PG-13: Not Very Nice

With movies like Charlie’s Angels and Legally Blonde 2 pushing the limit on the PG-13 rating, I thought you would like to read the following article in it’s entirety.

PG-13 is secret to film success Not too naughty, but not very nice
By Andy Seiler
July 01, 2003

In Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Demi Moore lasciviously licks Cameron Diaz’s face, the Angels bump and grind in a production number, and numerous double-entendres refer to group sex and hookers. That’s not to mention a brutal attack by a former boyfriend on Drew Barrymore’s character that was trimmed, according to Barrymore, to avoid an R rating.

Hey, everybody’s doing it. The weekend’s No. 1 movie is the latest example of Hollywood’s increasingly passionate love affair with the racy PG-13 movie.

Of the top 20 biggest box office hits of last year, all but one were rated PG or PG-13. The Santa Clause 2 was the sole G-rated film to make the list, while 8 Mile, the R-rated Eminem movie, just missed at No. 21.

The major studios have found a secret to box office success: Avoid the G with a four-letter word or some sexual innuendo so that teens and pre-teens won’t think you’re putting out a ”baby” movie. And avoid the R so theater managers won’t catch heat for letting under-17s into R-rated films.

The PG rating appeals to movie-savvy teens who find a G rating too juvenile. PG-13 is even better, implying the movie goes about as far as it can without kids having to be taken by parents if they want to see it.

”PG-13 is the commercial sweet spot, and that’s what they’re aiming for,” says Nell Minow, author of The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies (Avon Books).

Movie industry honchos call this the triumph of the ”family film.” ”Family product sells, and R-rated product does not,” John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, concluded when the top 20 titles of 2002 were announced in March.

But critics of the ratings system say that when you spice up G-rated material or slightly tone down R-rated content, what you end up with isn’t ”family product” at all.

”Movies that ought to be R are being squeezed down into PG-13 in a cynical attempt to increase the potential audience,” says film critic Roger Ebert of Ebert and Roeper at the Movies.

”The G rating has been stigmatized as not being hip enough,” adds Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films.


* The Hulk, the classic Marvel comic-book series, always displayed the stamp of approval from the rigid Comics Code Authority. Yet Universal’s movie version is rated PG-13 ”for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity.”

* Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the animated film opening Wednesday from the makers of Prince of Egypt, might seem like a surefire G-rated escapade. Guess again: It is ”rated PG for adventure action, some mild sensuality and brief language.” Even Paramount’s Rugrats Go Wild, based on Nickelodeon TV series Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, went wild enough to rate a PG for ”mild crude humor.”

* Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, coming July 9, will be the first PG-13 under the Walt Disney Pictures family banner. The ”action/adventure violence” (as the ratings board describes it) includes the sight of pirates slitting throats and melting down to skeletons.

R-rated movies have hardly died. This summer, The Matrix Reloaded became the highest-grossing R movie ever, with $268.9 million and counting. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines opens today, and Bad Boys II on July 18. R is the most common rating, but only because so many are low-budget foreign-language films that aren’t widely released, or steamy made-for-video movies.

But Fithian does not dispute that PG-13 and PG are where the action is. ”Most of the big grossers are PG-13, and at least in recent times, PG has been close behind it,” he says. ”If teenagers and kids like a PG movie or a PG-13, they will go again and again. It’s edgy enough so that kids fifth grade and up will feel they are not baby’s movies.”

While a PG-13 is much easier to market than an R, many observers say that what’s getting into the category is just as strong as the R-rated films of the past.

”The amount of violence and language you can get away with in a PG-13 film is amazing,” says Ortenberg, one of the few studio executives who openly state their frustration with the board that others will only express privately. ”A passionate scene of true lovemaking will earn an NC-17 in a heartbeat, but the brutal obliteration of a large percentage of the world’s population can earn a PG.”

