LAS VEGAS — "Make more family-friendly films, and fewer R-rated films." That was the message Tuesday from theater owners to Hollywood studios at CinemaCon, the annual industry confab that brings together movie distributors and exhibitors under the same sparkling roof at the Casears Palace Hotel and Casino.
John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Assocation of Theater Owners (NATO), used his "State of the Industry" presentation to drive the message home that Hollywood succeeds most when the movies connect with the widest possible audience. Which is, you know, duh, but the numbers Fithian used to back up his point inadvertently revealed a more troubling truth about Hollywood today: The industry's addiction to PG-13 movies.
In his speech, Fithian pointed out that in 2012, 177 R-rated films brought in roughly $2.97 billion in domestic revenue, or $16.8 million per film, whereas just 49 PG-rated films brought in $2.11 billion, or $43.1 million per film. That's a potent argument, but it ignores the fact that families with PG-aged kids don't often have the time nor the spending money to be going to the theaters every week — between tickets and concessions, a family of four can throw down north of $60 to see a movie. That makes PG films more of a special event for families, and helps drive their revenue — and their scarcity. But if the market was suddenly saturated with more family-friendly films at the expense of adult-oriented fare, rather than grow revenue across the board, it could just as easily dilute the box office power of the PG film while undercutting the "long tail" benefit of films geared to childless twenty- and thirtysomethings with more liquid funds.
Frankly, it would be best if Hollywood tried to devote as much care and craft to its large volume of R-rated flicks as it does to its scarce supply of PG movies.
Besides, PG- and R-rated films aren't where the "sweet spot" — to use Fithian's term — resides for Hollywood anyway. According to the organization, the 119 PG-13 rated movies released in 2012 brought in a gargantuan $5.62 billion in the U.S., or $47.3 million per movie. Sweet, indeed.
The PG-13 rating presents the best of both worlds for Hollywood. Filmmakers aren't hamstrung by needing to keep their films free of any intense content — naughty words are allowed, including "fuck," so long as it's done once and doesn't refer to a sexual act; and there can be violence aplenty so long as the blood and gore is kept to a bare minimum. And studios get to draft off the notion that the PG-13 film is family friendly, just for families with tween and teenage kids. (Or even younger: Several of my cousins' kids have seen all of the PG-13 Transformers films well before hitting middle school.)
But as others have pointed out for a few years now, the PG-13 rating has become highly problematic, in two rather opposite directions. Drenching a film in violence that is free of the tangible consequences of violence drains the film of its moral relationship to violence — which leads to calls of hypocrisy when Hollywood luminaries, say, stump for gun control. Also — and this probably will seem contradictory to what I just stated — bloodless violence is often just boring. All those bloody bullet strikes in Django Unchained helped to make that movie Quentin Tarantino's highest-grossing film and one of his most controversial — it got us thinking about and talking about violence far more than the monotonous hours of bloodless gun fights and alien battles in all those dozens of PG-13 films last year.
Fithian followed up his 2012 numbers with an assessment of the first quarter of 2013, which was down 12% in revenue when compared with last year. Fithian outright blamed the R rating for the drop: There were thirteen R-rated films in the first quarter of this year, compared with nine in 2012. Meanwhile, there had been four PG-rated films in 2012, but this year, there was just one.
He only flicked, however, at the figure that likely stood out at least as much to the studio execs in the room: There were also three fewer PG-13 films in the first quarter of 2013 than in Q1 of 2012. But don't worry. Of the upcoming summer films that have received a rating from the MPAA, four are PG-13, three are R, and zero are PG or G.