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The History of the “R” Rated Blockbuster

It looks like The Wolfman, the first monster movie reboot due from universal, has just secured an ‘R’ rating State-side. In Ireland and the UK, we’re used to blockbusters receiving higher film ratings (12s, 15s, 18s), but in the US it’s unheard of for a major motion picture intended to make loads of money to go out with a rating higher than PG-13. It’s bizarre, as technically an adult can take a child to see an R-rated movie, whereas over here, back in the old days, it didn’t matter who you were with – if you weren’t the age on the poster, you didn’t get in. So what’s with this recent trent towards selling big budget movies with the R rating on them serving not as something to be downplayed by the studio, but actually used as a major selling point? Hell, we’re even seeing more redband trailers.

Because red is just sexier...

I thhink the general conception that Hollywood has is that the bulk of movie goers are teenagers who just want bang for their buck. If you can reel them in with Megan Fox leaning over a car or giant machines kicking the crap out of each other, that’s great. That’s pretty much the reason that so many movies are heavily amended by the studios to get the desired PG-13 rating. The general wisdom was that you couldn’t get a blockbuster without that core teenage demographic.

The old trend used to be that studios would compromise with directors. So they’d heavily cut down the gore on screen in the multiplexes in order to maximise the potential audience for a film and then release the (typically better reviewed) R-rated director’s cut on DVD a few months later. This was the case with Daredevil, more recently with Terminator: Salvation and even with Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour. None of these films instantly became cult masterpieces due to the addition of extra violence or gore, but most reviewers seemed to accept that the films seemed a lot more fluid and logical for being unrestrained.

And it’s worth considering that gore and blood seem to be the deciding factor here. Despite being as disturbing as any of the movies above – okay, except Pearl Harbour, but that was disturbing in any cut – The Dark Knight managed to remain PG-13 despite having a hideous burn victim as a central character, a Joker fixated with knives who had carved his own face open and more than a few uncomfortable deaths (stabbed through the mouth, burned alive, and so on). The reason that it got the market-friendly ratingw as because there was no blood on film.

Part of me is fascinated by this phiosophy. By playing scenes of incredible violence without acknowledging the actual damage that they cause, the film is family-friendly? Whereas portraying the consequences of these actions makes them unsuitable for children? I would ahve assumed that a film that acts as if violence has no consequences would be less suitable for kids, but what do I know?

Anyway, this was generally the approach. Skirt the rating and get the kids in to watch your flick, while indulging the nerds at home with the blood-filled director’s cut. That way everybody wins. Right? Somewhere in the past decade, the philosophy adopted by the major studios changed somewhat. I realy think that there are two key factors that merit discussion when looking at this.

The first was the emergence of cult directors who were arguably strong enough to puch their own movies through the studio system without interference from higher up. Ironically, these weren’t masters like Spielberg or Scorcese, but young and hip film makers who – if I may be so bold – only really got so much lee-way with the studios because I don’t think Hollywood understood them well enough to risk interfering in their film making.

The poster boys for this particular school of big-budget cinema for adults were the Wachowski brothers. The Matrix was a phenomenal hit. And it deserved to be – it’s an iconic film, albeit not as original as most claim it was a breath of fresh air. It earned its creators enough clout to push through two big-budget sequels which would be shown in cinemas exactly as intended. Though no one can claim that The Matrix Revolutions or The Matrix Reloaded were in anyway suitable follow-ups to the original film, Reload remains the film with biggest opening for an R-rated movie in history.

That’s one of the two factors which informed this move towards an acceptable R-rated blockbuster. You might make the case that the second-biggest R-rated film of all time, The Passion of the Christ, followed a similar model – as, arguably did Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II.

The second factor which helped studios to become more comfortable with R-rated movies was the emergence of the geek market. This is a factor which pretty much shifted the conception of the blockbuster over the past decade, and is readily acknowledged as one of the biggest influences of the past ten years. That’s how we moved away from blockbusters about cops and asteroids to giant robots and comic books. However, Hollywood discovered that – unlike what it must conceive as “regular folk” – apparently nerds retain their interest in movies past 18 years of age. Crazy, I know.

Anyway, the studios seemed to accept that they could sell movies directly to this nerd subculture that didn’t need to be PG-13. Credit where credit is due, Zack Snyder is perhaps the most influential director to have been involved with notion. Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen all were specifically intended for nerd audiences. Though some succeeded for being able to transcend that, the core demographic for these movies were adults. So nerdy adults began to compete with cool kids for Hollywood’s attention – and films like District 9 were the pay-off.

I think, if we look at the decade as a whole, once film makers accepted that nerdy adults go to the cinema, they began to see that other adults might go as well. Sex in the City was sold to adult women. 8 Mile was sold to adult rap music fans. And so on.

It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that Hollywood seems to be beginning to accept it can sell blockbusters to adults, it isn’t really changing how it makes blockbusters. Sure, they can add more blood and more gore, but I am surprised that the evidence that there is an adult audience out there who will flock to see movies hasn’t led them to develop more… mature movies for them. I’m talking about films that are complex and rich, and that are sold to audiences in a “you should see this film over the summer” sort of way, instead of “this is so pretentious that we want an Oscar for it” sort of way.

I can dream, but I imagine it’s a long way off before Hollywood releases that “mature” means more than “boobies and violence”.

As for The Wolfman, I feel a little bit uilty in acknowledging that I am a little happy that it is going to feature more than a little blood. Don’t get me wrong – that isn’t all I want from the movie – but it is a monster movie, first and foremost. At the very least, I know that it is embrace that aspect of its potential.

I’m hoping for much more as well, but that will have to tide me over for now.

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