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Sonn: World War P(G-13)

BY BARRETT SONN | JULY 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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Here we are in the dregs of the summer movie season, a never-ending parade of cataclysmic destruction and fart jokes. All of the carefully focus-grouped PG-13ness is enough to make one pine for the rugged arms of an R-rated movie.

A National Association of Theater Owners study found that last year, 177 R-rated films grossed $3 billion domestically. That looks pretty good — both the total as well as the money per movie ($16.8 million) — until you realize R-rated films are, commercially speaking, the least successful, on a per movie basis.

The rating of a movie, to me, has always been a secondary factor. I choose to watch a movie based on whether I think it will be interesting or not. For example, I chose to watch Drive in 2011 because the soundtrack was excellent and because I’m a sucker for cinematography. Did the R-rating influence my decision at all? No, it did not (I wish it had, though, because seeing Christina Hendricks’ head explode in slow motion was a little unsettling). I have noticed during my extensive movie watching, however, that the best movies tend to carry an R rating. Perhaps, this is because filmmakers have greater creative license when freed from the constraints of PG-13. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.

But to the detriment of quality, the bulk of Hollywood’s resources are directed not at R-rated adult fare but at summertime blockbusters engineered for mass appeal. There were fewer PG-13 movies in 2012 than R movies but not only did they make more money per film, but they actually made more in total. In general, a PG-13 movie is more likely to succeed than an R-rated film. Because of that, consumer trends can actually pressure filmmakers to water down their movies to achieve sweet, sweet economic viability.

Recently, the Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z has been taking some criticism for its relatively mild portrayal of a zombie apocalypse. (It’s rated PG-13). A zombie movie rated PG-13 is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, and while more people can actually go to see the movie, it sacrificed some of the gruesome violence characteristic of the zombie genre (think The Evil Dead)for that mass appeal.

That’s not to say that an R-rated movie can’t capture the affection of consumers and become a big hit. The Hangover is an example of an R-rated film that did extremely well on both the domestic and global scale due to positive reviews and word of mouth, and its success begot a new wave of R-rated comedies such as Bridesmaids and Ted. Such films were made possible thanks to adults consuming like adults.

The inescapable fact is that R-rated films are more culturally and artistically valuable than the annual PG-13 parade of summer movies. Most of the best movies in history are rated R, whether it’s Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas, to name two very profane examples. They’re free to go to darker places without fear of alienating a mass audience.

If we expect high-quality fare out of Hollywood, rather than decade after decade of superhero reboots, we have to start consuming like adults.


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