R-Ratings Reloaded

By David Parker

May 14, 2003

Nice aim, hero.

Here's something that makes perfect sense: R ratings restrict opening weekends. It says it right there in the title: R for Restricted Audience; "No one under 17 admitted without a parent or guardian". How could that not keep films from opening huge? One word: Hannibal. A $58 million opening in February. That alone should be a game-breaker. If Hannibal, an R-rated film, can open to $58 million, doesn't that mean that any R-rated film can? If you already agree with me, bless you. For those skeptics still unconvinced, read on.

This is one fallacy that studios love to perpetuate. They have even done a phone-polling study to back up their beliefs that R ratings hurt openings. Supposedly, Hannibal would have opened to over $70 million if it had been PG-13. The study showed that most male teens will try to sneak into R-rated films, while female teens won't. Boiled down, teens girls wanted to see Hannibal, but they didn't want to bend the rules. You know all those 14-year-old girls who were dying to see Hannibal on opening weekend, right? Pffft. They've basically found that most R-rated films would open much higher if teens could get in. Pausing now for hysterical laughter...This is one time where it's okay to laugh yourself silly. First, teens get into R-rated films; they really do. The only time when the R rating was strictly enforced was a month-long period after Columbine, where President Clinton urged theatre owners to keep teens out. If you went to a theatre around the release of South Park, you probably were surprised to have your ID checked at the ticket counter and your ticket stub checked at the door. After that period, it was free rein for teens again. Second, studios freely admit that teens and children are the hardest age groups to track (Tracking - polling done by studios to guess opening weekend), so why would they put stock in an unscientific telephone poll of the very age group they find enigmatic?

The reason for this is simple: to save face. If studios say R-rated films can't open as well other-rated films, then when an R-rated film opens poorly, it was expected. When a film opens to Hannibal numbers, it's a miracle! No one could have ever anticipated it! It's spin control so tight that White House press secretaries should listen up and take notes. The bottom line is that the only time teens can't see R-rated films is when the theatre owners stop them.

Now, let's get into some numbers. First, let's look at the record openers for each rating. Weighing in at a whopping G-rated $64.4 million is Monsters, Inc. At PG, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone's $90.3 million is the record-holder. Spider-Man stands in at $114.8 million for PG-13 films and openers overall. Of course, Hannibal, at $58 million, leads the R-rated films. Showgirls, at $8.11 million, is the number one NC-17/unrated/X-rated opener. G and R seem to be in the same ballpark; PG and PG-13 are lightyears ahead; NC-17 is lagging way behind.

Why don't NC-17-rated films open well? Three reasons. 1) They don't open wide enough. Even Showgirls only opened on 1,388 screens. 2) When NC-17-rated films do open wide or semi-wide, theatre owners enforce the "no one under 21 allowed" policy. 3) There just isn't enough interest in them, because there is a stigma attached to the NC-17-rating. The attendance of R-rated films, in contrast, is only hurt by the R rating if the policy is enforced. If theatres are not enforcing this policy, what is to stop kids from seeing R-rated movies? Look at it this way: Are tobacco companies fretting that no one under 18 can buy their cigarettes? Are they losing profit because of it? No. In fact, they target teens under 18 in their advertising, just as studio heads admitted (hesitantly) to John McCain and Congress that they target teens for R-rated films. Addendum, studios (including the WB specifically about The Matrix Reloaded) say they no longer target teens with their advertising.

Second, are there enough people to make huge R-rated openings? To understand this point let's look at the biggest weekend in history. During Thanksgiving weekend, November 24-26, 2000, the top 20 films grossed $173 million. That's huge. But just how many people saw movies that weekend? Thirty-two million (173 million/5.40 average ticket price), which is only 10% of the US and Canadian population combined. So why mention this? Because it shows there is a huge untapped market out there. Even on the box office's best weekend, 90% or more of the US and Canada didn't go to the movies. Without getting too far into how much the box office can expand, let's say that the 17-and-over population is 60% of 280 million, which equals 168 million. All we'd need is twelve percent of that demographic (168 x .12 = 13.44 x $5.40 = $117.3 million) to beat the three-day weekend record of Spider-Man. So now that we know there are plenty of people who can see R-rated films, do those people actually go? Yes, they do.