”It’s a parental nightmare,” says Minow, who reviews movies at ”My Web site would have failed years ago if people thought they were getting the information they needed from the MPAA. Dr. Dolittle is based on a children’s book, and they talk about doing it ‘doggy-style.’ ”

Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, argues that his system is supremely effective.

”I can’t help it if producers stick this stuff in their movies to get a rougher rating,” he says. ”If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, no rating will hurt you. And if you make a movie that nobody wants to see, no rating will help you. Finding Nemo is doing big business because it’s a damn good movie.”

If, on the other end of the spectrum, filmmakers are toning down racy adult R-rated movies in order to squeak by with a PG-13, that’s a good thing, argues Fithian: ”I call it a healthy attempt to increase the potential audience, because the elements that are being cut from those pictures are, more often than not, unnecessary to the integrity of the picture.”

The MPAA sponsors a yearly poll on the ratings system. In the latest edition, 76% of parents with children under 13 found the ratings to be ”fairly useful” or ”very useful.”

But a differently worded poll by the independent organization found that only 21% of parents ”completely trust” the ratings.

And while the big studios have become increasingly clever at shoehorning major movies into PG and PG-13, independent companies are still getting stuck with the dreaded R, Ebert says.

”Serious and thoughtful movies about teenagers are rated R, cutting them off from those they could actually serve,” Ebert says. ”The MPAA essentially feels violence and vulgarity are fine for PG-13, but serious consideration of sexuality is not. . . . I’m concerned with movies like Raising Victor Vargas, Sweet Sixteen and Better Luck Tomorrow that get an R, which cuts them off from teenagers.”

In Vargas, rated R ”for strong language,” a self-styled teenage Manhattan Don Juan finds that he has a lot to learn about love. Sweet Sixteen, rated R ”for pervasive strong language, drug content and some violence,” is about a 15-year-old boy in a depressed Scottish town who turns to crime to help his ex-con mother. And in Better Luck Tomorrow, rated R ”for violence, drug use, language and sexuality,” an intelligent Asian-American high school boy leads a double life of mischief and petty crimes.

”Raising Victor Vargas got rated R because they used the f-word three times,” says Samuel Goldwyn Jr., whose independent company made that film. ”According to the MPAA’s rules, you can use the f-word two times or once and get a PG-13, but three times and it’s an R. Explain that to me.”

Yet Goldwyn, whose legendary producer father battled the now-defunct, and much stricter, censorship board of the 1930s and ’40s, says he knows why the MPAA acts this way. ”They’re trying to keep every two-bit local censor from cutting the pictures,” he says.

A panel of Los Angeles parents administers the ratings, but Fithian says their opinions reflect different parts of the country, ”and there are differences from community to community. That’s why there aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules.”

But there are hard-and-fast rules, argues Goldwyn. And ”meanwhile, there’s a picture that makes a point of telling teenagers to drive irresponsibly that got rated PG-13. More teenagers have been killed with automobiles than with sex.”

Indeed, Universal’s 2 Fast 2 Furious and its predecessor, The Fast and the Furious, are the films most often cited by critics of ratings systems. The films glamorize illegal street racing and other criminal activity and include sex, violence and drunkenness, but they escape the R by avoiding nudity and blood. They have been blamed for the deaths of street-racing teenagers.

”People were racing and getting into accidents already, even before the first movie came out,” says director John Singleton.

Valenti says it’s possible the Furious ratings were a mistake. ”You’re always going to make errors of judgment. Keep in mind: The ratings board rates 600 or 700 films a year.”

So does Minow: ”I see almost as many movies as the MPAA does, and their responses seem extremely formulaic to me. They don’t care if the sex in a movie is responsible or exploitive. They don’t look at the context at all. They count nipples and f-words.”

Tomorrow director Justin Lin agrees: ”Anytime a filmmaker tries to stay true to the sensibility of today’s youth, he’s going to get hit with an R. Adults will say, ‘Kids can’t see that; that’s too graphic for them.’ ”

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