Hollywood Uplink – August 2008: Has PG-13 Become the New R?

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August 2008

Issue: 17:8

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Has PG-13 Become the New R?

by Dick Rolfe, CEO – The Dove Foundation®

Dick Rolfe, CEO - The Dove FoundationA father writes, “I’m a dad who tries hard to be intentional in my viewing habits and I encourage my 12-year-old daughter to do the same. We enjoy 1 or 2 movies a week together at home and visit the box office another 2 to 3 times a month. If it were not for the Dove Family Friendly Seal I would have to preview every movie first since the PG13 rating is no longer an accurate tool for judging a film’s ‘kid-friendliness’ [emphasis mine]. Thanks… we have never been disappointed by any of the films that have your approval!”

There is plenty of evidence to reinforce that father’s concern about whether PG-13 movies are kid friendly. Harvard School of Public Health released a study in 2004 in which they coined the term “ratings creep” to describe their contention that many R-rated movies from a few years earlier would be rated PG-13 today. Here’s how I believe this phenomenon materialized.

In 2001, the Federal Trade Commission found that the movie studios were advertising R-rated films in magazines and other media that are popular with teenagers and adolescents. The concern was that the studios were enticing kids to spend their money on “naughty” or explicit movies that were supposedly restricted to adults only. The FTC threatened to bring charges of deceptive advertising and regulate the movie ratings if studios didn’t cease promoting R-rated fare to minors.

Soon after the FTC issued their threat, the studios pledged to limit their advertising of “Restricted” movies to more adult venues. At the same time, NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) members agreed to be more diligent in requiring proof of ID from attendees of R-rated movies.

The FTC thought that their stern warning in 2001 was all that was needed to rectify the situation. However, as anyone with an ounce of discernment can see, many filmmakers have merely snipped a few frames from movies that were bound for an R-rating to get them under the wire of PG-13. This strategy began a sweeping movement in Hollywood which “pushed the envelope” and expanded the boundaries of PG-13 to include content that was once referred to by industry insiders as “soft R.”

And even now, plenty of kids are getting into see R-rated movies. Just this week, the Federal Trade Commission reported that “only 40% of children between ages 13 and 17 are able to purchase a movie ticket to an R-rated movie.” What’s so alarming about this pronouncement is that the FTC considers the fact that 40% of our young people gaining unfettered access to extremely sexy or violent movies good news!

Here are Dove’s reviews of two recent PG-13 movies – “The Dark Knight” by Universal Pictures and “Swing Vote” released under the Touchstone Label by Disney. I think it’s reasonable to assume that 10 years ago these films would have been rated “R” due to offensive language. Columbia Pictures’ “Step Brothers” which contained very similar strong content justly received the R-rating it deserved.

Not long ago, I was interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter on Stars Network along with the head of the movie Classifications and Ratings board. (The people who decide the movie ratings.) The interview is an eye-opening comparison and contrast between Dove’s standards which do not change and those of the MPAA which do.

We’ve been tracking the industry numbers for many years. These charts document a dramatic shift in numbers of movie releases from R to PG-13.

The charts show that the number of G movies released has remained constant over the past 19 years at 4% of the total. PG movies have jumped by nearly 1/3 (from 16% to 21%). which reflects an increasing number of family-friendly movie releases. The big news is the noticeable migration away from R-rated films (from 52% to 35%) and a proportionate increase in PG-13 (from 28% to 40%). This transition is partly due to “ratings creep.”

This is only part of the story. In the next issue, I will present a STUDIO REPORT CARD, in which we will reveal how many movies in each category were produced by each major studio, and how that impacted box office revenues.

Stay tuned!

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