Movies with PG-13 ratings like “The Hunger Games Mockingjay” and “Guardians of the Galaxy were by far the biggest moneymakers for Hollywood last year, but films with PG ratings such as “Maleficent” and “The LEGO Movie” on average delivered more bang for the buck.
That's according to an informal survey by TheWrap of the relationship between ratings and box office, which also revealed that films rated R delivered about half of what the two aforementioned categories did at the box office. As for the remaining two classifications, just two movies rolled out with a G rating and none with an NC-17 tag were released last year.
The ratings are issued by the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) Classification and Rating Administration prior to a movie’s release to provide parents with guidelines as they decide what films their children should see. The board makes its decisions on the basis of graphic sex or violence, drug use and dark themes without regard to box office impact.
“One of the things we're careful not to pay any attention to is money. It shouldn't matter to the parents if a film will or won't make any money,” Joan Graves, chairwoman of the ratings board, told TheWrap Tuesday. Giving parents the tools they need is what it's all about, she said.
But ratings have an undeniable impact on how many tickets a movie sells.
It's a numbers game. Young and older men and women -- “all four quadrants” as they're known in the industry -- can attend a G, PG or PG-13 movie. But an R-rated movie, which requires an adult to accompany anyone under 17, has a necessarily smaller potential audience.
The box office bears that out. Movies rated R returned about $42 million at the box office on average last year, while the average haul of PG ($82 million) and PG-13 movies ($79 million) was roughly double that.
The rating a film receives is rarely a surprise to the studio that submits it to the MPAA, Between 700 and 800 movies are rated each year, and typically fewer than a dozen are appealed.
“We almost always know what rating a movie will get when we make decisions on budgets and green lighting movies,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Twentieth Century Fox. Contracts with directors today frequently contain clauses requiring that the film delivered will draw a specific rating.
When a rating doesn’t match expectations -- as was the case with Fox’s “The Other Woman” last spring -- the studio can appeal, and a back-and-forth process of discussions and film tweaks to address the board’s concerns begins. With “The Other Woman,” Fox took the required steps and the Cameron Diaz comedy was released with a PG-13 rating rather than the R originally issued by the board.
It’s not a coincidence that most films are rated PG-13. Not just because they're the most lucrative, but because life is unrated, and telling a story right frequently requires including sex or violence. Try to find a G-rated war movie, for example.
A single scene depicting violence or nudity will typically draw a PG-13 rating. If the violence is pervasive or the nudity is sexual, an R is more likely.
Nuance matters in language, too. Using a sexually derived expletive is one thing; using it in a sexual way is another. A character saying “Oh f---“ is PG-13. If the character says “Let’s f---,” it’s likely getting an R.
Drug use draws an automatic PG-13, too. But that’s an area in which the board’s ratings have evolved along with American parents’ attitudes.
“We're much tougher on drug use than we used to be," said Graves, who has been in her post since 1988. "Back in the '60s and '70s it was seen as just a good time. But today parents are much more aware of the ramifications, so our ratings reflect that."
Graves said that while the board ignores financial impact when rating films, she recalled former MPAA chief Jack Valenti addressing the relationship between box office and ratings years ago.
"Make a good movie, and you can't keep it down," she said. "I think that's still true."
Here are the numbers:
The G rating is going the way of the dinosaur. But Disney has yet to decide whether Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur" will roll out at Thanksgiving with a G or a PG. History says G, since "Brave" and "The Incredibles" are the only PG-rated Pixar films so far. And Disney knows from "Toy Story 3" that a G-rated movie can score big at the box office. It's possible some teens see G-rated movies as "kids stuff" that they're way too cool for. And PG does provide some options. What's a family film without a fart joke or 12, anyway?
The go-to classification for studios releasing animated movies today is PG, and last year they accounted for five of the 10 highest-grossing films in that category. "Maleficent," Disney's live-action take on Sleeping Beauty starring Angelina Jolie, was a notable exception and the studio scored with the fairy tale musical "Into the Woods" as well. A 30th anniversary re-release of "Ghostbusters," which took in $3.5 million, just missed being the PG film with the worst box office.
With superheroes like the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy leading a seemingly endless parade of Marvel blockbusters, it's no surprise PG-13 is the ratings classification showing the biggest returns. What works for the spandex set won't necessarily do for a serious movie with big-name talent though. The list of lowest-grossing PG-13 films included names like Woody Allen ("Magic in the Moonlight"), Colin Farrell ("Winter's Tale") and Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin ("Labor Day"). Maybe an R would have worked out better?
Raunchy language, violence and gore, rather than sex, is how most of the top films earned their restrictive ratings. But Fox's "Gone Girl" had a little bit of all that and was the second-highest earner. "Annabelle" was the only horror movie to make the R-rated top 10, which also included two war movies ("Fury" and "Lone Survivor"), three comedies ("22 Jump Street," "Tammy" and "Neighbors"), a Denzel Washington vengeance tale ("The Equalizer") and a sword and sandals sequel ("300: Rise of an Empire").