August 30, 2004

PG-13 Turns 20

This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the PG-13 rating. Back in the summer of 1984 two films came out that sparked controversy over the rating system. What were those two movies, you ask? They were Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins. Two scenes in particular sparked the uproar. For Indy it was the witch doctor tearing the beating heart out of the slave, and in Gremlins it was the critter that met his demise in the microwave. The scenes proved to be a bit much for parents looking for family entertainment, yet the films as a whole didn't warrant an R based the entire film. As the story goes Steven Spielberg approached Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, and suggested creating a new rating. So, the PG-13 was born. A few films that year came out with that designation, the first being Red Dawn.

This rating was seen as liberating by a lot of filmmakers. it allowed them to get a little edgier with their PG films. It would allow them to leave in scenes and dialogue that normally would have to have been cut to achieve the PG rating. I agree it was a great step forward. Allowing films to be marketed a bit differently, splitting that previously all-encompassing child demographic which included all ages up to 18. Now you can't really lump all those kids together, treating ten year olds the same as 16 year olds. With this new rating they could aim films at that middling teen audience more effectively. But over the past few years there has been a disturbing trend.

Lately, we are seeing a reduction in R rated films. Films marketed to adults are becoming a dying breed. The 1980's was the heyday for the R rated film, with the likes of Die Hard, Terminator, Rambo, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, not to mention their sequels. Since then the studios seem to be trying to sanitize movies for the widest audience. I don't really have a problem with that, as the studios are in this to make money. But, and there's always a but, it is at the expense of entertainment meant for adults.

This makes the PG-13 a double edged sword, and the most popular rating by the studios today. This gives them highest market penetration to hit the audience and soak up every last dollar they have. The problem with all of this "sanitizing for your protection" stuff leads to a lessening of product for the more mature audiences, those who like to see a little blood with their violence, those who may like to go to a movie whose audience is primarily people in their age group, or at least for the most part, out of high school. It also cuts into the creativity of those making the movie. They have to factor in what rating they have to deliver while making the film, and therefore may not be able to tell the story as they see fit. Some of this control needs to revert to the filmmakers.

There are directors out there who make films for all the age groups, and this is a good thing. Giving this control back to the filmmakers doesn't mean there will be a lessening of PG or PG-13 movies, just that they don't need to be afraid to make an R rated movie. So many movies have been coming out over the pas few years with this PG-13 rating that were clearly intended for the R market. I look at some of these movies, and I wonder where the heart went, it looks like stuff is missing. Here are a few titles from this year that would have benefited from an R rating: King Arthur, Alien vs. Predator, Chronicles of Riddick, The Alamo, Walking Tall, and Paycheck. I'm not saying this would make them better movies, it could make them worse, but to look at some of these movies and not wonder what if can be hard to do at times.

King Arthur is a good example of this. As it stands, it is a pretty good medieval action film, but for as gritty as it is at times, there is no blood. We don't see the consequences of the actions, which lessens there impact, which will in turn impact the way the audience perceives the movie. For comparison, look at the battles in King Arthur, then look at the battles in, say, Braveheart. Both are medieval epics, settings are different, but both feature some large scale battles. Braveheart, which is rated R, is rather graphic in its brutality, limbs are hacked off, blood is shed, lives were lost. Now King Arthur, also has large scale battles, no missing limbs, no blood, no impact. I believe, the footage was shot, but not used for the rating, that brings me to another point which I will get to shortly.
UPDATE: How's this for timing. Today, Touchstone Home Entertainment announced that King Arthur will be released on 12/21 in, you guessed it, 2 versions. There will be the PG-13 theatrical version and an unrated director's cut.

Another example, one I found to be a bit more annoying, is Alien vs. Predator. I am a fan of both series of films, more Alien but that doesn't rally matter. The point here is that in both series all of the films were rated R. They were violent, bloody affairs which catered to an adult audience. Now comes the opportunity to put both of these vicious film creations on the screen at the same time, and what do we get? No, not an R rated film that does credit to these killing machines, we get a sanitized PG-13 which pretty much knocks the teeth out of the violence. This was a shameless cash-grab by the studio which does not stand by nature of these films. Instead of having a great bloody fight, most of the killing is done offscreen. I guess this is to protect our fragile minds, heaven forbid we see any graphic violence in a movie.

This brings me to the second part of this PG-13 problem. Studios are now seem to be basing there marketing plan not only on the theatrical, but DVD release. Again, they should, and always have done this, but the structure is changing. How often do you see a movie released in two versions? The theatrical cut, and the new unrated edition with "footage they couldn't show you in theaters." This is all that sanitized content that they put back into a movie to try to get more money out of you. It's a disturbing trend. You can almost tell by a movie title and it's rating if it is going to gets these multiple releases. I bet Alien vs. Predator does.

I don't mean this to all be down on the PG-13 rating, it has done a lot of good over the years. It gives the filmmakers more leeway in their PG rated films, or basically just another option. The issue is with the studios using it like a catch all for their movies. Look in your movie listings, at any given time 50-75% of the films will be rated PG-13. This can also lead to a discussion as to the lack of a working adults only rating in America, but that's a discussion for another time.

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