Warners announces no more R-Rated tentpole movies…

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.

  • Ericb

    Granted I’m not a comic book fan but I have trouble thinking of reasons for making a superhero movie that needs an R rating. I can see a realistic war or police movie needing material that might be objectionable for young children but puting such material in a fantasy film just looks like a lazy way to make it seem more “important.”

  • Joe11

    Look at Fox’s Live Free or Die Hard policy. Alot of people (including myself) complained about a Die Hard movie being trimmed or “neutered” to get a PG-13 rating. However, I (& I bet alot of the complainers as well) still checked it out at the theater.

    Whether or not the audience liked the film, (I thought it was a good over-the-top action flick, 3 stars, though I was ticked off that McClane couldn’t say his signature one-liner), they already paid for their tickets & most of them would be interested in the unrated DVD to see where all the “HARDCORE BLOOD & SWEARING” went to. (Yes, I did buy the unrated LFODH DVD, so that policy did work on me)

    So, I don’t blame Warner for changing Terminator Salvation to PG-13.

  • Yeah, the big point of contention is that McG doesn’t want to lose a topless scene featuring the movie’s heroine. Hard to see that the absence of such would obliterite its artistic integrity any.

  • fish eye no miko

    People will argue that back in the ’80s there were a lot of big R-rated hits.

    Yeah. That was 20 years ago, too. Things change (such as budgets, as you point out). And the weirdest thing is, so often movies are rated R for stuff that… Ok, like I watched the Friday the 13th remake, which was… not that gory. I’m willing to bet the R-rating came from the language and the nudity. So… a horror movie with an R-rating that had NOTHING to do with it being a horror movie! You could see the same things in a sex comedy or, hell, a love story… They easily could have cut down on the swearing and nudity, and it would have been the same damn movie. I guess my point is, they often put R-rated content in movies that is completely irrelevant to the plot or the… purpose of the film, JUST to give it an R-rating.

  • It’s pretty simple; if you’re seeking to attract a discrete niche audience, like Superbad or Friday the 13th, going for an R rating makes sense. By the nature of the term, though, a ‘tentpole’ movie is one a studio is counting on to be a blockbuster, one of their two or three biggest films of the year, and generally a pretty expensive one. So again, making it inaccessable to a huge portion of the potential moviegoing public is just obviously dumb.

    As or McG, I mean, look, if you want control over your ‘art’, don’t work in a medium that requires somebody else to fork up $200 million.

  • Aussiesmurf

    I think part of the problem, and I admit up front that i speak as an Aussie, it the weird-ass American ratings system.

    Again and again i see movies with absolutely sickening violence rated PG-13 or R (U.S. ratings) with comparatively minor sexual displays nudity being treated with far greater harshness.

    Personally I would have been far more concerned about children viewing the graphic violence in Watchment than the sex scene.

    In Australia (not that we’re perfect either) the system is :

    M – Any age can watch, but recommended for 15
    MA – Under 15 must be accompanied by a guardian
    R – Over 18 only

    Very few commercially released movies in Australia have an R rating. Watchment, for example was MA, although i have no idea as to whether any cuts were required.

    Generally, a movie that contains female breasts (not that i want to focus on them) can still be rated M. The f*** word can be contained in an m-rated movie. Violence or frontal nudity are the main criteria in getting a more restrictive rating.

    Anyway, just my thoughts.

  • fish eye no miko

    It’s pretty simple; if you’re seeking to attract a discrete niche audience, like Superbad or Friday the 13th, going for an R rating makes sense.

    Oh, yeah, I get that. I’m just annoyed at going to an R-rated horror/slasher movie and having the R-rating being made up with elements that aren’t horror or slasher related. By the same token, I wouldn’t go to even an R-rated comedy expecting a lot of gore or violence.

  • Petoht

    I think part of the problem, and I admit up front that i speak as an Aussie, it the weird-ass American ratings system.

    Pretty much everyone admits that our system is whack. Any use of the F word to reference the activity is an automatic R rating. You can use it once in a more general sense and still get PG-13. Yes, they count. Also, our stupid system leads to film makers jamming in extra stuff specifically to be cut to save things they want (see: Team America: World Police for that plan backfiring).

    This Film Is Not Yet Rated presents a fascinating look into the MPAA.

