R movies were topping the box office. Movies like — and I’m just going to make a list of my favorite movies now — “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” “Commando,” “Cobra,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Predator,” “RoboCop,” “Die Hard,” “Tango and Cash,” “Total Recall,” “Terminator 2,” “Under Siege,” “Cliffhanger,” “True Lies,” “Speed,” “Crimson Tide,” “Seven,” “The Rock,” “Eraser,” “Con Air,” “Face/Off” and “The Matrix.”
But by the end of the ’90s, the R rating’s glory days were coming to a close. The “Die Hard” and “Terminator” franchises soon lost their R ratings. “Total Recall” and “RoboCop” got toothless PG-13 remakes. “Lethal Weapon” went to broadcast TV. Steven Seagal went to Russia.
This gives you a good picture of how R-rated moviegoing used to be:
Since the rating was created in 1968, R-rated movies had regularly accounted for close to half of the top 20 domestic grossers of each year.
In 1987, 12 of the top earners were rated R. In 1992, a whopping 14 of the 20 biggest movies were rated R. The blockbuster lineup that year included “The Bodyguard,” “Basic Instinct,” “Unforgiven,” “Under Siege,” “A Few Good Men,” “The Crying Game,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” few of which, if any, would crack the top 20 in today’s family- and franchise-obsessed landscape.
It was the year 2000 when it all started to change. That was when PG-13’s share of the North American box office started to spike. Every year since 2001, PG-13 movies have held a huge lead over R-rated movies. The boom of franchises with shared universes is an inextricable part of the R rating’s demise. Marvel, “Star Wars,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Fast and Furious,” the DC Extended Universe. None of these franchises could afford to make their movies anything other than PG-13, not with the amount of money they’re pouring into them.
And here’s one last sad figure for everyone out there who longs for the gnarly charms of the R-rating’s heyday:
Half of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in the 1970s were rated R. But since 2000, only three of the top 50 highest grossers have been R: “Passion of the Christ” (No. 32), “Deadpool” (No. 36) and “American Sniper” (No. 41).
And yet ...
And yet the R-rated movie is still kickin’, even in the face of its seriously diminished powers.
After a long while without much of any R-rated activity at the box office, the last few years have seen growth in certain areas. Thanks to a few shifts in the industry, the R rating can actually, on occasion, be a boon to a film’s bottom line.
Here are a few genres that are doing fine:
The R-rated horror movie
Though a good many modern scary movies are PG-13 affairs (gotta get those teens into the theater), horror is one of the few genres that consistently goes the route of the R rating — and it pays off more often than not.
Last year’s “It” grossed $328 million domestic, becoming the highest-grossing horror movie (of any rating) of all time. Other recent successes include “Get Out,” “The Conjuring” movies and the “Annabelle” sequel, all of which cleared $100 million at the box office.
The R-rated comic book movie
“Blade” (1998) was the prototype for the successful R-rated comic-book movie. But it was really 2016’s “Deadpool” that realized the box-office potential of a foul-mouthed superhero. “Deadpool” is the second-highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, behind only “The Passion of the Christ.” Fox followed its “Deadpool” success with “Logan,” an ultraviolent and F-bomb-dropping farewell to Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine.”
The R-rated war film
Patriotism still sells quite well at the movies, regardless of the war genre’s inherent gore factor. Recent examples that killed it at the box office: “American Sniper,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Lone Survivor.”
The R-rated comedy
Still a fairly strong genre, honestly, thanks in no small part to the success of Judd Apatow’s comedies and “The Hangover” movies. Recent R-rated hits have included “Bridesmaids,” “Ted,” “Bad Moms,” “The Heat” and, more recently, “Girls Trip,” “Blockers” and “Game Night.”
The R-rated sexy-time thriller
Here’s lookin’ at you, “Fifty Shades.” Although I’d include “Gone Girl” in this category, too.
The R-rated prestige film that gets a big audience despite being kinda arty and/or Oscary
This includes “The Revenant,” “Straight Outta Compton” and anything Quentin Tarantino makes. A few late-era Clint Eastwood movies (“American Sniper,” “Unforgiven,” “Gran Torino”) have made a lot of money, too.
The increasingly rare big-budget, R-rated action movie
It’s a unicorn (it’s my unicorn, anyway), that sweetest and richest of entertainments, the thing that cost a lot of money to make but doesn’t try to appeal to everyone. A few very expensive recent examples of R-rated blockbusters have included “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Blade Runner 2049,” the latter a box-office disappointment.
Likewise, movies like “The Equalizer,” the “John Wick” franchise and now the “Sicario” sequel are keeping alive that faint glimmer of the ’90s action movie’s hard-R heyday.
We’ll never be able to go back to those halcyon days of explicit sex, violence and moral depravity. But, every so often, the movies can remind us of better times.