Is the G rating dying out in movie theaters?

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

"The Secret World of Arrietty." (Studio Ghibli)

This past summer, a decent amount of media attention was directed toward the all-but-inevitable demise of the Motion Picture Association of America's adult-oriented NC-17 rating. Film critic Roger Ebert, via his Twitter feed, called NC-17 “as dead as the X.”

But at the other end of the spectrum, another film rating is gradually dying out in movie theaters with barely any acknowledgment.

If the NC-17 is in its death throes, the G rating — for “general audiences” — is, for entirely different reasons, bedridden and in need of serious medical attention.

For the bulk of the summer’s movie season — a four-month period still marketed primarily toward younger audiences on break from school — not a single G-rated film played in theaters. Parents with children too young to sit through some of the more intense kids’ movies like Pixar’s “Brave” were completely out of luck until the last week of August, when they were finally given one G-rated option: “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure,” which tanked instantly.

"The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure" (BBAM LLC.)

Entertainment meant for all ages isn’t just drying up in the increasingly crowded summer months, though. According to the official website for the Classification and Ratings Administration, or CARA (the division of the MPAA responsible for evaluating a film’s content and assigning a rating), a total of only 16 films have been rated G so far in 2012.

Although the year isn’t over yet, that number is substantially less than last year (43 G-rated movies) or, in fact, any year since 1990 (which saw a scant nine movies receive the G rating).

Of course, 16 is just the number of movies assigned ratings in 2012 and doesn’t necessarily reflect everything that’s appeared in theaters so far this year.

"Dr. Seuss' Horton HearsA Who!" (Blue Sky Studios)

For example, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” the excellent animated feature from Studio Ghibli that played in wide release last February, was originally rated in 2011 in time for a limited theatrical run. Similarly, “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” was rated way back in 2010 and just delayed two years.

But it’s also important to note that the vast majority of those 16 films so far in 2012 are straight-to-DVD or video-on-demand titles like “Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3” and “Flicka: Country Pride.”

In fact, only three of the 16 will ever play theatrically. One of them, “Finding Nemo 3D,” is just a re-release of a film many audience members already know by heart. The other two, “Chimpanzee” and “To the Arctic,” are IMAX nature documentaries.

Parents are right to wonder where all the original G-rated films have gone.

Unlike the NC-17, however, there isn’t a completely logical answer for why G-rated movies should be dying out in theaters.

As Los Angeles Times entertainment writer Steve Zeitchik discussed in his article “High hopes, low notes for the NC-17 rating,” many theater chains won’t even play a movie branded an NC-17. Because of that, the “unstigmatized” rating, as MPAA founder Jack Valenti called it when it was conceived as a replacement for the X in 1990, has become largely unmarketable since its inception and is now viewed as a kiss of death for a film’s box office (no matter how famous the movie’s star may be).

In sharp contrast, G-rated films are often among the most lucrative to be released in any given year. Just look at recent hits like the “Cars” movies (which both earned in the neighborhood of $200 million) and “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” ($155 million).

A 2003 study conducted by The Dove Foundation — an organization dedicated to promoting family-oriented entertainment — showed that between 1988 and 2003, Hollywood produced roughly 12 times as many R-rated films as G-rated ones. However, G-rated movies were about 11 times more profitable, earning, on average, $79 million versus their R-rated counterparts’ meager $7 million.

A huge part of that profit came from video/DVD rentals and sales, but even at the box office, G-rated movies earned an average of $43 million compared to $20 million for R-rated movies.

More recently, the box office analysis website The Numbers (the-numbers.com) provided similar results, showing that G-rated movies out-earn R-rated movies by between three to five times during their theatrical runs.

So why is the G rating dying out in theaters?

The ever-expanding home video market is definitely a major factor, especially as video-on-demand and streaming services like Netflix have become more widespread.

What’s more, as the cost of producing movies continues to climb in Hollywood, studios known for their family-friendly entertainment are forced to try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, drawing in older kids with whatever it takes, including, often, crude humor and violent action sequences.

But in a lot of ways, there really isn’t a good explanation for why G-rated movies are in such short supply.

It's no secret that Hollywood has carried on an inexplicable love affair with R-rated movies in spite of the obvious appetite for family-oriented entertainment. This year is no different. In comparison with the 16 G ratings, CARA has already handed out 330 R ratings.

As Ted Baehr, founder and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission (CFTVC), said in an article for LifeSiteNews.com, “Year in and year out, our statistics show that moviegoers prefer family-friendly movies with positive Christian, wholesome, patriotic, conservative and traditional moral values. … They (Hollywood) don’t know how to market to the average American who is a churchgoing Christian who believes in God, country and family.”

The G rating probably won’t ever completely die out, but based on the current trend, it isn’t hard to imagine it disappearing from movie theaters and becoming a rating solely used for straight-to-DVD fare.

And at a time when PG-13 resembles more and more the kinds of movies that used to be called R, truly family-friendly entertainment is more important than ever.

For more information on the MPAA ratings system, check out the CARA website at filmratings.com.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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