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The Triumph of the R

It has been three months now that it was announced that The Expendables 2 is targeting a PG-13 rating, a notion that caused a minor uproar among movie fans online. Afterall, if there is any movie coming this year that definitely needs an R-rating, then it is The Expendables 2. The first film, released in August 2010, lived off the concept of uniting several old and some new action stars (Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke among others) in one movie to create some bloody, action-laden, unabashed 80s-style fun. The film that was directed by Sly himself and boasted cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned out to be a major hit, grossing over $103 million for Lionsgate domestically and well over $250 million worldwide, prompting a sequel greenlight. From the get-go, it was clear that the sequel would have to ramp up things even more. It all looked to fall in place perfectly with added casting of internet favourite Chunk Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and vastly expanded roles for Willis and Arnie. The movie wasn’t going to win any awards, but the anticipation among fans was at its peak. It’s not often nowadays that a large-scale old school unsophisticated actioner gets a tentpole release in our day and age. Those times seem have stayed back in the 19080s and 1990s. But then the disappointment came. First mentioned by Chuck Norris, later confirmed by Stallone and Terry Crews – The Expendables 2 will be PG-13. Sure, they all still promised and insisted that there will not hold back and will still contain great action. But the damage was done. The studio has sold out. If even The Expendables 2, the least likely candidate, can be turned into a PG-13 flick – is anything safe then nowadays? However, a few days ago, rumors started circulating online that the film will be R-rated afterall. First mentioned by Stallone Zone (which claims that Sly directly confirmed the R-rating to them), the story was picked up by other movie websites. While it is still too early to get excited and an official confirmation hasn’t happened yet, one might ask the question what could have changed the minds of the filmmakers on this one. Internet outrage aside, the answer might very well lie in this year’s box-office performances so far.

Those of you regularly following by weekend box-office analyses might have noticed my constant bickering about the studios bad scheduling during the first few months of this year. In particular I like to point out the overflow of R-rated movies in the January-March period and the lack of major PG-13 movies (obviously this is about to change this weekend with the arrival of The Hunger Games). Nevertheless, the box-office is thriving this year and among the big winners are several R-rated movies. I still stand by my claim that without several adult-oriented films being released so close to each other, they would have done even better. As it is, though, we have barely seen a single R-rated movie disappoint this year so far (possibly with the exception of Haywire and Wanderlust, though expectations haven’t been great to begin with). While some of the biggest breakouts were non-R-rated films – The Vow and The Lorax come to mind here – there is no denying the fact that the stretch between the first weekend of 2012 and last weekend when 21 Jump Street opened on top was some of the greatest runs for R-rated movies in recent box-office history. In fact, January 2012 became the first month since February 2000 in which every single weekend was topped by an R-rated movie. Its four-week R-rated stretch was also the first since August/September 2009. Additionally, a total of seven out of eleven weekends this year had an R-rated #1 movie. During the same time period last year only three weekends were topped by an R-rated film. My claim remains that these films (most of which could also boast solid word-of-mouth) somewhat cannibalized each other and could have shown even better legs if not released so close to one another. Nonetheless, it was an extremely impressive stretch and, hopefully, an outlook for how things might shape up for the rest of the year.

Some of you might say: “R-rated or not R-rated, so what?”. For those of you I’d like to explain why I consider these achievements so impressive. Before the last decade, most studios just made films without too much regard for the eventual rating. Nowadays you often read that a certain movie is shooting with a certain rating in mind even before the production has started and if it is an R-rating that is already considering something very special and gutsy, unless it is a comedy. Back in the 1980s and most of the 1990s that never was an issue and claming that an upcoming action movie would be rated R wouldn’t have pleasantly surprised anyone. It would have just elicited a shrug. That’s because the R-rating was something completely normal and accepted by film studios. Look at huge box-office success stories like The Firm ($158.3 million), Speed ($121.2 million), Air Force One ($173 million), Flashdance ($92.2 million) or the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. Then ask yourself how great a chance is that these movies would have been made rated R if released nowadays. It’s not even that necessary. A movie like Flashdance could easily be made a PG-13 film without losing much. The point here is that the filmmakers simply didn’t worry much about the rating beforehand. It just happened and was usually accepted. The audiences still turned out.