I'd like to refer to the "2002 Motion Picture Attendance Study" done by the MPA Worldwide Market Research. Eighty-five percent of all theatre admissions in 2002 were from adults 18+. So only 15% of all tickets sales were from people 18 or under. Moviegoers 18-20 compromised 60% of frequent moviegoers (who are the most likely group to see a movie opening weekend). Meaning the biggest chunk of people who see films at least one time a month are legally allowed to see R-rated films. In 2001, 67% of all films released were rated R (click here to read my source).

Let's think about this. Why would studios release over 2/3 of their films as rated R if, according to their own data, being rated R hurt their opening? Imagine this conversation between Studio Exec A and Studio Exec. B:

Studio Exec A: "You know, R ratings hold back our openings, but openings aren't everything, right?"

Studio Exec B: "Exactly. I say we up our production to 70%. Who cares about profits?"

Never in a million years. Point blank, if R ratings hurt openings so much, studios would stop making them. They want profit; they want to open at number one; they want gigantic openings. So, do R-rated films open well? Yes; just as big as PG movies do, in fact. Here's a list of the 25 biggest PG and R openings of the last few years.

<% sqlstr = "SELECT * FROM box WHERE rat='R' ORDER BY infopen DESC" max = 25 header = "Top R rated openers of last few years." tstyle = "adjopen" skin = "bop" x = Drawtable(sqlstr,max,header,tstyle,skin) %>

<% sqlstr = "SELECT * FROM box WHERE rat='PG' ORDER BY infopen DESC" max = 25 header = "Top PG rated openers of last few years." tstyle = "adjopen" skin = "bop" x = Drawtable(sqlstr,max,header,tstyle,skin) %>

Adding up the top 25 R-rated openers, you get $817.6 million. Which, on average, is a $32.7 million opening.

Adding up the top 25 PG-rated openers, you get $886.7 million. Which, on average, is a $35.5 million opening.

That's very close. Now, you can argue that R-rated films outnumber PG-rated films almost ten-to-one, so if they were in proportion, PG-rated films would have a lot more blockbusters. To which I'd say if that were true, don't you think studios would have done that by now? Studios continue to make R-rated films because they're catering to their biggest demographic, the over-18 age group. If you really believe R-ratings hurt openings then why would studios have at least four blockbusters opening this summer (Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3, Bad Boys 2 and American Wedding) with that scarlet letter attached? Why would Warner Brothers open the Matrix Reloaded on a record number of prints and theatres if they knew they couldn't fill those seats? They wouldn't. Remember, one major plus huge R-rated films have over their G, PG and PG-13 counterparts is a lot less discounted ticket prices for children. So, almost everyone who comes to see a blockbuster with an R-rating will pay full price.

R-rated film openings should be judged by the same three criteria by which every other film is judged: The effectiveness of the marketing campaign, the "want-to-see" factor, and the built-in audience. If it looks like a blockbuster and has people dying to see it, it will be a blockbuster. Doesn't matter if it's rated R, PG-13, PG or G. The R rating just gives the studio that much more to rave about. I know it sounds too basic, but judge films based on how many people you think will go to see them, not on how much a film's rating hurts it. If you don't, you'll miss the breakouts every time...like the one on May 15th, 2003.

<% sqlstr = "SELECT * FROM box WHERE" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Hannibal' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '8 Mile' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'American Pie 2' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Scary Movie' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Air Force One' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Red Dragon' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Interview With%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Gladiator' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Scream 3' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like 'Ransom' " sqlstr = sqlstr + " ORDER BY open DESC" max = 100 header = "Top 10 R rated films of all time" tstyle = "release" skin = "bop" x = Drawtable(sqlstr,max,header,tstyle,skin) %>



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