No, we're not in a "golden age" of R-rated blockbusters

Think back, friends. Think way back, to the simpler days of the year 2014. The United States was led by an adult who spoke in complete sentences. Millions of gay people in America still enjoyed the swinging single life. Kids were using a brand new app called Vine to take sexting and cyberbullying in exciting new directions. And pop culture commentators despaired of ever seeing another R-rated blockbuster.

Image via: Flickreel.com

Image via: filmschoolrejects.com

There were R-rated movies back then, to be sure, and they still made money. Horror flicks, raunchy comedies, Oscar-bait dramas; the same genres that have been dominated by R-rated fare ever since the rating was created. But the huge movies? The ones that top the yearly box office lists, become cultural touchstones, inspire Halloween costumes, and keep studio execs well-stocked with artisan vodka and vagina stones? Three years ago, they were overwhelmingly PG-13, and getting more overwhelmingly so by the week. Gone were the heady days of the ‘80s when hard-R films like Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Die Hard climbed up the charts with regularity.

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PG-13 was where the big bucks were. Box office analysts talk about appealing to the four “quadrants”—younger men, younger women, older men, and older women—and rating a film PG-13 makes it equally accessible to all four quadrants. And in an industry increasingly dependent upon making Scrooge McDuck amounts of cash from several gigantic pictures every year, you can see how this strategy would come to dominate.

That’s how we saw the market share of R-rated films steadily decrease over time, even as the total number of R-rated movies released stayed constant. That’s how R-rated films slowly dropped off the all-time highest-grossing list like so many dead leaves in chill autumn winds. That’s how we got PG-13 entries in traditionally R-rated franchises (Terminator and Die Hard come to mind), as well as unconscionable PG-13 remakes of movies originally rated R (RoboCop and Total Recall, among others).

Then, something magical happened: Deadpool. The tooth-and-nail fight to get this famously profane and stabby antihero on the big screen is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Almost as legendary is how much money it made. Thanks largely to its budget ($58 million, peanuts by the standards of superhero movies), Deadpool became one of 2016’s biggest moneymakers for 20th Century Fox.

The enthusiasm garnered by Deadpool snowballed along with that surrounding the unexpected success of the previous year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Emboldened by these successes, Fox commissioned another R-rated superhero flick, Logan, which took in $85 million on its opening weekend (final gross figures aren’t available, but I’d guess “all of it”). At the same time, the Fifty Shades series earned almost a billion dollars, while low-budget sleepers like Get Out and the John Wick series became respectable hits, and Hollywood all but abandoned its practice of devolving franchise movie ratings (as seen by the newest Alien and Predator movies earning R ratings, along with the It remake­).

Now, I’m the last one to argue this isn’t a welcome trend. But I don’t think these developments merit all these pronouncements of a new “golden age” for the R-rated blockbuster. I’ve seen this film before, and the ending is a letdown. The same industry trends that led R-rated films to become less popular are still around. In many cases, they’re stronger than ever.

First of all, let’s take a look at the moviegoing audience in 2017. Heralds of the R-rated golden age will tell you that it skews older than it used to, because kids don’t go anymore. They’re too busy streaming a Flappy Bird on their Zunes or whatever the fuck.

Well, this is both true and misleading. There are more entertainment options available (for everyone) than there were even ten years ago. We have more streaming TV and movies than we know what to do with—literally.  We have video games. We have the internet and social media hosepiping a relentless deluge of content into our eyeballs. It’s not just kids that are being snatched out of movie seats by the global internet media technocracy. They’re just most susceptible to it, because they don’t have as many sentimental associations with the movie theater as we fully-formed adults do. But I’ll tell you a secret, folks: sentiment never wins a fight with capitalism.

It’s a struggle simply to get today’s media consumers to put on pants and step out into the sunlight. You’ve got to make it worth their while, and today’s 3D- (and IMAX-) bloated ticket prices aren’t helping matters. Because of these factors, the casual moviegoer is an endangered species. Seeing a movie in a theater has become more of an “event” than a normal entertainment option. Thus, movie studios can’t afford to diversify their investments anymore. Average movie budgets have skyrocketed, even as the middle tier—the mid-budget movies that did brisk business from casual moviegoers, and which, not coincidentally, were dominated by R-rated adult fare—have all but fallen out of the market. Studios can no longer mop up a big movie’s underperformance with a bunch of cheaper flicks that perform decently.

So, bearing in mind that fewer people are going to fewer movies (which are more expensive), it follows that the lion’s share of studios’ investment in tentpole films is going to go to films that the largest amount of people can see. Kids gotta see it, adults gotta see it. Ideally, adults should bring their kids to see it.

Which brings me to an often overlooked aspect of this discussion: underage viewing.

There are, obviously, no reliable figures on how many kids who weren’t strictly allowed to see, say, Terminator 2 bought a ticket anyway. We can’t assume it’s negligible. From my own experience, we should assume the opposite. I saw my first R-rated movie in theaters at age eleven. I told my mom I wanted to see The Nutty Professor again, she dropped me off, and I bought a ticket to The Rock instead. And trust me; I didn’t appear mature for my age, and I wasn’t particularly suave, charming, or devious either. There was no trickery necessary. I just gave them the money, and they gave me a ticket. I easily saw dozens of R-rated movies in this manner before I turned 17. (Renting an R-rated movie from Blockbuster required more guile, but that’s neither here nor there.)

That’s how idiotically easy it used to be. Why wouldn’t it be? The under-17-not-admitted-without-a-guardian rule was never a law. It was an industry regulation, voluntarily adopted, and paid the same heed you’d expect corporate America to pay a voluntary rule that’s costing it money. And studios knew this. They marketed R-rated movies to minors in a disturbingly amoral fashion. Want proof? I had this toy, ten and a half years before I was able to go unaccompanied to the movie it was based on:

Yes, it was rad as shit; thanks for asking.

