In the wake of Watchmen, a film likely to lose tens of millions of dollars for the studio, Warner Bros. has advanced a policy of no more R rated tentpole movies…i.e., the expensive ones they count on to be blockbusters. This makes a lot of sense. The two biggest movies last year were Dark Knight and Iron Man, both PG-13, and it’s not like Dark Knight wasn’t, well, plenty dark.
People will argue that back in the ’80s there were a lot of big R-rated hits. That’s true, but movies were a LOT cheaper back then. Aliens cost but 18 million dollars, a sum that seems absurdly small today. Even taking inflation into account, you don’t turn that 18 million anywhere near Watchmen‘s 150 million, much less the roughly 300 million spent on Superman Returns. And if Aliens were made today, it would undoubtedly be PG-13, with maybe a tad more bad language removed.
There will continue to be expensive R rated movies, and some of them will be hits. However, cutting out a huge portion of your prospective audience from the get go makes little sense given how much money these movies have to make. And frankly, I’m not sure Watchmen couldn’t have been made PG-13 with just a bit more effort. The explicit sex scene seemed kind of pointless to me, frankly.
Warners is already putting this policy into effect, engaging in a public battle with director McG, who wants the upcoming Terminator Salvation (reportedly budgeted at over $200m) released as an R film, while the studio wants it PG-13. Obviously the studio will win, and then make an extra buck or two by selling an ‘unrated’ version of the film on DVD later on.
Michael Medved argued decades ago in his book Hollywood vs. America that the industry’s addiction to ‘edgy’ R-rated movies made little financial sense. With the film business in ever more precarious shape, they’re finally admitting he was right. There’s certainly a place for R-rated films, but its going to be harder to make a case for big budget ones.