To emphasize the normality and the success of R-rated movies in earlier days, let’s look at their yearly grosses. In 1991 (the year of T2: Judgement Day) the R-rated movies, for the first time, broke the $2 billion mark, making $2.036 billion at the domestic box-office. Compare that to last year, 2011 - $2.105 billion. That means that despite 20 years of inflation the domestic gross of R-rated movies barely increased! In fact during the years 2004-2006, the R-rated films’ gross in North America actually plunged below $2 billion. The clear peak for the success of R-rated movies was 1999 – the only year in which over $3 billion ($3.133 billion) was made by R-rated movies domestically. It was the year of nine $100+ million R-rated grosser, including the huge breakout’s The Blair Witch Project ($140.5 million), The Matrix ($171.5 million), Double Jeopardy ($116.7 million), Analyze This ($106.9 million) and American Pie ($102.6 million). After that year, R-rated movies have been on a decline with the only highlight after 1999 being 2003 ($2.654 billion for R-rated films). The results are even more striking if you take a closer look at the percentage of the yearly domestic gross made up by R-rated movies. Between 1982 and 1989 R-rated movies made up 41.3% of the total domestic yearly cume on average with not a single year going below 33%. Impressively enough the number barely decreased during the 1990s to 40.6% with not a single yearly share going below 34%. Now compare that to the 2000s – on average R-rated movies made up 24.7% of the yearly domestic total with just 2000 getting a share above 30%. That’s an incredibly severe decline. This still young decade doesn’t look much better either with 2010 and 2011 averaging 22.4%. What happened and when did it happen? Why did studios suddenly decide to stop making many big R-rated movies?

First of all, with the arrival of new huge franchises the 2000s became the decade of überblockbuster series. Since 2002 there have been only few years without a $400 million grosser and none without a $300 million film. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and comic book adaptations became the main driving forces of box-office. These films have never been meant to be rated R as they were always meant for very wide audiences. That explains why the overall domestic cumes grew over years whereas the R-rated movies’ shares declined (as their grosses remained stagnant at best). If you look closely you’ll see that the überblockbusters of the 1990s were all not rated R either (in fact, it wasn’t until 2004 that an R-rated movie finally made over $300 million). Just think of JurassicPark, Independence Day or The Lion King. What happened is just that the number of these films increased during the past decade. That explains why the shares decreased somewhat. It does not, however, explain the severity of the decrease as well as the raw numbers which at least should have increased thanks to inflation. Fact is that even movies not geared towards extremely wide audiences were often no longer rated R. The consistently R-rated movies of the past were always horror films and action movies. I’d say the the turn came around 2002/2003 with a few films responsible for that.

In 1999, a movie that could certainly be classified as horror, The Sixth Sense, broke box-office records and went on to make $293.5 million domestically. However, it was also not a straight-up horror flick and was showered with accolades. In 2002, however, the remake of a Japanese horror hit, The Ring hit theatres. After an initially mild $15 million opening, the movie developed tremendous legs which carried it to a total of $129.1 million. The times of the R-rated slashers wave started by Scream in 1996 came to an end and the notion of PG-13 horror movies was born. First used for remakes of Asian horror films (The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye and Shutter come to mind), it was later expanded to most movies in the horror genre. It even became somewhat of a yearly event to have a teen-oriented (usually terrible) PG13 rated horror movie released over the Super Bowl weekend or at least close to it. That includes movies like The Messengers ($35.4 million), When a Stranger Calls ($47.9 million), The Roommate ($37.3 million) and Prom Night ($43.9 million). Given the small budgets for those films, they almost always turned out to be successful investments prompting even more movies of their kind. In fact the “PG-13 horror remake” became a subgenre of its own.