  • MatthewF

    You can’t argue with the commercials of it, but it’s a pretty sad decision as it what it will mean in practice is an even greater tendency for studios to shy away from spending decent money on anything deemed remotely ‘adult’. It’s down to the good over-18s of America to go the cinema more often, I guess.

    BTW Supermans Returns only cost so much because WB rolled a decade of failed attempts to start the movie into the budget. This included massive fees for both Tim Burton and Nicholas Cage, both of whom of course never actually made the movie.

  • Marsden

    I don’t think a Terminator movie (at least a good one) could work as PG-13, Look what to Robocop when it was dumbed down. Counter to my own point I will admit that was certainly not the only reason the franchise went downhill. I just don’t think some things should be dumbed down. Alternatively, making the release PG-13 and then the DVD unrated does sound like a good marketing tactic. Another possibility could be rereleaseing the film with a different rating? But I don’t know the costs of doing it, might not justify the expense. Or two simultaneous releases, each with a different rating, but that one would be far too complicated I’m sure.

  • “…an even greater tendency for studios to shy away from spending decent money on anything deemed remotely ‘adult’.”

    The older I get, the less I buy the idea that you need graphic content to make a great ‘adult’ movie. I’ve been watching a lot of TCM the last year, and I’ve seen a lot of films from the ’30s and ’40s that I consider more adult than the vast majority of R rated movies made today. As for spending “decent money”…I’m not sure what that means. You can’t make a decent movie for fifty or seventy-five million dollars?

    On a similar note, I also disagree with Marsden. Robocop being dumbed down is a separate issue than it having its violence deemphasized, and a PG-13 Terminator movie most certainly can work if it’s, what’s the word…good.

    Eventually there will be a couple of heavier R rated movies that hit it big, and they’ll come back into vogue. Until then, it would be nice to get budgets back under control. Again, Aliens was made for $18 million dollars. Hollywood can get control of costs again if they really want. The death of the star system is part of this process.

  • Reed

    Both Terminator and T2 would have easily worked as PG-13 movies instead of R. The most graphic scene in Terminator is when Arnie does surgery on himself; if you cut that out you have a 1980’s R movie; that is to say, you can show it on TV with only minor cuts (one F-word and a brief boob shot). I’m all for boobs in movies, but I have no problem with a PG-13 Terminator Salvation. Honestly, I have a hard time believing that 1 boob shot is the difference between a PG-13 and an R rating. There are boobs in lots of PG movies!

  • JoshG

    ” Or two simultaneous releases, each with a different rating, but that one would be far too complicated I’m sure.”

    I think they did that with Excalibur, they released R and PG versions at the same time for theaters, but the R rated version is the only one available on VHS/DVD.

  • Mark Hawley

    Haven’t “tentpole” movies almost always been rated PG/PG-13? James Bond, Back to the Future, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, Rocky, etc. I mean very few exceptions and in most cases, like the Lethal Weapon, Terminator, Mad Max, Predator, Alien, even the Matrix, etc, the first films were sleepers…they weren’t pre-designed blockbusters based on pre-existing properties. They did relatively modest box office on thier initial theatrical runs, became huge on video and cable, and it was the R-rated sequels that really cleaned up. Le
    And in terms of paid admissions, the fourth Die Hard installment and the Alien Vs. Predator movies were the least popular so far in their repspective franchises. Using Medved’s logic, ( which seems to be whatever the owtcome of a particular film’s box office is due to my political viewpoint) I could easily argue that it was because those films were not rated R. I mean it was probably more due to the fact that they weren’t that good but would somebody like Medved acknowledge that? After all, he argues in his book that Star Trek V did poor box office due to the fact that it offended America’s sensibilities about God! And Watchman did poor box office due to poor word of mouth. It had a huge opening. Had it been more action-packed, less esoteric, it could’ve easily generated enough box office to compete with the Transformers, Iron Man, or any of the other “tentpole” projects. Matrix Reloaded did almost $300 million domestically. Had it generated better word of mouth, it could have easily done $350 million. If audience are so adverse to R rated movies, how come T2 made well over $300 million (in adjusted) dollars and was the biggest hit of 1991. Believes, T4 doesn’t need to be rated PG-13 it just needs to be a movie that clicks with audiences the way the first two R-rated films did.

