How Hollywood Caught The PG-13 Bug

Indirectly spawned by Steven Spielberg, PG-13 is now the rating of choice among movie studios. Ryan charts the effects of its rise and rise.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Even compared to the exploding heads and melting faces of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Temple Of Doom was an intense, gruesome affair. The Indiana Jones sequel may have begun with a breezy song-and-dance number, but it soon descended into a dark ghost train ride of human sacrifice, death by crocodiles, child slavery and chilled monkey brains for dinner.

One of the film’s most famous scenes saw a victim’s heart torn out and held, still pumping and oozing blood, before his gazing eyes. Some kids in the audience were probably cackling with macabre glee at all this. Parents and critics were far less amused. One reviewer even suggested that taking a child to see The Temple Of Doom was tantamount to wilful neglect.

Director Steven Spielberg was no stranger to gently probing at the edges of acceptability in a PG movie. Jaws, which had launched his career into the stratosphere, contained chomped limbs and the unforgettable image of blood oozing from Robert Shaw’s gibbering lips. Poltergeist, which Spielberg produced, had its certification reduced from an R to a PG rating by the MPAA on appeal – even with a hallucinatory scene where a man tears his own face off.

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By 1984, however, Spielberg was beginning to push the envelope a bit too far for some viewers’ comfort. Just two weeks after The Temple Of Doom came out in May, the Spielberg-executive-produced Gremlins crept into cinemas like a mischievous ghoul. If younger moviegoers were beguiled by the furry paws of Gizmo the mogwai depicted on Gremlins’ poster, they may have been taken aback by the grisly anarchy in the film itself. Little green monsters are stabbed, whizzed up in food processors and detonated in microwaves. One scene famously has an ornery old woman killed by her own malfunctioning stairlift.

These two movies generated a flurry of complaints from parents. Some newspaper reports from the period suggest that theatre owners themselves were concerned by the number of mothers and fathers marching out screenings, kids in tow, disgusted at The Temple Of Doom and Gremlins’ more excessive moments. Opinion pieces began to spring up about the need for a new rating – one that would fall between the PG and R certificates already in place.

Yet the idea of an additional rating was met with opposition from an unlikely figure: Jack Valenti, who by 1984 had been the head of the MPAA for 16 years.

“How can you possibly know what somebody else’s children should or should not see?” Valenti said in June 1984. “My recommendation is to see the film first – without the kids. I always did. Other parents just don’t care. They’ve abandoned their responsibility.” 

A proposed PG-13 rating – one that urges caution among parents, but still allows kids to see a movie unaccompanied by an adult – was championed by none other than Steven Spielberg.  

“I had come under criticism, personal criticism, for both Temple Of Doom and, you know, Gremlins, in the same year,” Spielberg told Vanity Fair in 2008. “I remember calling Jack Valenti [then the president of the Motion Picture Association] and suggesting to him that we need a rating between R and PG, because so many films were falling into a netherworld, you know, of unfairness. Unfair that certain kids were exposed to Jaws, but also unfair that certain films were restricted, that kids who were 13, 14, 15 should be allowed to see.”

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With film studios such as Columbia also backing the rating, Valenti relented. Within a matter of months, the PG-13 certificate was born. John Milius’ cold war action thriller Red Dawn, released in August 1984, was the first movie to appear in American cinemas with the PG-13 rating – though even this film found itself mired in a ripple controversy for its unusually high body count.

The UK, meanwhile, took a few more years to come up with its own version which approached the PG-13 rating. This made films like The Temple Of Doom and Gremlins problematic for Britain’s certification board, the BBFC – particularly when it came to the scenes of sacrifice and violent death in the Indiana Jones sequel. 

BBFC director James Ferman balked at the film’s “very real world terror of violence, black magic and nightmare imagery,” and initially refused to give The Temple Of Doom a PG rating (“I don’t remember us ever passing a scene like this at PG before,” an examiner’s notes read from an early screening). It was only after a series of cuts had been made to three of the film’s reels – including certain close-ups in the heart-ripping scene – that The Temple Of Doom was granted a PG certificate in June 1984.

Gremlins, meanwhile, was a more clear-cut case: having reviewed the film’s assorted scenes of cartoonish death (“gremlins minced in a mixer, stabbed violently with the knife, roasted to explosion point in the oven,”) the BBFC concluded that it had to be rated a 15.

“I really don’t have to butcher a film that I rather enjoyed,” the examiner wrote. “Leave the film to cynical horror film addicts!”

It wasn’t until 1989 that the BBFC decided to bring in an additional certificate which could fill the gap between the PG and 15 ratings. Tim Burton’s Batman, released as a PG-13 in America, would have wound up as a 15 in the UK under the BBFC’s standard guidelines, but after a bit of lobbying from Warner Bros, the British Board brought in a 12 rating.

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A rough cut of Batman was screened for the BBFC at Pinewood in May 1989, and Warner’s request for a 12 certificate can be seen in the examiner’s notes from that viewing:

“…they might be able to get the ‘12‘ they requested on the day. I confess I’m not fully conversant with the violence limits on 12, but JF [James Ferman] seemed to indicate that this was about where we would draw the line. The film would look overclassified at 15. We all felt we could dispense with the idea of imposing that.” 

