How to get an R-rated movie through the Hollywood studio system

As del Toro’s At The Mountains Of Madness becomes the latest movie to fall victim to the R rating curse, we have 11 tips to get an R-rated movie past Hollywood studios…

Last week brought the sad news that Guillermo del Toro’s terrific-sounding At The Mountains Of Madness was pretty much on hold, given that Universal had failed to commit to the project. There were two reasons why it held back. Firstly, it was going to cost $150m. Secondly, and more crucially, it was likely to be an R-rated end product.

When studios spend big bucks on a movie, they want a PG-13 in return. And if your project can’t promise that? You might just be in trouble.

However, help is at hand. For any budding moviemakers out there, here are our essential tips to getting a mainstream R-rated movie greenlit at a Hollywood studio.

Make it a comedy, and be sure to mention The Hangover in your pitch meeting

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By far the easiest way to get an R is to have your project be a comedy. Particularly a bawdy one, that tends to help. It won’t be lost on the executive sat opposite you that comedies tend to be cheaper to make, but also that there’s a better track record when it comes to box office returns, and particularly DVD revenue.

If this tactic doesn’t work, and the executive is beginning to play with their Blackberry, then the time has come to reach for the magic bullet. Declare that your project is something random, but crossed with The Hangover.

It matters not the subject matter, be it sheep herding, deep sea diving, or musing on the merits of Justin Bieber. As long as it’s crossed with, or has a loose connection to The Hangover somewhere along the line, you’ll be fine. That’s the power of a surprise $500m box office hit right there…

Take A Pay Cut

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It’s a harsh move. Depending on your viewpoint, moving your pay to a percentage of the back end take is either you sharing the risk, or you being charged for a lack of courage by the studio. Either way, it does have a habit of working. Whichever, it inevitably ends up hurting your bank balance.

Like it or loathe it, but the only reason that Bruce Willis comedy Cop Out kept all the cussing in was because Kevin Smith volunteered to give up a chunk of his salary in exchange for an R rating. Had he not done that? Chances are, Cop Out may just have been a PG-13.

Basically, a studio often believes it’s making a sacrifice by releasing an R-rated film. And it’ll expect you to make a sacrifice, too. Quid pro quo, Clarice…

If You’re Making A Comic Book Movie, Don’t Tell Anybody It’s A Comic Book Movie

A crucial rule. Studio executives can recite back the box office numbers of Watchmen, Jonah Hex and The Punisher like the rest of us recall the first love of our lives. And they’ll be particularly keen to press the fact that any of those films would have made money if they had a softer rating. Don’t be thrown by this, or by thoughts in your head that they may not be right. They have spreadsheets, and they’re not afraid to use them.

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Instead, if this line of argument comes up, you have but one choice: to run. To assure them that your project has nothing to do with comics whatsoever, and to chortle at their jokes of how comics aren’t for grown ups anyway. You have absolute permission to think they are a pillock, however. Best not to mention it out loud, though.


Try and paint a picture for your studio suit. Convince them that your project needs an R rating for its integrity, and to do justice to the material if you want. But you’re on far safer ground if you push the line that your film is going to win Oscars, Golden Globes and assorted gubbins they can keep on their mantelpiece.

Tell them that, by the time your film is released, that their tuxedo or posh frock will be spending half of its time at the dry cleaners. Remind them of the Oscar glories of Gladiator, The Silence Of The Lambs, The Departed, Rain Man, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech (ignoring the Weinstein plan to release a PG-13 version of that particular movie, of course). A good R-rated movie means that they might get an Oscar nomination. And that they might on the telly, too. How can they resist.Don’t hold back on sex, violence, or both

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This is the Achilles’ heel of the executive sat in front of you. Because what they know, and what you know, is that they’re not pathologically averse to movies with R ratings. Instead, what they fear is an R-rated movie that doesn’t look like it should have an R rating. Tone is not of interest, friends. Instead, you must convince the executive that your project will push the boundaries of what you can get away with under an R rating. You must assure them that your film contains Expendables-levels of violence. Or, failing that, that it’s wall-to-wall bonking.

You get bonus points for promising a high-profile battle with the ratings board. And you get to tease them with the idea of an unrated cut for the DVD, too. They love shit like that.

Be someone powerful, or know someone powerful, or pretend to know someone powerful

It’s cheating, granted, but if you’re Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp, then you have the power to walk in and pitch an R-rated movie about fly fishing if you want. They’re at least going to take the meeting. Likewise, if you’re a friend of any of the above, then it might be wise to play on that, and offer the hint that they might be getting involved.

Plan C, which is where most of us come in, would be to be a bit more creative. You didn’t hear this from us, but pretending that you’re family friends with one of those names we’ve mentioned is at least worth a go. The executive will then head off to Wikipedia or IMDB to check, so be sure that you’ve edited the entry accordingly beforehand.

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Then drop in that your powerful pretend friend wants to get involved, but is keeping it quiet. “You know what they’re like”, you can say, with a cunning wink. It is, clearly, a foolproof plan.

Avoid any talk of artistic merit

It is the mistake of an amateur to go into a pitch meeting, and try and justify an R-rating on the basis of artistic merit. Similarly, arguing that the material demands an R-rating will result in the meeting ending quicker than it would if you’d have brought Mel Gibson in with you. It is a dead end to do battle over an R-rating about something as trivial as the material, and the script itself.

This is, to be clear, subject matter to avoid at all costs. Pursue this line, and you’re more likely to meet security than any studio executive again.

Wear a Jason Statham mask

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Because pity the fool who looks The Statham in the eye and tells him his next film has to be PG-13.

Aim your film at teenagers

Making a movie for grown-ups is not a good plan. Movie studio executives are drilled regularly on the fact that anyone over the age of 30 never pays to see a movie, and thus every film needs to be aimed at young people, those with a short attention span, or, ideally, both.

The sweet spot you need to hit is creating a project that, by the guidance of the ratings system, teenagers will not be supposed to see, yet will want to anyway. That way, they’ll all pile in, and all concerned can sit back and count the cash.

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Under no circumstances try and aim your material at anyone older than, at a push, 29 to 30. Consider yourself warned.

Pretend your film is (financially) really, really cheap

Easily the most attractive option on this list for the movie mogul. Basically, if all else fails, you’ve just got to chop the budget.

But here’s the thing: you only have to pretend to chop it! After all, by the time you’ve got this far down the list, you’ve already lost most of your salary. So send in posh presentations with the necessary financial assertions on, and agree to go by the word of the completion bond company. And then, only when on set, start to ‘accidentally overspend’.

For this to work, you have to make the film in a country that the executive’s private jet will not reach, or be in a place where their clothes will not get dirty. Staying a good 50 miles away from a five star hotel is a workable plan, too.

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Don’t attempt to adapt a highly regarded 20th century sci-fi horror novel

Just ask poor Guillermo del Toro…

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