  • Mark, you can focus on Medved’s politics if you wish, but you’re ignoring the central point: If you spend hundreds of millions of dollars making a film, you make it a LOT harder to turn a profit if you make a picture that can’t be seen by patrons under the age of 18. That’s a vast audience to be cutting out of the equation. No one’s saying it’s impossible, but you’re giving yourself a big hurdle to get over, and unless the material definitely requires it (and a Terminator movie doesn’t), why would you? Frankly, there’s not a lot in T2 that you couldn’t remove to have made it a PG-13 movie, and I doubt it would have been less successful if they had.

  • Mark Hawley

    Ken, I’m not ignoring it, I just don’t entirely agree with it. The cutoff age for an R-rated film in the U.S. is 17, and anyone under that age can get in if accompanied by someone 17 or older. Basically R could be dubbed PG-17. The four year difference isn’t too drastic, and most 13-16 year olds probably know someone 17 or over who could get them in anyways, or just wait outside asking for adult patrons to guide them
    in. I did it all the time when I was younger. Honestly I can say the R rating never once hindered me when I was a teenager. If the R rating was so limiting, then why were films like T2, the second Matrix movie, the Rambo, Lethal Weapon series, etc
    such huge successes? I don’t believe it’s the kiss of death and I firmly believe word of mouth killed Watchmen’s box office legs, not its R rating. It was an adaptation of a fairly explicit graphic novel, so I see no reason why it should’ve been made any
    less than R. In fact, a PG-13 rating may have alienated much of the novel’s fans, having them feel it was watered down to be made kid-friendly and instead op to wait for the unrated DVD. It may even hurt T4 since I’m aware, as many are, that the first 3 Terminator films were rated R, so why bother going to see a PG-13 rated Terminator film in the theater when I can get the unrated Blu Ray and watch it on my HDTV in 4 months or so.

    As for T2, I’m pretty sure Cameron would’ve have had to trim a fair amount to get a PG-13 rating. It’s not overly graphic but it’s very
    intense, with lots of loud, shock moments, etc. In comparing the two cuts of the 4th Die Hard films, more was cut than just gore and f-words
    – sound effects had to be toned down, etc. I’m pretty sure the MPAA would’ve
    had Cameron tone down the film quite a bit, cut out a lot of the carnage, even if most of it was just robot to robot, and I don’t think
    they’d let him get away with some of the stuff the T1000 does to his victims. And it may have
    hurt the film’s box office since I believe much of T2’s success had to do it with sheer, nail-biting excitement and intenstity and just how threatening and formidable of a villain the T1000 was. Toning it all down to make it PG-13 might have made the film come across as less intense and not had audiences as much on the edge of their seats so it might have not been as well liked as it was.

    With T4, I understand it deals with the war between humans and machines intent, and as the backstory layed fourth in the previous Terminator films, initially very successful in exterminating humanity, so I feel it would be better served by being R. I doubt Bryce Howard’s boobs are the only thing that’s going to have to be cut and/or toned down. And if the film is released as an R and
    sells nearly as much tickets as the second Terminator film did, I’m sure the studio would be happy.

    As for Medved’s politics, it’s his skewed logic that I was focusing on. I’m no liberal, though I am on some issues. I pretty much agree with every word of your Superman IV review. But Medved definitely has a habit of having selectively interpreting things to fit his own political viewpoint, or to have an excuse to point fingers at Hollywood at the expense of logic. Do you really believe Star Trek V did poor box office because people were offended because of it’s religious message?

  • JoshG

    Actually, in terms of paid admission “Live Free or Die Hard” was, at the very lest, just as popular with audiences as the previous two R rated installment.

    As for Alien vs. Predator, I think the PG-13 rating was the least that turd’s problems.

  • Grumpy

    The movie business seems to have its own variation of “Good, Fast, or Cheap: pick two.” In this instance, “R-rating, Big Budget, or Wide Release: pick two.”

  • Mark Hawley

    I’m pretty sure the $117 million and $100 million Die Hard 2 and 3 grossed respectively in 1990 and 1995 in the U.S. constitute more paid admissions for each film than the $134 million Die Hard 4 made in 2007. As for AVP, I agree it was crap but it’s very possible the PG-13 rating alienated much of the fans of the series, at least to the point of opting to wait for the inevitable uncut DVD. Had the word of mouth been exceptional I might have gone to see it in the theater, but I still would’ve been bothered knowing I wasn’t getting the entire show.