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The Nation

'R' Marks the Spot at Box Office

May 04, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

The scarlet letter in Hollywood is R. But this summer may do wonders for its image.

While the PG-13-rated "X2: X-Men United" is getting the summer movie season off to a hot start this weekend, the weeks ahead hold an unusual number of R-rated films -- a calculated gamble for an industry whose most coveted audience is 14- to 17-year-old boys.

Make no mistake. Hollywood is still serving up plenty of G, PG and PG-13-rated fare such as "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "Finding Nemo," and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" this summer.

But although none of last summer's top-grossing films was rated R, this year at least five of the big teen attractions are. With the onslaught of "The Matrix Reloaded," "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," "Bad Boys 2," "American Wedding" and "Freddy vs. Jason," exhibitors are bracing for extra policing at the ticket window.

"It creates problems for us, in that we are going to continue to enforce the age limits," said Jerry Pokorski, executive vice president of Pacific Theaters, echoing a common concern.

And there's a sudden demand for the summer's hot new teen accessory: the parent.

"I wouldn't try to sneak in, because they just catch you," said 14-year-old Yuret Chang, an avid moviegoer who plans to catch "The Matrix Reloaded" with his dad.

Stephanie Berry, 17, plans to use the same strategy. "When we've got cool parents, it doesn't matter," said Berry, who, like Chang, rushed to the South Bay Galleria after school Friday to see "X2." "Nowadays, realistically, everyone wants to see a rated-R movie. It just is kind of a thrill."

Eldona Davis, who goes to the movies every week with her 12-year-old son, Tahjee, said an R rating does not bother her if it doesn't involve sex.

"If there is just a little bit of profanity, well, you know, you hear that just walking around the mall," she said.

Martin Javier, a 13-year-old from Burbank, expects his dad to accompany him to the "The Matrix Reloaded" -- but not to "American Wedding," the third film in the "American Pie" series. "My dad won't let me see that because, I think, it's too sexual or something," Javier said.

There's no telling whether having parents tag along will cut into the repeat viewing patterns that make the young teen audience so desirable to Hollywood. What's certain, though, is that R-rated movies have tended to make less money.

"An R rating restricts a large portion of the audience," said Paul Dergarabedian, head of Exhibitor Relations Inc., a box office tracking firm. "And anything that restricts the number of people coming to your movie is seen as a negative."

But "The Matrix Reloaded," which opens May 15 and will be followed in the fall with "The Matrix Revolutions," may be the movie to change all that. "This summer could change the perception in Hollywood of how well R movies can do," Dergarabedian said.

The best domestic performance ever by an R-rated movie came 19 years ago, when Eddie Murphy's 1984 "Beverly Hills Cop" brought in $234 million in the U.S. and Canada.

For its part, the original "Matrix" grossed $171 million domestically. But the Andy and Larry Wachowski creation went on to become a global phenomenon, grossing $460 million worldwide.

Even though the No. 1 question he got from theater owners at a recent screening of "The Matrix Reloaded" was "Why the R?" Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures, said the studio didn't try for a less restrictive grade from the ratings board. "We screened it, they gave us an R and we accepted it."

In large part, that's because the 1999 original carried an R, and that initial grade is hard to shake. The sequel got its R for language, some sexual content and sustained violence.

The studio says it is following the Federal Trade Commission guidelines in limiting its marketing to people older than 18. That means no ads on certain TV programs or in magazines that are primarily for the under-18 crowd.

Does that mean younger people are missing out on the hype? Hardly.

"The Matrix Reloaded" is everywhere: dazzling green and black billboards tower above the freeways, national news magazines feature its stars and, naturally, there's a beverage tie-in.

"It's a cultural phenomenon and we can't always control how the images are used," said Warner Bros. domestic marketing chief Dawn Taubin. "But the images are out there. When you have an event movie, the overall awareness and buzz that is created is good for you. You want that kind of frenzy and awareness."

For those keeping score, the summer's box office receipts must go up against the record-breaking 2002, which featured "Spider-Man" with its $403 million in domestic grosses, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the breakaway indie hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which surprised everyone by grossing $241 million domestically.

"Spider-Man" was rated PG-13; "Greek Wedding" drew a PG.

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