20th Century Fox is taking a gamble this summer with two high-profile R-rated movies aimed at adults — "Prometheus" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" — that buck the trend of blockbuster films that cater to all ages. The big question is: Will its bet pay off?
With a budget the studio puts at $130 million, Ridley Scott’s return to the world of “Alien” is being marketed like a tentpole film, but the decision not to spare the outer-space carnage will limit the number of teens buying tickets.
Likewise, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which re-imagines the 16th president as an ax-wielding destroyer of the undead, has enough blood splattering to warrant the rating despite its fanboy-friendly premise.
If the two movies are hits with audiences, producers and film financiers say that Hollywood’s aversion to R-rated blockbusters may weaken, making way for more popcorn flicks targeted to moviegoers who can legally drive.
“I hope that both ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Abe Lincoln’ work, because then the marketplace will expand to include the more textured entertainment that the R rating allows,” Craig Perry, producer of “Final Destination” and “American Pie,” told TheWrap. “PG-13 means hitting the middle of the road — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but you don’t get the length and breadth of what movies can deliver.”
For its part, Fox argues that the real gamble it took with its summer slate was backing original films amid a sea of sequels and superheroes.
“The emphasis was not on ratings, the emphasis was on original content,” Chris Aronson, Fox's head of distribution, told TheWrap. “We have five pictures coming out this summer, three of them are original. That’s a bold, heady play, but we think there is a real appetite for original ideas.”
Aronson said the studio let Scott and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" director Timur Bekmambetov deliver the films they wanted to make without regard to ratings.
Not that “Prometheus” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” are the only R-rated pioneers to venture into the crowded summer season in search of profits. Hollywood has been churning out comedies like “The Hangover” with that rating in the heart of blockbuster season in recent years to great success.
By and large, summer has become fallow period for films in other genres that carry that scarlet-lettered rating. Noticeably absent have been the kind of adult action films and thrillers that a decade ago routinely popped up in theaters as temperatures rose — a collection of R-rated hits that included “Gladiator,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Air Force One” and “Face/Off.”
Not anymore. Even sequels to past R-rated films like “Terminator Salvation” and “Live Free or Die Hard” have dialed back on the violence to get a more teen-friendly PG-13. And a look at the highest-grossing films of all time show why that’s the case.
The top R-rated film of all time, “The Matrix Reloaded,” netted a sizable $742.1 million worldwide when it was released in the summer of 2003, but the next biggest grosser, “The Passion of the Christ,” earned its $611.9 million in the spring of that same year, a more hospitable season for adult-themed movies. From there the list is sparse.
Indeed, the top 10 biggest earners annually rarely include any R-rated films, unless they are gross-out comedies. Nor do the sequel-heavy lists typically boast many original films, for that matter.
The message from studios, producers say privately, is crystal clear. Unless it’s a comedy, earn an R at your own peril.
“Studios argue that ‘I Am Legend’ or ‘Dark Knight’ are very intense, but by keeping them PG-13 you get a broader audience and the best of both worlds,” a producer who declined to be identified told TheWrap. “The issue is that not all movies can achieve that welcoming rating.”
Trying to force a film like “Prometheus,” which includes a gruesome birth scene and a potpourri of gory deaths, to shy away from its violence has its own risks.
“Where the story should go is what the rating should be,” Andrew Panay, producer of “Wedding Crashers,” told TheWrap. “It’s about the DNA of the film. While an R may be restricting, you may be getting a different group of people who would not have seen a softer version of the film.”
Indeed, some producers and film financiers maintain that an R-rated film may lose the teen crowd, but could end up making much of that money back by appealing to a different, frequently under-served demographic.
“I believe ‘Prometheus’ pays off both initially and over the long term by not trying to force itself into a PG-13,” Bill Block, producer of "Elysium" and “W.,” told TheWrap. “What you may lose in people under the age of 16, you may be picking up in people over the age of 25. There is a great untapped adult theatrical audience that is paying for tickets.”
In the short run, money may be left on the table. Box office prognosticators predict that “Prometheus” will debut at around $50 million this weekend, but might have added $10 million more to its opening tally if teenagers had been able to pay tickets. Although its premiere is weeks away, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” may be a riskier proposition because of its offbeat premise.
However, they argue that if the two films deliver on their chilling promises, they could make up any money they lose from the teen set thanks to word of mouth.
“It’'s really surprising that they did go with the R-ratings because when you look at R-rated films, especially horror and sci-fi, there are a handful of success stories,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. “The chief ones are ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens 2,’ so there’s clearly a reason they included ‘Alien’ DNA in ‘Prometheus.’”