Why can 18-rated games be hits but not Hollywood films?

Why is GTA V the most popular piece of entertainment of the year, we wonder, when 18-rated films are so rare in mainstream cinema?

Against a backdrop of critical adulation and laser-guided marketing, Grand Theft Auto V has made a fortune. Shifting 2.25m copies in the UK alone, its worldwide sales have already passed the $1bn mark, and could well be – to borrow an oft-repeated headline – the fastest-selling piece of entertainment in history.

At its heart, GTA V is a gangster heist story about three violent yet very different characters and their life of crime in a fictional American city. It’s an aggressive, slick and blackly comic fable about “the pursuit of the almighty dollar”, as its developer put it in 2011.

Placing all the excitement, praise and predictable ripple of controversy aside, GTA V raises some worthwhile questions about current tastes in mainstream entertainment. GTA V’s themes and situations are decidedly adult, with its story earning its PEGI 18 rating from its earliest moments – and its extreme content is far removed from that of the year’s most popular films.

Just look at the 10 highest-grossing films of 2013 so far: Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast 6 and Monsters University have all made huge amounts of money, and their stories are about as far away from the bloodthirsty world of Grand Theft Auto as you can possibly get. Even a movie like World War Z – which surprised quite a few people when it managed to gross more than $500m for Paramount – is relatively low on explicit violence, even if it does nudge the boundaries of its 12A rating at times.

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Every single movie currently in the year’s top 10 is rated 12A or lower. Every single one has a science fiction or fantasy theme – well, apart from Fast 6, which arguably creates its own fantasy world of whiplash-free car crashes in any case. With films like these dominating the Hollywood landscape, it’s hard to imagine producers stumping up around $265m (the reported budget of GTA V) on filming and marketing an R-rated gangster picture.

This year’s hit videogames, meanwhile, are exploring far more diverse and adult themes. Currently 2013’s second best-selling videogame, The Last Of Us is a bleak survival horror game that deals with themes including loss and self-sacrifice. It was highly praised for its characterisation and storytelling, with the word ‘masterpiece’  a common sight in reviews. BioShock Infinite, with its imaginative exploration of racism and zealotry, was similarly commended for its sophisticated plot and design.

So if all of these 18-rated games can earn critical acclaim and sell so many copies, why are all of 2013’s hit films so much more tame in terms of their content? The answer’s undeniably complex, but it could, perhaps, be broken down into two sections:

Money

12A comic-book adaptations and CG family comedies may have dominated box office lists in recent years, but this wasn’t always the case. Look back to 1995 – the year a certain heist thriller called Heat came out – and you’ll find a healthy mix of the adult and the PG-rated.  Toy Story, Pocahontas, Casper and Jumanji were joined by Die Hard With A Vengeance, Seven, and Apollo 13, suggesting a healthy diet of cheery family fare and darker, more adult stories.

Things began to change at the turn of the millennium, when franchises like Spider-Man, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings ushered in a new age of expensive-to-make yet hugely lucrative films. Since 2000, the box office has been dominated by movies like these – larger-than-life, escapist, effects-laden, and above all, crowd-pleasing.  

As the cost of making films has soared, in turn prompting Hollywood to invest its cash in films aimed at ever broader audiences, so the violent content and adult themes that occasionally featured in its films have ebbed away. For an example of just how much the Hollywood filmmaking landscape has changed over the past 25 years, take a look at the deliriously violent 1990 hit, Total Recall, and compare it with its sanitised, PG-13 remake from 2012.

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At the same time, it could be argued that audience tastes must have shifted somewhat in recent years, too. After all, Hollywood is still making violent or adult-themed movies. So if videogame audiences have embraced a game like GTA V, why didn’t the 15-rated, gun-crazy and blackly comic 2 Guns make more than $91m at the box office?

The answer may be because of the difference between movie and game ratings.

Ratings

As this year’s hit games have repeatedly proved, a PEGI 18 rating is no barrier to success. From the Call Of Duty series to GTA V, videogames with adult certificates regularly make hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the realm of films, meanwhile, it’s logically assumed that, the lower the certification, the broader the potential reach. Indeed, movie studios are now pursuing 12A certificates so aggressively, they’re willing to cut certain movies to make them fit the rating’s remit – Taken 2 and A Good Day To Die Hard are but two controversial examples.

Where mainstream films are increasingly bending to fit the rules of the MPAA or BBFC – or alternatively, pushing the boundaries of what can be shown in a 12A movie – videogames appear to be entirely unfettered by such concerns. The GTA series has long been full of amoral characters and intensely violent situations, and GTA V is no different, featuring as it does a torture scene that has caused some debate over its merits, even from some of the series’ most ardent fans.

As the sales figures prove, neither these scenes nor its 18 rating have hindered GTA V’s success, which begs the question: why not? Could it be because the 18-rating on videogames is so frequently ignored, as some polls have suggested? Are GTA V‘s soaring sales figures partly thanks to parents, who’ve blithely purchased copies for their kids?

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While this may account for some of the sales, it’s possible that audience tastes have changed, too, and that we’re heading elsewhere for more sophisticated storytelling and entertainment. When looking for mature, sophisticated dramas, audiences are turning increasingly to television rather than mainstream movie theater. TV shows such as Breaking Bad have, to a great extent, filled the gap left by mid-budget Hollywood movies, which have become almost extinct in recent years – providing tense, gripping stories about human drama rather than save-the-world scenarios or special effects.

Similarly, videogames like the Call Of Duty series are full of gratifying action and stunts, where the player is shoved front and center – it’s just possible that the audience that once queued up in their droves to watch 80s and 90s action movies are spending their money on games like these instead.

With games like GTA V, it seems as though the games industry is pushing the boundaries of a media that is still new. It’s playing around with multiple characters, viewpoints and story structure in a way that, until recently, was the preserve of novels, movie theater or TV. Some have argued that the violence and amorality are what attracts mass audiences to the GTA series, and there may be some truth in that. But isn’t it also these approaches to characters and storytelling that makes the GTA games so engrossing? 

In many ways, the best examples of modern games – whether they’re The Last Of Us, BioShock Infinite or the latest GTA – reflect what was happening in the so-called New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 70s. Back then, a new generation of young filmmakers injected the industry with unexpected themes and storytelling devices. They took risks, broke rules, dared to leave plot threads dangling or ending in unexpected ways. This was the era that brought us Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Bonnie And Clyde and Dog Day Afternoon – films that are hard to imagine coming out of Tinseltown now.

This isn’t to say that Hollywood’s recent output has been without merit – far from it – but when compared to the variety of content in the list of top-grossing games of 2013 so far, the equivalent list of mainstream movies seems conservative by comparison. Whether you believe that GTA V is gaming’s Taxi Driver or not, its storytelling is arguably influenced by the best movies of New Hollywood movie theater, and the classic films that came later, not least Michael Mann’s Heat.

The games industry may be beset with problems of its own – like Hollywood, it has a polarised market of multi-million dollar games, tiny indies and almost nothing in between – but its finest output is often pushing boundaries where mainstream movies aren’t. Where Hollywood’s currently ploughing its money into an ever narrower spectrum of genres, videogames like GTA V have the latitude to explore wildly different avenues – and still make a killing in the process.

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