Is PG-13ification a New Era of McCarthyism?

The PG-13/R Smackdown, Live on Pay-Per-View!

Something has been happening in Hollywood over the past few years, and some people are really getting their noses out of joint about it: PG-13ification of American cinema.

While the most notable instances of PG-13ification happen in the realm of horror movies, many other genres have been hit, from comedies to action flicks. There are few examples of films whose low box office is attributed to the PG-13 rating, but there are tons of movies that had a softer box office blamed on an R rating (e.g., Semi-Pro, Doomsday and Charlie Bartlett in 2008 alone).

Some of the more recent high-profile examples of PG-13ification include last weekend’s number one movie Prom Night and last summer’s action hit Live Free or Die Hard. In both instances, studio bosses mandated a PG-13 rating in order to deliver the highest audience payoff. And in both cases, it worked… almost too well.

Back when the news broke that Live Free or Die Hard would be PG-13, people were seriously pissed, mainly over the fact that John McClane’s famous line “Yippie-ki-yi-yay, motherfucker” was left on the chopping block. The gamble paid off for FOX, when Live Free or Die Hard grossed close to $400 million worldwide. And, at least we did get to hear the unedited line in the unrated DVD release.

Over the years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the MPAA. On one hand, I agree with the gripes. The organization makes arbitrary and sometimes completely inappropriate decisions along the thin PG-13/R and R/NC-17 lines.

On the other hand, I am a parent, and I see the value of a ratings system, especially now that they list the offending material at the bottom of the ratings box. Sure, I’m not rushing to take my young kids to see Prom Night, but when they reach their teenage years, it can serve as a guide.

As much as I get irritated at the MPAA, at least it’s self-imposed by the industry. I prefer to have the MPAA around as a necessary evil in lieu of political do-gooders like Tipper Gore enacting some form of government censorship. If you think that the PG-13ification of American cinema is the new McCarthyism, imagine if this was left in the hands of the politicians. That would be a disaster.

I have the unique perspective on the PG-13 rating in that I was actually 13 years old when it was enacted. I never saw Red Dawn (the first PG-13 release) when I was in junior high school, but I did see Dreamscape (the second one), which was one of my favorite films as a kid. This film would have easily been rated R a year before, and as a young teenager, I was able to see it without a problem.

According to BoxOfficeMojo, there are vastly more R-rated movies released each year (many of which are independent and platform releases, so this does skew the numbers a bit), yet PG-13 movies out-gross them in total by 200% or more. In 2008 alone, there have been 42 R-rated films to date and 47 PG-13 rated films. The PG-13 combined gross has already cracked a cool $1 billion while the R-rated movies have barely made more than $200 million combined.

You just can’t argue these numbers with Hollywood, and with the coveted movie-going audience including high school and junior high viewers, this isn’t going to change.

The bottom line is that movie fans have to simply face the fact that show business is a business. If research shows that a film is going to have a high appeal to people under the age of 17, chances are they will push for a PG-13 rating. And with rare exception, it has paid off for studios to release PG-13 films rather than their riskier R-rated counterparts. Just look at how Prom Night soared, yet the far superior R-rated The Ruins was left in the dust.

Fortunately, every now and then we get films like Saw and Superbad that legitimize R-rated films as commercially viable by raking in the money at the box office, and this helps. But for the time being, the best we can hope for is a nice unrated DVD release that gives up a little more of the following (according to the MPAA): “adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements.”

Kevin Carr crawled from the primordial ooze in the early 1970s. He grew up watching movies to the point of irritation for his friends and was a font of useless movie knowledge until he decided to put that knowledge to good use. Now, Kevin is a nationally syndicated critic, heard on dozens of radio stations around the country, and his reviews appear in a variety of online outlets. Kevin is also a proud member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA).

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