Unlike America’s PG-13 certificate, the BBFC’s rating theoretically blocked access to children under the age of 12 – even if they were accompanied by an adult. That rating remained in force until 2002, when the old 12 certification was replaced by 12A – a rating which permits children under 12 to see a given film as long as they’re accompanied by someone over the age of 18. (On home video, meanwhile, the 12 rating remains just as it was since it was introduced in 1994.)

Interestingly, the BBFC maintains that it brought in the 12A certificate not because of public pressure, but because it “recognized that children were growing up faster and that parents were better placed to decide what their children should watch.” This statement is taken from the board’s Spider-Man case study, in which it notes that the 2002 film caused a certain amount of disappointment from parents and children who complained that it should have been rated a PG. When the 12A certificate was introduced in August 2002, Spider-Man was re-released in the UK.

“For the record,” the BBFC continues, “the very first official 12A rated film was The Bourne Identity.”

The introduction of the 12A cert in the UK reflected a growing appetite for larger-than-life cinematic spectacles, which began in the ’90s with such films as Jurassic Park and Independence Day and exploded in the 2000s with superhero franchises like X-Men and Spider-Man.

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As a quick look at this list at Box Office Mojo proves, PG-13 movies became increasingly big business as the 90s ended and a new millennium began. A generation earlier, movie studios were deliberately avoiding giving their movies G ratings and opting for the higher PG rating instead. As one news story from 1984 put it, “The G rating is avoided by studios since even younger children disdain G movies as ‘Kids’ stuff’.”

Just as the G rating once denoted a toothless, inoffensive film likely aimed at little kids, now it was the PG-13 certificate that had the broader appeal.

“Kids don’t want to feel like they’re seeing pap,” Gremlins director Joe Dante told the Associated Press in 2004 – the 20th anniversary of the PG-13 rating. “People will go out of their way to put one dirty word in it just to get the rating that they need to give the picture some legitimacy, so the kids won’t feel like they’re going to see their little brother’s movie.” 

“In a way it’s better to get a PG-13 than a PG for certain movies,” Spielberg concurred in the same article. “Sometimes PG, unless it’s for an animated movie, it turns a lot of young people off. They think it’s going to be too below their radar and they tend to want to say, ‘Well, PG-13 might have a little bit of hot sauce on it.’”

When it comes to the box-office performance of PG-13 movies, the numbers speak for themselves. Of the top 10 highest-grossing films worldwide, all but one (that’s Disney’s Frozen) have a PG-13 rating. The most successful R-rated movie of all time, at the time of writing, is Deadpool – which, with a current international gross of $756 million, places it behind The Amazing Spider-Man as the 66th biggest film of all time.

Little wonder, then, that as the budgets for movies have increased and the appetite for superhero movies has grown, studios have increasingly sought to make their major films fit a PG-13 certificate. As this article from The Dissolve (a site now sadly defunct) points out, this has resulted in franchises once aimed at an older audience – The Terminator, Die Hard – bent and softened to fit the PG-13 mould.

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The industry’s desire to up the ante in terms of action while staying within the remit of the PG-13 (or 12A) guidelines creates problems of its own. You’re now as likely to see a PG-13 rating applied to a fantastical space adventure with relatively light moments of violence, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as you are to a film like Zack Snyder’s theatrical version of Sucker Punch, with its dark scenes of abuse, fleeting glimpses of erotic dancers and the lingering threat of lobotomisation. 

The broad gamut of acceptable violence tolerated by the MPAA for a PG-13 film was highlighted in a 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Through analyzing 30 of the top-grossing films from each year between 1950 to 2012, the study concluded that the number of violent shootings in PG-13 movies had tripled since the rating’s introduction in 1984. The study also found that, while sex scenes are relegated to R-rated movies, PG-13 movies are now more likely to contain gun violence than an R movie.

“By the standards of the MPAA,” the study’s co-author Brad Bushman said, “PG-13 movies shouldn’t have as much violence as R-rated movies, but they clearly do. It appears sex scenes are more likely to result in an R rating than scenes of violence.”

In fairness, the study’s as much of an indication of audience appetites as it is the kind of content that’s waved through by the MPAA; we’re talking about the 30 most financially successful film of any given year, after all. It’s also worth pointing out that the MPAA actually rates its movies based on advice from parents. Unlike the UK’s ratings board, which tends to employ examiners with backgrounds in film or child development, the MPAA has eight average, anonymous American parents watch each film and provide their opinions as to which rating it should receive.

Wherever you stand in the ongoing debate about violence in PG-13 films – and the MPAA has been accused of “ratings creep” for years – the situation the classification board finds itself is somewhat ironic.

The PG-13 rating was brought in as a middle-ground between the “may not be suitable for children” content of a PG film and the “contains some adult material” gamut of an R-rated movie. Yet through a mixture of shifting tastes, changing social mores and commercial forces, parents are now just as likely to be startled by the violence in a PG-13 film as they were a PG film back in 1984. The likes of Frozen or Inside Out aside, the G and PG ratings have largely been pushed aside. In all but a few raunchy comedies or more graphic action thrillers (Deadpool, Gone Girl), the R rating has been carefully avoided by studios.

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With PG-13 now the lucrative, popular middle ground among audiences and studios alike, the story’s effectively come full circle: the suitability of a given movie is, for better or worse, up to the individual viewer to decide.