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Disney Comes of Age With PG-13 Rating for 'Pirates'

The family-focused studio yields to teens' appetite for grown-up content.

June 20, 2003|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who's built a career on high-velocity action pictures, was turned off when Disney Studios sent him a script for a movie version of its theme park ride "Pirates of the Caribbean."

It was bland, too tame, he told the Disney brass. After all, he's the man who brought the masses "Top Gun," "Armageddon" and "Bad Boys." Still, he was intrigued and brought aboard some like-minded creative types to jazz up the project.

He promised two things to Disney executives bankrolling the $140-million film: "I'll make the best movie possible and it won't be an R."

Instead, Bruckheimer has presented Walt Disney Pictures with its first PG-13-rated movie after the studio's decades-long run of entertainment safe for audiences of all ages.

Although there's no sex, drugs or profanity, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is filled with computer-generated scenes of pirates transforming into skeletons as the moonlight melts their flesh. Throats are slit. One youngster who won't be going to the movie, which opens July 9, is the 5-year-old son of Disney production chief Nina Jacobson. "I think it's too intense and scary," she said.

That's what the Motion Picture Assn. of America thought too when it put a PG-13 stamp on the movie this week for its "action/adventure violence."

Industry experts see Disney's decision to release a PG-13 movie under its legendary family film banner as recognition of the changing cultural, technological and box-office realities that influence today's action-movie market.

"What Walt Disney had -- a Norman Rockwell America -- no longer exists in the 21st century, and Disney is simply acknowledging that reality," said consultant Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing chief and an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley.

Today, Sealey and others say, youngsters are raised in a more amped-up culture, weaned on violent video games and hyper-realistic visual effects on the Internet and on the big screen.

"Even Disney is being forced to ratchet up its level because it knows what teens are used to in all forms of entertainment -- movies, music, TV, video games, Webcasting and comic books," said psychologist Stuart Fischoff, an expert on the effect of mass media on society.

As a result, with few exceptions, action movies these days must carry a PG-13 to draw large crowds of teenagers who think anything with a softer rating is for their little brothers and sisters.

"PG-13 is the cool rating," said Paul Dergarabedian, whose company Exhibitor Relations Co. tracks box-office results. "It's the rating that doesn't talk down to teens."

That's why they have flocked to such PG-13 action movies as "Spider-Man" and "2 Fast 2 Furious," along with the "Lord of the Rings" and "X-Men" franchises, among many others.

The trend toward edgier fare does not signal the slow demise of PG- or G-rated films. The phenomenally successful "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" movies, for example, were rated PG. Disney/Pixar Animation Studios' G-rated "Finding Nemo" is the most popular movie in the country.

Still, the economic realities of different genres cannot be ignored when there's so much money involved, even when Disney is the investor.

"They see all these huge movies that are acceptable to parents that are PG-13," Bruckheimer said of Disney executives. "They're moving with the marketplace."

Until now, the studio has released its PG-13- and R-rated films under the "mature-theme" banner of its Touchstone Pictures, launched in 1984 with "Splash," a sexy, romantic comedy starring Daryl Hannah. Disney also owns Miramax Films, known for its often provocative and celebrated adult-oriented movies.

Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook likened the rating on "Pirates" to the height restrictions and health warnings that accompany the company's scarier theme park rides in Anaheim and Florida, such as Space Mountain, Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones.

With the selection of Bruckheimer to produce the movie, Cook said, "we knew we would be making a thrill ride."

Cook also stressed that under no circumstances would Disney Pictures release a movie that included foul language, sex or drug use. "There are no exceptions to those rules," he said.

If Disney's 1954 science fiction adventure "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" had been made today, it probably would have been rated PG-13 because of a giant squid attacking a submarine, Cook said.

In the early going, Cook and production head Jacobson had hoped "Pirates" would be a PG movie. But Bruckheimer had other ideas.

The producer thought the first script came across as "a straight pirate movie" and told Disney, "I don't know what to do with this."

So he called on "Shrek" screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose cleverness and wit he admired. The pair came up with a twist that hooked Bruckheimer and Disney. The pirates would be cursed.

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