But sadly, movie theaters have gotten much less chill over the years. The rash of school shootings in the late ‘90s led to pressure on the industry to change the way it marketed violent movies. As a result, modern kids aren’t as aware of the latest R-rated offerings as they used to be. In addition, the general societal trend toward never letting kids be alone anywhere, coupled with a few high-profile movie theater shootings, led to a sharp decrease in unaccompanied kids at the movies. Even if kids still did go to movies by themselves, they couldn’t see the R-rated ones, because age-restriction enforcement is at an all-time high.

So if kids are gonna see movies, then adults have gotta go to. Don’t be surprised. It’s why there’s such a thing as kids’ movies. They wouldn’t make ‘em if the kids’ parents and/or guardians and/or ex-mercenary ninja bodyguards didn’t also have to buy a ticket. And since moviegoing, as previously mentioned, is an “event” these days, lots of people are making a family night out of it. Make the movie PG-13, so adult consumers don’t feel silly buying a ticket on their own, and you’re golden.

That’s what makes surveys like this one so laughable:

First off, holy shit, you asked people at a violent superhero movie whether they wanted more violent superhero movies and they said yes? Stop the presses! But more to the point, it doesn’t matter what people want if the industry’s current business models can’t support it and won’t be able to for some time.

Adult superhero fans want adult superhero movies? Well, pedophiles want cargo vans that don’t open from the inside, but it ain’t gonna happen. Superhero films are a revenue stream that certain studios are positively addicted to, and kids are crucial to that profit. They might make an R-rated flick or two per year just to throw the fanboys a bone, but that’s never going to translate into a genre-wide shift to more adult fare.

Same goes with every other kind of blockbuster. There’s simply too much riding on the success of huge event movies for studios to shut off an entire segment of their audience voluntarily in the name of “artistic liberty” and “mature sensibilities”. The time where you could court adult moviegoers and make the kind of money you need to make has passed. It’s a kid’s game, still, and will probably remain so barring a complete shift in the movie medium itself. Settle in and enjoy it. You want blood and boobs? Switch on some HBO.

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  • Deneb T. Hall

    I think the trick to bridging the gap might be to relax the stringency of the ratings a little bit. I’ve seen plenty of films from the earlier days of movie ratings that are technically PG-13 or lower, but have stuff that would make the censors’ monocles pop out now – and I don’t mean as in sex and violence and so forth, I just mean generally freaky stuff. ‘Return to Oz’, for instance, is PG, and an awesome kids’ film, while simultaneously having plenty of stuff that would not be out of place in a horror movie. At the same time, as you pointed out, there were plenty of R-rated flicks with elements seemingly tailor-made to catch a younger audience’s interest – I mean, ‘Robocop’? ‘Aliens’? ‘Terminator’? Awesome robots and monsters and cyborg superheroes, woohoo!

    So if R-rated films are becoming profitable again, but PG-13 is still the profitable golden standard, then the answer is simple – loosen up a bit on what’s acceptable for the rating. Allow stuff that used to be in there, darker stuff, scary stuff, stuff a bit more challenging then what’s been up on the screen lately. Kids will still be able to handle it, adults will appreciate it, and the studios will get more of the latter group’s money – which will make them more willing to invest in films focused at them, specifically, R-rated ones. At the same time, if they’d toss in a few more kid-appealing elements to the latter category, they’d clean up when the film came out on DVD (I think parents tend overall to be a little more indulgent of their kids watching such things at home rather than the theater), and adults wouldn’t mind a bit, except the boring humorless ones. Cross-marketing!

  • Ian Kacprzak

    I think budget should be a consideration for these films, Deadpool and the Amazing Spider-man 2 both cleared the 700 million mark but since Deadpool had a lower budget and expectations it was viewed as a more successful film and got a sequel. Basically R-rated movies should be made for smaller audiences with smaller budgets and expectations.

  • Florin

    R rated superhero movies also have one other problem.There are more than enough fans who don’t actually want a large number of these kind of stories.Arguments like they’ll fill the movie with blood and guts to seem edgy and eliminate any storytelling potential.
    Of course the PG-13 rating has its drawbacks as well.It makes quite a few movies seem forcefully tame dialogue frequently sounds a bit too consumer friendly action scenes have to cut away from the more gruesome stuff.Even the kind of villains you have frequently the villains are not too scary and cannot do trully creepy stuff.
    At this point Disney with its Marvel division is king and none of their movies have been R rated because they haven’t needed one.They’re not even boundary pushing PG-13 in fact the only movies to use the one f word per PG-13 movie are the X-men movies from Fox.And again this is because they haven’t failed so far.
    The only reason Fox decided to up the ante in its X-men movies was precisely because they needed to give something different in order to stay competitive.Logan was greenlit as a hard R because Deadpool was a hit and Apocalypse failed.
    As for Warner its possible they might go the Fox route but the big heads will look at the overall box office.The biggest hits from Fox broke the 700 million $ barrier Days of future past and Deadpool.That is more than respectable considering their budgets but the biggest hit from Marvel the Avengers broke the 1,5 billion mark.Warner wants that level of success.Its almost impossible to imagine at this point an R rated Logan style movie making that kind of money.Maybe a Deadpool type could reach 1 billion but a serious superhero movie unlikely.
    So until the MCU starts to fail there won’t be a large number of R rated superhero movies.Fox seems to want to position itsefl as the niche giving either hard PG-13 or full R rated movies in this market while Warner wants to replicate Disney’s success.