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MOVIES : FILM COMMENT : Mark Canton's Wrongheaded Chant : The bottom-line minded Columbia chief wants to see more PG-rated movies, but the industry stands a better chance of improving business by broadening rather than isolating audiences

April 18, 1993|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic of Newsday

In his keynote speech to exhibitors at last month's ShoWest Convention in Las Vegas, Columbia Pictures Chairman Mark Canton cited an independent study of domestic box-office receipts and urged his own industry to begin making more PG-rated movies.

Canton's conclusion was so spectacularly false that it was immediately viewed in Hollywood as wisdom, and the shift toward movies with the less restricted ratings already appears to be underway.

The box office study, by Paul Kagan and Associates, indicated that movies rated either PG or PG-13 are three times as likely to gross more than $100 million than R-rated movies, and yet--and yet!--more than half of all movies released theatrically are rated R.

"Any smart business person can see what we must do," said Canton, with logic stunning for its simplicity: "Make more PG movies."

Actually, what any smart studio leader should do before turning the herd toward Box Canyon is take a closer look at that study. It wasn't the PG ratings that turned the "Ghostbusters," "Batman," "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies into blockbusters. It was, aside from their quality, the vast teen-age audience--Baby Boom II--that paid to see the same films over and over.

Today's teen-age audience is not only smaller but, because of rising ticket prices and home video, less inclined toward return trips to first-run movies. Given those factors and the inflated costs of "event" pictures, the risk-reward ratio has become almost prohibitive. Steven Spielberg's "Hook" took more than a year, with a hefty boost from foreign sales, to earn its costs back for TriStar Pictures during the 1991-92 season, and that's not the sort of business the studio had in mind when it committed $60 million or so to the project.

Some studio executives have scoffed at Canton's call to go forth and make more PG movies, and the success of the R-rated "Basic Instinct" and "Indecent Proposal" will keep the screen safe for voyeurs for a while. But the industry does seem convinced that lower ratings are the way to go. There are more family/children's movies on the major studio release schedule this year than usual, and the studio production executives say they are concentrating on finding projects that will end up in the PG zone.

In some cases, they're even retrenching on works-in-progress. Canton's Columbia is scaling down the violence and profanity of its Arnold Schwarzenegger summer movie "Last Action Hero" in order to get a PG-13. And Paramount is doing the same with the script being prepared for Eddie Murphy and "Beverly Hills Cop III."

Follow this, if you can: Schwarzenegger and Murphy, whose R-rated movies have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, are being soft-peddled because a survey shows that PG movies are three times as likely to become blockbusters as Rs? The logic here is so faulty it can't even be diagrammed.

Canton's conclusion from the Kagan study is rainbow-chasing, and represents the same kind of desperate thinking that has kept movie ticket sales flat over 15 years of dramatic population growth. It seems obvious that to maximize its business, Hollywood should diversify its product, produce movies aimed at all segments of the population, and embrace rather than scorn originality.

Instead, it moves to the rhythm of St. Vitus' dance, herking and jerking in the direction of the latest hit. "More science-fiction!" "More action-adventure!" "More sex!" "More violence!" "More movies about men, to hell with women!" "No, more movies about kids, to hell with adults!"

The last thing anyone in Hollywood should be looking at now are studies of the '80s, a decade of demographic tunnel vision during which people out of the 12-34 age range were statistically irrelevant. Yes, there were a lot of $100-million and a few $200-million youth-oriented hits; in fact, with the exception of No. 1 "E.T.," the top 10 grossing movies of the '80s were teen-age driven. But in their obsessive attempts to score with that audience, the studios nearly broke everyone else of the habit of going to movies.

With the changing demographics, and Hollywood's rediscovery of Baby Boom I, a generation now in its 40s, the studios have become a little more adventuresome. There have been more movies made with adult themes and more for families. Nary a "Porky's" in sight.

Of the 10 top grossing movies so far in the '90s, only five were aimed at teen-agers, and two of those--"Batman Returns" and "Terminator 2"--were unfinished business (sequels) from the '80s. The other '90s blockbusters--G-rated "Aladdin," R-rated "Pretty Woman" and PG-13-rated "Dances With Wolves," "Robin Hood" and "Ghost"--appealed primarily to either families or adults, and the ratings had nothing to with their success.

Movies may never again be as good as they were in the '60s and '70s, when Hollywood banked on social-issues movies, or in the '30s and '40s, when creative talent was nurtured under the old studio system. But overall, they're better now than they were five or six years ago, and the industry stands a better chance of improving business by broadening its aim than it does in isolating one audience and squeezing it like a wet tea bag.

The last thing anybody who cares about movies should want is a sequel to the '80s.

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