Once, the R-rated movie was king. But the MPAA’s Restricted rating, which is about to turn 50, has seen its fortunes fade over the years with the rise of PG-13. Nonetheless, the R rating lives on. It is the bloody, sexy curse word whispered in the midst of the family-friendly amusement park that modern moviemaking has become.
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The film, in theaters this weekend, is an unlikely sequel to a critically acclaimed and morally ambiguous 2015 action thriller about the ongoing battle between the U.S. government and the Mexican drug cartels. Instead of bringing Emily Blunt’s protagonist back to the series, “Day of the Soldado” focuses on the misadventures of professional anti-heroes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).
But it’s odd in another way — it’s odd in that it’s a big middle-of-the-summer release that’s rated R. And that it’s not a horror movie or an Apatow-esque gross-out comedy (typical R-rated fare) but an honest-to-god action movie.
It’s not going to beat “Jurassic World 2” at the box office this weekend, but with its solid reviews and tremendous trailer, it will put up some respectable numbers, regardless.
Which is encouraging. Because the second “Sicario” violates one of the key tenets of modern studio moviemaking. Which is this: If you want to make the most money on your investment, make your movie PG-13.
Through the first 25 weekends in 2018, a PG-13 movie was No. 1 at the box office for 22 of them. Just one PG movie (“Incredibles 2”) and two R-rated movies (“Fifty Shades Freed” and “Deadpool 2”) won their respective opening weekends. For the remainder of the year, only two more R-rated movies stand a clear chance at winning their opening weekends: September’s “The Predator” and October’s “Halloween.”
This year so far, PG-13 movies have made up 62 percent of the domestic box office; R-rated films account for 21 percent; PG movies make up 16 percent; and G-rated movies less than 1 percent.
But here’s something interesting and a bit counterintuitive: There are actually far more R-rated movies each year than there are PG-13 movies. So far this year there have been 81 movies rated R versus 44 rated PG-13.
That’s consistent over the last 23 years. Since 1995, we’ve seen nearly 5,000 R-rated movies (I’ve literally seen all of them) versus about 3,000 PG-13 movies.
But while there is still plenty of entertainment for adults only, the vast majority of R-rated movies are coming out in limited release, on far fewer screens than their PG-13 competitors. To offer some perspective, my four favorite films of the year so far (all little R-rated movies) played at fewer than 1,000 screens combined. Last weekend, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opened in 4,500 theaters. That’s one reason the average R-rated movie has grossed $13 million this year and the average PG-13 movie has grossed $70 million.
The chasm between the box office potential of the two ratings is so clear that in 2013, the National Association of Theater Owners protested the number of R-rated movies, calling for the studios to make fewer of them. John Fithian, president of the trade group, noted that “Americans have stated their choice” for more family-friendly entertainment.
"Kali Ma!" A scene from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," one of the films that led to the creation of the PG-13 rating.
In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the longtime Hays Code (which had stringent censorship guidelines influenced by the Catholic Church) with the film ratings system we still use today. It started with the ratings G, M (later changed to PG), R and X.
The X rating basically just meant “not rated,” and restricted anyone under a certain age, even if they had an adult guardian with them. But unlike the other ratings, X was never actually trademarked by the MPAA, and the porn industry gladly co-opted it for a marketing strategy. (“It’s not just X! It’s XXX!”) This eventually led to the MPAA creating the NC-17 rating, which came to distinguish those artfully sexually explicit films from the meat-and-potatoes smut of traditional porn.
Theaters and advertisers agreed to adhere to the MPAA ratings, with many businesses refusing to play or advertise unrated films.
In the ’80s, Spielberg was catching flak for a few of his pretty darn violent movies — like “Gremlins” (which he produced), “Jaws” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (“Kali Ma!”) — getting a PG rating. In a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair, Spielberg said that in response, he called the president of the MPAA and suggested a rating between PG and R.
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In 1984, the new rating was born. The Swayze/Sheen action thriller “Red Dawn” became the first PG-13 movie.