The comedy genre was shortly hit by this turn in 2003 when Scary Movie 3 was released with a PG-13 rating. The first movie (which ironically spoofed the likes of Scream) became a huge success in 2000 making $157 million. The follow-up, a year later, however, saw very diminishing returns as it collected just $71.3 million. That was still more than enough to justify a third film, but clearly the fear of declining returns made the (new) filmmakers decide for a PG-13 rating. It paid off and the third film made $110 million in fall 2003, while taking the October opening record with a $48.1 million start. Ironically, 2003 was still the best year for R-rated movies in a long time with several studios having several R-rated tentpole releases – Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ($150.4 million), The Matrix Reloaded ($281.6 million) and Bad Boys II ($138.6 million). However, the gross of Terminator 3 which declined over 25% from its predecessor despite over a decade of inflation as well as the numbers of The Matrix Revolutions (as well as, to a small degree, Reloaded’s failure to pas $300 million after the immense hype building up its release) were deemed disappointments and partly blamed on the ratings (a theory I’d argue against). While next year the R-rated record was broken by The Passion of the Christ, it didn’t change the overall perception as one of the few R-rated summer tentpoles, Troy (expected to emulate Gladiator’s success), disappointed domestically with a $133.4 million total. At the same time, the success of the PG-13-rated Bourne franchise as well as the acclaim it has received gave great rise to PG-13 action movies. This was the time when the turn completely happened. The following two years saw only two R-rated films grossing more than $100 million each year (only one of these four movies wasn’t a comedy). Occasional R-rated non-comedy blockbusters like 300 ($210.6 million) were still regarded as a fluke more than a trend.

The first huge PG-13 shock for online movie fans was the decision to turn the seemingly definite R-rated project Alien vs. Predator into a PG-13 affair – and that just a year after the successful R-rated Freddy vs. Jason which first gave the idea to have classic horror movie monsters face off one another. That was particularly shocking considering that the four Alien and the two Predator movies preceding Alien vs. Predator were all rated R. The film was released and while it was a success making a bit over $80 million, it didn’t manage to beat Freddy vs. Jason’s total despite the softer rating (or maybe because of it). The sequel arrived a few years later with the R-rating to boot, but dismal WoM for the predecessor as well as rather mixed opinions about the second films itself led to diminished returns. That didn’t stop studios to turn originally R-rated franchises into PG-13 ones. The first big franchise to suffer was Die Hard with Live Free or Die Hard being the fourth movie in the franchise and the first one to be rated PG-13, thus not allowing John McClane’s catchphrase “Yippi Ki-Yay , motherfucker!”. The film still garnered solid reviews and became the series’ highest-grosser unadjusted for inflation with $134.5 million, but the fans still regard it as a step-down from the original films and the watered-down language and violence just didn’t seem evry right. Another prime example would be Terminator: Salvation released with a PG-13 rating in 2009 and severely disappointing, making even less than T3: Rise of the Machines six years prior to it.

Speaking of comedy – it was the first genre to turn things around. After the success of PG-comedies like Scary Movie 3 and Dodgeball it looked like the R-rating was close to its death among big movies with PG-13 ruling all genres. It all changed 2005 when two immensely leggy R-rated comedies were released in the summer. Wedding Crashers got out of the gate first and after a $33.9 million opening found its way to almost $210 million, even topping the total of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which opened much higher on the same weekend. A month later The 40-Year-Old Virgin opened on top and made $109.4 million during its run for an opening-to-total multiplier of over 5. While a smaller grosser, it was ultimately The 40-Year-Old Virgin that had a more lasting effect as it started the theatrical career of Steve Carrel and made the Judd Apatow brand popular. The latter paid off in 2007 when the Apatow directed Knocked Up made $148.8 million at the box-office and the Apatow-produced Superbad accumulated $121.5 million. The R-rated comedy reached its new peak 2009 when The Hangover broke records with a $277.3 million domestic total, becoming the biggest R-rated comedy ever domestically (and the third-biggest ever of any rating), beating Beverly Hills Cop’s record of over 25 years. Nowadays, most successful R-rated movies each year are comedies. Just looking at last year, you’ll find that the two by far biggest R-rated films were The Hangover Part II and Bridesmaids.

