Have the PG-13/12A ratings become compromised?

With The Wolverine and The Lone Ranger rated 12A in spite of their content, has the point been lost as to who movie ratings are for?

Earlier this year, there was loud and understandable frustration voiced about the decision by Fox to cut A Good Day To Die Hard in order to deliver a 12A certificate in the UK. This was in spite of the fact that the film was released as an R in the US. As it turned out, that was the least of the film’s problems, but conversely, the UK was one of the few territories where Die Hard 5 managed to perform.

It was the same last year, when Fox ordered a 12A theatrical cut of Taken 2, before releasing the inevitable ‘harder cut’ on DVD and Blu-ray. People who cared about movies hated the idea, but the film went on to do big business. No doubt aided by all the 12-year-olds who were now allowed to see it.

This summer’s blockbusters have been, as you might expect, targeting PG-13/12A ratings, and the latest project to explicitly aim for that rating is the RoboCop remake, which is due early in 2014. A groundswell of unhappiness has not taken long to form.

The movie business seems to have arrived at the conclusion that PG-13/12A is the sweet spot. That you can get a fair chunk of violence and the odd swear word in there, thus bringing in a younger audience, whilst not isolating the vast majority of adults. R-rated hits like The Conjuring are thus rare in the summer, and outside of animation, it’s virtually impossible to find a broad appeal film that has a PG or U certificate. PG-13/12A is taking from both ends of the spectrum in that regards.

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However, as PG-13/12A becomes the must-have rating, what seems to have happened is a liberalisation of the rating system. That what you can get away with now is, bluntly, the kind of thing you wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable putting before the eyes of a 12-year old.

The two most recent examples of this are The Wolverine and The Lone Ranger. In the case of the former, in the first five minutes alone, there seems to be enough to warrant at least a conversation about a 15 or R rating. By the time you’ve got to the end, it’s a small miracle that Fox has managed to secure the PG-13/12A that it has. If it sailed plainly through the ratings boards on either side of the channel, we’d be genuinely staggered. In a summer that’s confirmed that a loud, nasty neck snap is suitable 12-year old fodder (and The Dark Knight Rises started that trend, although for some reason, such noises were missing from the 12A Taken 2), The Wolverine takes things still further. And parents of children in the now-target age range may find a lot of what they discover quite disturbing for their offspring.

The Lone Ranger is just as much of a puzzle. Here was an opportunity to make an old-style Saturday matinee blockbuster, with broad appeal. But there’s a nasty edge to parts of the film, that doesn’t seem to fit within PG-13/12A boundaries. Appreciating that Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End started with a fairly graphic hanging (even The Goonies is a 12 now on DVD in the UK, thanks to the fake hanging scene at the start), The Lone Ranger works against a background of genocide, and doesn’t hold back on violence and squelches. Again, we sat there bemused that someone felt a rating that included 12-year olds was appropriate.

The ratings system is a crude tool in any form of course, and one child is very different from another. There are nine-year olds who could breeze through as many Terminator movies as you care to throw at them, and 15-year olds who get distressed at the mere sniff of violence. But the system is supposed to give information, to be a useful guideline, and to offer some sort of help in working out what kind of films are appropriate for which audiences. The BBFC in the UK is good for this, with the extended guidance that it offers on its website for certain films, although the trade off there is you may be exposed to spoilers while trying to work out if a film is right for your kids (the BBFC, incidentally, did take a tougher line on World War Z, ruling it a 15, even though it got a PG-13 rating in the US).

It’s hard to shake the feeling though that the PG-13/12A rating has been compromised somewhat. Major movie studios are so, so desperate to pitch 95 percent of blockbusters in that area, that they’re tailoring their films to the very edges of what they’re allowed. In some cases, particularly The Wolverine and The Lone Ranger, there’s a sense that’s something shifted just a little in favour of the respective studios, rather than the audiences. There’s so much money on the line, that Hollywood has convinced itself that an R or 15 rating will cost millions in lost revenue. The sad thing is, with a few exceptions, Hollywood is probably right.

We’re not advocating censorship here, we should point out. But surely the ratings system is guidance for us. For those who take great care in choosing the right films for their children, and who want to know that the MPAA and BBFC are on their side. It’ll be interesting to see, in the case of The Wolverine in particular, just what fallout there is once parents take their kids into their local Odeon. Because, whether you like the film or not, that relaxed rating is going to let lots of people through the door whose eyes the film really might not be ready for.

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