June 18, 2014

Why it Matters that The Expendables 3 is PG13

Sylvester Stallone’s recent announcement of a PG-13 rating for The Expendables 3 has led to a predictable and familiar online uproar and the inevitable threat of a boycott of the film by the ‘true fans’. What’s more interesting than this, now bi-annual, furore is the argument that has been made in defence of a softer family-friendly version of The Expendables.

Those defending the PG-13 claim that it doesn’t matter what the rating is, as long at the final product is good. This seems logical enough. As many have pointed out, there was much celebration in the fan community when it was announced that A Good Day to Die Hard was to be R-rated, and we all know how that turned out.


This train of thought suggests that if we just let the film-makers work, let them concentrate on making the best film they can, and not saddle them with our childish demands for gore and foul language then everything will be fine, right?

Wrong! It absolutely matters that The Expendable 3 is not rated R, and the fact that its makers have settled for a PG-13 could have dire consequences for Hollywood and theatre in general.

Hyperbolic fan-boy ranting? Not a bit. The PG-13 rating is based on purely financial considerations that are indicative of the misguided and damaging business model that currently dominates Hollywood.

Films are expensive, Hollywood films in particular, and as budgets continue to grow so does the need to reach the widest possible audience. This is the accepted wisdom and has led to the growing dominance of the PG-13 rating at the multiplex.

PG-13 means nobody is excluded, teenagers can go, families can take the kids, and adults won’t be deterred from attending, as they might by a softer rating. Everybody’s happy and the box office receipts keep growing: from 2008 onwards there has been at least one film a year that has grossed a billion dollars at the global box office. In fact, of the 18 films¹ that have reached this milestone only three are not rated PG-13 (Frozen, Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland), and not one of them is rated R.

But do these figures tell us the whole story? Box office grows year on year, billion dollar juggernauts open with comforting regularity, yet attendance is down. As a pastime, going to the theatre is becoming less popular with each year that passes. More money is coming in, but fewer and fewer people are going to the theatre. More specifically, fewer adults are going to the theatre. Why? PG-13.

Now, you and I know the majority of the mainstream audience does not make its viewing choices based on the rating a film has received, at least not consciously. No, it is not the PG-13 rating itself that deters many potential adults from going to the theatre but the infantalization of the film-going experience that has resulted from its domination.

Most films do not receive a PG-13 by chance. Quite the opposite, in fact. Films are often scripted, shot and edited with that rating in mind. Studios work directly with the MPAA to ensure their films fit snugly into the PG-13 bracket. This means that a PG-13 blockbuster can often represent the apex of the safe homogenised, film by committee, nature of modern corporate Hollywood.

It is rare for a PG-13 film to contain any material which is likely to offend or challenge its audience. By definition, it will feel safe and child friendly. This is fine for films about giant robots or colourful superheroes but presents a problem when dealing with darker subjects, such as hired killers and mercenaries. This is why a PG-13 rating can be damaging: it is not the boobs, blood and bad language that the audience misses it is the verisimilitude. A film about dark or twisted characters, and the worlds they live in, can never feel real if it cannot portray those character without running everything past the censors first. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of just letting the film-makers work.

The audience knows this instinctively. It knows the difference between a film that is PG-13 organically and one that has been hamstrung by its rating. If the way characters behave and interact with the world of their film doesn’t feel real, lacks verisimilitude, because their interactions are limited by the a PG-13 rating then those looking for darker or more ‘grown up’ entertainment may, in future, avoid other PG-13 films. As the number of PG-13 rated films increase so does the alienation of a large section of the adult audience. Eventually they give up on finding films that are ‘for them’ and this section of the audience stays away.

This just isn’t good business. You don’t maintain a successful enterprise by excluding a large section of your potential customer base, but this is exactly what Hollywood is doing. By pursuing the broadest possible audience they are neglecting and excluding adult film-goers, and unintentionally limiting their audience and their profits.

Hollywood producers seem to have missed a simple truth. A PG-13 film may be available for everybody to see but that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to see it. A film which does not appeal to an adult audience will not bring in their business. Likewise, a film which does not appeal to the teen or family audience will not bring in their business, regardless of that film’s rating. If the story and themes are universally appealing then, in order to maximise ticket sales, the film’s rating should reflect that and a PG-13 makes sense. If a film has a niche appeal, due to darker content, it’s not going to pull in a huge audience, regardless of its rating. It is the film itself that finds and brings in its audience. Neutering a film to achieve a PG-13 will not increase its appeal, it will only alienate those members of the audience who were drawn to its darker themes in the first place.

Not every film needs to be a billion dollar grossing hit that appeals to all four quadrants of the audience. Ergo, not every film needs to be rated PG-13.

During the 80’s and 90’s a high proportion of the top grossing films every year were rated R. This was simple supply and demand. To misquote Field of Dreams, ‘If you make them, they will come.’ Back then R-rated films were not limited to comedies, horror and the year-end glut of Oscar bait releases – the genres where R-rated releases are still prolific today. There were R-rated thrillers, dramas, romances and action blockbusters released all year round. Some were smash hits, many were more modestly successful, but the whole of the audience was catered for, and the whole of the audience attended. Between 1980 and 2013 theatre attendance in the US peaked in 2003 with 1,532.3 million tickets sold.² It should be noted that three of the top-ten grossing films of that year were R-rated. By 2013 there were no R-rated films in the top-ten, and attendance was only 1,343.3 million. PG-13 films now dominate the box-office but attendance has declined not increased.

The current success of R-rated comedies (even the universally abhorred The Hangover Part 2 grossed over $580 million worldwide¹) attests to the continued existence of the contemporary adult audience, yet producers and studios insist on neglecting these potential customers by producing watered down product in every other genre.

Those arguing that we should not be hung up on the rating of The Expendables 3 are inadvertently telling producers that it’s okay to ignore adult audiences, and the makers of The Expendables are the last people who should be sent this message. Sylvester Stallone and the cast of the Expendables represent the last bastions of a bygone age. An era that, by allowing each film to find its own audience, genuinely provided something for everyone. The Expendables series was purportedly designed specifically as a throwback to that era. This is why it is so disheartening that Stallone and the producers have capitulated to the current trend for PG-13. If the makers of an 80’s throwback don’t believe that R-rated films can find an audience why should anyone else? If they won’t make a film first and a product second who will?

As R-rated films become increasingly marginalised so does the adult audience. As a trip to the theatre becomes the preserve of the teen and attendance continues to fall box-office won’t be far behind – increasing ticket prices and 3D supplements will only bridge the gap for so long. Once that happens, the industry will most likely try to mitigate falling revenues by further broadening the appeal of its films: by taking even fewer chances and producing even safer product. But it is only by appealing to all, by producing more diverse and provocative films, that this trend can be reversed.

That’s why R-rated films are important and that’s why it matters that The Expendables 3 is rated PG-13.


¹ As per Box Office Mojo.
² Attendance figures courtesy of

About the Author

Giovanni Cappiello



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