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PG-13: Some material may be appropriate for box-office success

By John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Steven Zeitchik

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, May 15 2012 5:33 p.m. MDT

In this film image released by Lionsgate, Chris Rock, left, and Rodrigo Santoro, right, are shown in a scene from "What to Expect When You're Expecting." (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Melissa Moseley)

Melissa Moseley, Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES — The most reliable predictor of box-office success these days may not be a marquee name or a masked superhero. It's the PG-13 rating.

Created in 1984 in the wake of the sometimes scary PG-rated movies "Gremlins" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to warn parents that some movies might be inappropriate for young kids, the PG-13 has become an inclusive Good Housekeeping seal of approval — an imprimatur that promises adults won't be offended and teens will still get plenty of combat, cleavage and cursing.

The six highest-grossing movies of all time worldwide were all rated PG-13, and Marvel's "The Avengers," which also carries the rating, collected a record $207.4 million at the U.S. box office last weekend. The summer movie season is stuffed with PG-13 fare — not just popcorn films like "Battleship," "Men in Black 3," "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "The Dark Knight Rises," but older-skewing movies and genres once certain to get an R rating. That includes this summer's musical adaptation "Rock of Ages," the pregnancy comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting," the family drama "People Like Us" and the horror movie "The Apparition."

As studios pour bigger budgets into fewer films, executives are insisting that filmmakers deliver movies that won't be rated R. And when their films do get R ratings, more directors are launching appeals for the PG-13.

Universal Studios last year postponed its plans to make the horror movie "At the Mountains of Madness" because director Guillermo del Toro could not promise that the film would be rated PG-13. The studio believed it might not recoup its planned investment of more than $100 million if the film received an R rating.

But the filmmaker said his understanding of the ratings system was shaken when his production of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," a 2011 release expressly designed as a PG-13 fright flick with limited gore and no sex or swearing, was rated R for its intensity.

Once it was clear that "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" was going to be stuck with an R rating, Del Toro and director Troy Nixey decided to go back and add some blood and gruesome sound effects in the hopes of making the film more appealing to adult horror fans.

But the movie did mediocre business, grossing $24 million. "We had a really great PG-13 movie for younger audiences," Del Toro said. "But it was too mellow for the hard-core R crowd."

Even with raunchy R-rated comedies like "The Hangover Part II" and "Bridesmaids" turning into monster hits last year, R-rated films constituted only 21 percent of the overall U.S. box office, the lowest percentage in more than 30 years, according to Box Office Mojo. PG-13 films accounted for 35.1 percent of all movies rated in the U.S., but 54.4 percent of the box office.

It isn't just that filmmakers are chasing after teen audiences: As recently as 2009, filmgoers ages 17 and younger accounted for 12 percent of U.S. theater attendance, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America's annual survey of moviegoing. But last year that number dropped to 9.2 percent. Half the audience for "The Avengers" was older than 25.

Though it's easy to assume that the PG-13 rating chiefly helps parents decide what their kids can — and can't — see, it now is used by some adults in choosing what they should see themselves, particularly those uncomfortable with graphic sex, violence and language. Sony Pictures Entertainment recently sought and received a PG-13 for "Hope Springs," starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a couple struggling after 30 years of marriage — not a theme that would appeal to teens. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," about British retirees, is also PG-13, and roughly 90 percent of its audience in its American debut was 35 and older.

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