Wednesday, November 6, 2019

In Laman's Terms: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The R-Rated Blockbuster

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

For the longest time, the notion has been that if a movie wants to have domestic box office success, it must be PG-13. After all, a PG-13 rating is in that sweet spot of offering up adult material but also being a movie people of all ages can view by themselves. Once you get into the R-rating demographic, anyone below 17 years of age needs an adult guardian to see the movie with them. That more restrictive rating has long been thought of as a financial death knell for a movie, which is odd because the R-rating has actually been attached to a myriad of successful movies over the years, even dating back to the earliest days of the ratings very existence.

Looking over the list of the biggest R-rated movies of all-time, one can actually see an R-rated movie cracking $200 million domestically (The Exorcist) just five years after the rating, like most MPAA ratings (save for later ratings like PG-13) was created in the wake of the Hayes code collapsing. Even early on, it was clear audiences would show up for R-rated fare in numbers usually only seen by films with more family-friendly ratings. Unfortunately, no other R-rated film from this decade saw similar box office success and it wasn't until Beverly Hills Cop that another R-rated movie would crack $200 million domestically. Overall, only four R-rated movies cracked $200 million domestically during the 20th-century. Despite there being extremely notable and lucrative examples of a desire for R-rated fare, movie studios frequently refused to dabble in the R-rating when it came to higher-profile fare.

Hollywood has a bad habit of basically creating its own insular rules to play things safe that end up creating a self-inflicted cycle of failure intended to keep those rules in place. For instance, for the longest time the wisdom was that R-rated comedies with female leads couldn't make money. Because Hollywood never made all that many movies that actually fit into that subgenre, there wasn't a whole lot of financially successful movies to counter that position. Hollywood studios hadn't even tried and they passed that off as evidence that such films couldn't ever work while fleeting examples of lucrative female-led R-rated comedies (like Baby Mama) were tossed aside as exceptions (similar methods are done for films with LGBTQA+ and/or PoC leads).

The same was true of R-rated movies. The few hits were seen as just anomalies, not an indication that movies with a more restrictive MPAA rating could thrive at the domestic box office. A few cracks could be seen in this preconceived notion about R-rated movies when The Hangover managed to become the biggest R-rated movie of all-time domestically not starring Jesus Christ. Suddenly, Hollywood was all in on R-rated comedies and over the next three years, three of them managed to crack $190 million domestically. Whereas in the past R-rated hits like The Exorcist or Beverly Hills Cop were the lone R-rated movies in their respective decades to crack $200 million domestically, suddenly this was becoming an annual occurrence for R-rated comedy fare.

These R-rated comedies paved the way for the R-rated blockbuster renaissance that proved it wasn't just yukfests that could make bank with an R-rating. American Sniper is actually the one that kicked this whole thing off with its $350.1 million domestic haul that made it, at the time, the second-biggest R-rated movie of all-time and the first R-rated movie to become the biggest movie of the year at the domestic box office since Saving Private Ryan nearly twenty years prior. Just thirteen months later, American Sniper was outgrossed by Deadpool, which rewrote all the rules for what kind of superhero movies could and couldn't thrive at the box office. This mouthy merc left all other X-Men movies in the dust at the domestic box office despite its R-rating, which actually boosted its appeal and uniqueness in its marketing.

Since the February 2016 release of Deadpool, six of the only nineteen R-rated movies to crack $200 million domestically have been released, one of which is Joker, which is now well on its way to becoming the first R-rated movie in history to gross over $1 billion worldwide. Clearly, R-rated fare is no longer adhering to Hollywood's earlier perception that it's more restrictive and less appealing to the general public. What's interesting about this is that while an R-rating can sometimes make for a good marketing gimmick for films like Sausage Party or Deadpool, it's not the sole reason these films have done well. The likes of American Sniper, Joker and It had marketing campaigns, imagery and stories that resonated with the general public, a Chris Kyle movie was probably going to always do well no matter what MPAA rating or fake babies it had, ditto for the first theatrical movie starring Pennywise the clown.
An image from Hustlers, one of a number of R-rated box office hits in 2019
Still, Hollywood studios becoming more open to allowing R-ratings certainly does aid certain movies. Would the action of John Wick be nearly as fun if it was kept in the confines of a PG-13? Would the dialogue and chills in Get Out be anywhere near as memorable if they had to worry about adhering to PG-13 guidelines? Sometimes, Hollywood's modern-day use of an R-rating is just a gimmick, sure, but other times, it truly allows filmmakers like George Miller or Lorene Scafaria to be more concerned about telling their story properly rather than worry about lining up with the restrictions of a PG-13 rating. Not every movie needs an R-rating, but certain properties do and Hollywood's newfound willingness to embrace the R-rating for such properties on a frequent basis is totally new, totally exciting and totally breaking box office records. Why, one could even say that it's something that hasn't happened for the longest time...

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