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The return of R-rated
After several years of declines, the big-budget R-rated film is returning to a theater near you.
May 13, 2003: 1:00 PM EDT
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - After several years in hiding, the big-budget R-rated movie is poised for a big comeback this year.

But while the sex and violence of leather-clad cyber fighters and futuristic machines may draw big bucks, the R-rated movie surge could also push Hollywood back into an unwelcome critical spotlight.

"They're back on the release schedule," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., the box office tracking firm. "Whether they're back in terms of box office clout, we'll see over the next couple of weeks. But this group of titles certainly looks like the kind of films that can break down the barrier, the taboo that R-rated movies can't be blockbusters anymore."

Studios have been reluctant to invest in movies that can't be seen by those under 17 years of age. Last year there were only 43 R-rated films released on 1,000 or more U.S. movie screens, down about 30 percent from the total in 1999. Studios made whatever cuts they needed in sex and/or violence to keep a PG-13 rating on many films aimed at the teen market.

"If 'Titantic' had had an R rating, it would have cost them hundreds of millions of dollars," said Reagen Sulewski, analyst with movie Web site Box Office Prophets, referring to the top-grossing film in history. "When you look at how it made that massive amount of money, it was 12- to 16-year-old girls going back to see it a dozen times. You're definitely taking a risk with an R rating."

But this year it appears there will be the first increase in big-budget R-rated films for the first time since 1999, and the films on the list are expected to be among the most successful of the year.

"The Matrix Reloaded" is poised to set box office records for an R-rated film.

First up is Warner Bros.' "The Matrix Reloaded," set to hit screens Thursday. It is expected to break the R-rated opening weekend box office record of $58 million set by "Hannibal" in 2001. Some believe it will break the 19-year-old record of "Beverly Hills Cop" for the best grossing R-rated film of all time.

Also in the R-rated pipeline this year are three other action sequels expected to easily top the nine-figure box office mark and end the year among the top 20 films -- "Terminator 3, Rise of the Machines," "Bad Boys II" and "The Matrix Revolutions."

Cheaper but widely released movies like comedy "American Wedding," the latest of the American Pie series of movies, as well as horror movies "Freddy vs. Jason" and "Exorcist: The Beginning" could also drive up R-rated's total box office.

Last year only two R-rated movies broke the $100 million mark for domestic box office -- "8 Mile" and "Road to Perdition" -- and neither made the list of top 20 box office movies. As recently as 1992, 70 percent of the nation's top 20 films carried the R rating.

If this becomes the year of the R-rated blockbuster, it could lead to more movies carrying the rating a year or two down the road. But if the Matrix movies and this summer's other movies don't live up to expectations, it could put a further brake on R-rated fare.

"The movie industry is very much of a follow-the-leader type of industry," said Sulewski.

Studio executives are still concerned when one of their big-budget films ends up with an R rating, though.

Dan Fellman, president theatrical distribution for Warner Bros., predicts "The Matrix Reloaded" will set box office records for an R-rated film, but he would have liked to have seen it be given a PG-13 rating. He's not given up hope yet that "The Matrix Revolutions" will be rated PG-13, although he vows there won't be cuts made in the third movie to win that rating.

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"The history of our industry indicates that the largest grossing films to date have all been PG-13," said Fellman. "They reach a wider audience. It's all about admissions... If you're going to have an R-rated movie, I think you have to be very careful that you have the right property, the right director, the right script so that it's worth taking the risk."

Dergarabedian traces Hollywood's reluctance to go the R-rated route to pressure from politicians not to have R-rated movies marketed to those under 17.

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In September 2000 the Federal Trade Commission issued a report finding that 80 percent of films rated R for violence were marketed to those under 17. It quoted one violent R-rated film's marketing plan as saying, "Our goal was to find the elusive teen target audience and make sure everybody between the ages 12-18 was exposed to the film."

The report and congressional hearings brought promises from the industry that they would stop explicitly marketing R-rated movies to teens. Those active on the issue say this summer's marketing efforts will be watched closely.

"I think this is going to be a test for the studios," said Dan Gerstein, spokesman for senator and presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman. "The fact that fewer R-rated movies were made after scrutiny intensified is evidence they were relying on the youth market, and once the market was closed off to them, it wasn't as profitable. Just because of the hype surrounding ["The Matrix"], I don't necessarily say that they're targeting kids. But it does bear some watching."  Top of page

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