Well, not quite, but I think the PG-13 rating is like a vortex sucking the film industry toward mediocrity. I’m not sure Hollywood needed any help moving in that direction but the 21-year-old rating has, in my opinion, given it a rude shove down that road.
For those of you too young to remember (or if you were simply too coked up during the 1980s), it’s all Steven Spielberg’s fault. Well, kind of. The PG-13 arouse out of the public furor over the 1984 movies Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which he directed, and Gremlins, which he produced. The violence level in both films was considered shocking for PG rated films but somehow didn’t cross that R-rated threshold. Something in between was demanded and thus PG-13 was born.
In reality, the PG-13 was just a more strongly worded PG. It was just as toothless as PG, since kids of any age could go see a PG-13 movie without their parents say so, but it allowed a greater degree of freedom when it came to sex, violence and language before passing into the R-rated realm. The first film to actually garner the PG-13 was John Milius’ testosterone-clogged Red Dawn.
When the MPAA rating system that we know was first put it place, it worked a bit differently than it does now. Some very grown up, adult-oriented films actually received G ratings. 2001: A Space Odyssey was one. The Andromeda Strain also got a G, despite a minor dose of bare male buttocks and a brief splash of above-the-waist female nudity. By the time PG-13 was in place, however, G was almost entirely the province of animated dancing bears and singing candlesticks. Teenagers would just as soon cut off their right arm as go see a G-rated movie.
With PG-13, the shift continued. Now there were movies that 15-year-olds could go see that had a little more flesh, a little more blood and dropped the occasional F-bomb. Suddenly, PG was for “kids’ movies” and if you wanted to attract a teenage audience, a PG-13 was virtually required.
It was also apparent to Hollywood that a film could make more money if teenagers could go see it without dragging Mom and Dad with them every time. As a result, PG-13 also became commercially preferable over the R rating.
The upshot of this is that PG-13 has become a sort of “sweet spot” for the movie studios. Films that might have made perfectly good PG movies find themselves “crassed-up” to earn that magic PG-13. I’m not sure that a PG rated Dukes of Hazzard would have been any better than the godawful movie we got but at least it would have been more true to the spirit of the show that inspired it.
Similarly, films that might have benefitted from the freedom allowed by the R rating can find themselves emasculated by a commercial demand for a PG-13. I’m sure that’s how two highly successful R-rated franchises ended up as the depressingly tame Alien vs. Predator. Again, I’m not saying that an R-rated AvP would actually have been good, but it couldn’t have hurt.
For good or ill, the PG-13 has sucked the movie industry into pandering, cynically, to an audience that thinks of the Brat Pack as a bunch of old actors their parents liked, if they’ve heard of them at all. Movies have always coveted teenagers’ dollars but the PG-13 has enabled it to do so at the expense of older and younger audiences.