The turnaround in the horror genre is slower, but it also started a few years ago with the release of Saw in 2004. The relatively low budget torture horror became a cult classic among horror fans and grossed $44.52 million. It spawned six (R-rated sequel) and became a major cash cow for Lionsgate. What’s even more important, similar to Scream, it also started a new wave of hardcore R-rated horror films, nicknamed “torture porn”. The success of the wave (with Hostel being the most prominent example) didn’t last for long, but it was a start. More recently, however, the “found footage” horror phenomenon Paranormal Activity and its two sequels (with the latest taking the October opening weekend record after a smashing $52 million opening) have strengthened the position of R-rated horror and started yet another new wave, as seen by this year’s first opener – The Devil Inside.

Maybe it is time for the studios to realize that R-rated movies, if done right and marketed well can very much co-exist with the PG-13 counterparts. One of the main reason for the decline of R-rated films was not that people watched less R-rated films, but mostly that less good and interesting R-rated tentpoles have been released. There is no need to water down established franchises or movies that appeal to adult audiences anyway (which is the case with something like The Expendables). This year, thus far, has been a true triumph for the R-rating. Here’s the recap.

It all started with The Devil Inside delivering a huge $33.7 million opening on the year’s first weekend. Due to horrible WoM it crumbled and will stop with just above $53 million, but for its $1 million budget, it is already a huge success. A weekend later, the well-marketed, but generic-looking Mark Wahlberg–starrer Contraband took the top spot with $24.3 million. The $25 million-budgeted film currently stands at $66.5 million. A weekend later the fourth movie in the Underworld franchise, Underworld: Awakening opened on top with $25.3 million and went on to become the series’ biggest film with $62.3 million. The following week, Liam Neeson-starring survival thriller The Grey opened on top with just below $20 million and it is heading towards a $52 million finish. Just two weeks later, the Denzel Washington starrer Safe House delivered a $40+ million opening, showing that successful R-rated action movies are far from dead. With the movie currently on course towards a $130 million finish, it will be one of the biggest non-comedy R-rated films in recent years. Two weeks after Safe House’s opening, another R-rated actioner took the top spot. Act of Valor carries a price tag of just $12 million and is currently on track to a $70+ million finish. A week later, the R-rated “found footage” comedy Project X managed a $21 million start on a relatively small budget. Most recently, 21 Jump Streetopened to over $36 million last weekend, making it one of the biggest R-rated comedy opening ever. Boasting good reviews, decent word-of-mouth and little direct competition, it’s a lock for a $100+ million total.

Obviously, it is still early, but so far 37.1% of the domestic total gross is made up by R-rated movies. Four out of this year’s Top 10 movies so far are rated R. Six R-rated movies this year have already passed the $50 million mark with 21 Jump Street and Project X certain to pass it very soon. What is even more impressive is that seven R-rated movies opened above $20 million this year whereas only six movies in total managed that all of last year. Could this be a sign of things to come? Hopefully. In particular the fact that several of those breakout success stories weren’t comedies or horror movies could serve as a wake-up call. It actually might have to Lionsgate and Stallone with the rumors of The Expendables 2 being rated R now. With a surefire hits like American Reunion, Django Unchaimed, Paranormal Activity 4 andResident Evil: Retribution ahead and potential breakouts by the likes of The Five-Year Long Engagement this might turn out an amazing year for R-rated movies’ box-office.

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Total Comments: 1
pasaway098    Mar 23 2012 10:26am
Good article. R rated movies is saving the box office!