How The PG-13 Killed The Films It Was Meant To Save

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How The PG-13 Killed The Films It Was Meant To Save
On July 1 of 1984 the MPAA introduced the first new ratings classification in their history with the addition of the PG-13. The new rating was brought in at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg who was fearful given the protests surrounding the level of violence in Gremlins and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom that the films his Amblin Entertainment was specializing in would find themselves hit by the restrictive and entirely inappropriate R rating in the future. The PG-13 was Spielberg's idea of a compromise, a way of recognizing that some content may be too intense for young children while still not deserving of an R. The thinking seemed sound, the MPAA agreed and the new rating was quickly adopted with Red Dawn being the first film to hit screens under the new label.

But, unfortunately, instead of saving the sort of films that Spielberg was interested in producing it has become clear that the PG-13 was the beginning of the end. As the parent of a child now entering the Amblin sweet spot in terms of age range and the host of an ongoing film series specializing in these films it has become increasingly clear to me that the PG-13 has led directly to the end of films specifically tailored to the 10 - 13 age range. It's not that Hollywood doesn't do them as well anymore, it's that - with very few exceptions - Hollywood doesn't do them at all.

The creep away was subtle at first, changes in ratings rules and their application slowly being felt over the following years as both the ratings board and filmmakers figured out what was and was not going to be accepted under the previous PG rating. As things shook out, though, a pair of factors became key. If a child swore, the rating would go up. And if you put a child in serious danger, the rating would go up. Some of these changes can be attributed to the increasing creep towards the political and religious right within the MPAA as much as to the existence of a new ratings classification but it was the existence of the PG-13 that allowed the ratings board to put direct pressure upon producers in terms of content. And these two factors combined meant that it was nearly impossible to make a thrilling adventure film with a young protagonist in which the lead character behaves like real kids their age actually do in a setting with decently high stakes.

A major issue is where the MPAA set the line. Before the PG-13 there was a massive range available for filmmakers to play within. But since the PG-13 the movie industry sees children only as those over the age of thirteen and those under the age of thirteen. In both categories it makes the most sense from a business standpoint to target the largest possible audience. This means that if you're setting out to make a PG-13 movie you want to make one that will appeal to fifteen to seventeen year olds. These are the kids that have part time jobs, have access to cars, and are granted the freedom to spend their own money as they see fit with minimal supervision from mom and dad. And if you're setting out to make a film for children under thirteen it makes sense to spend the bulk of your money making movies that mom and dad will go to with their children and that means aiming young. There's a reason animated features make so much money: Convince one seven year old that they want to see it and you've probably just sold three tickets.

The problem here is that kids aged ten to thirteen are nothing at all like seven year olds or fifteen year olds and they're getting cut out entirely. Which is tragic because ten to thirteen year olds are absolutely, one hundred percent, in the sweet spot for classic storytelling. Just look at how many classic stories were written for this age range as opposed to books written for teens. There's something magic about that 'tween mind. Kids this age have the complexity to ask big moral questions and be aware that there are bad things in the world while still holding on to the sort of naivete that preserves possibility. Anything can happen when you're twelve. Anything. This is the perfect age to create for because it is the age where children are consciously trying to create themselves, sorting out what they like and what they don't and what sort of people they want to be. And yet they're largely ignored by the biggest storytelling industry in the world.

This is why films like Super 8 give me hope. Because it appears to be a film that takes kids this age seriously. This is why the progression of the Harry Potter series - with the films becoming more successful as they become darker and more complex - give me hope. Because maybe more producers will realize that people actually want these sorts of stories, as opposed to the overly sanitized, overly safe tales that we normally get. Because I think my boy deserves a Goonies of his own. He's already uncovering vast worlds in books and it's time the film industry caught up and took him seriously as well.
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oanMarch 13, 2011 6:54 PM

Really interesting subject.

It's good to have a rating system, and I guess it need to follow rules, but somehow it became more important than the filmmakers vision. The whole system needs to be changed.

I'm really excited about Super 8. The trailer has that great look.

hiroaki.jMarch 13, 2011 8:54 PM

Nice article. I actually thought it was going to be about the death of the R rating, but interesting take nonetheless.

DragunMarch 13, 2011 11:33 PM

Super 8 does have the feel that films like The Goonies and Monster Squad had. I read another article that talked about how less of these adventure movies are made for pre-teen boys, in which the kids are in real peril, and its up to them to solve the problem. Its a shame, because I enjoyed films like Goonies and ET when I was younger, and I still enjoy them today.

Joshua ChaplinskyMarch 14, 2011 1:01 PM

Great piece. I'm not a huge Abrams (or even Spielberg) fan, but I seriously hope Super 8 delivers on the promise of the trailer.

Sean "The Butcher" SmithsonMarch 14, 2011 1:44 PM

Children don't cuss. Children don't know what genitals look like. Etc. This is the universe Hollywood is building for youngsters. We have no BAD NEWS BEARS (the original thank you) type flicks anymore.

I actually watched THE GOONIES again awhile back and had forgotten how caustic it actually was. Hell, in "E.T." Elliot screams "Shut up penis breath!", like that would EVER make it into a kid oriented film these days, even one made by Spielberg himself.

presti71March 14, 2011 2:02 PM

I agree with this article 125% but i think there is more going on and more factors involved as a whole. Over the last 15-20 years special interest groups specifically targeting "children's advocacy" have been lobbying, protesting, and browbeating not only the MPAA but Hollywood as a whole in the "name" of "protecting" children but i think they have only done more harm then good.
Many adults & parents in this country have been "brainwashed" into believing that our children are to be treated much younger than they actually are. The special interest groups, the MPAA, and many Hollywood suits only see 3 primary age groups under 18: around 4-11, 12-14(tweens), and 15-17(teens).
The problem lies in that these adults involved want all programming/content for the 4-11 group to be geared towards 4-6 year olds. They also treat the 12-14 tweens like they are 9 years old and the 15-17's like THEY are the tweens.
It's only getting worse in this country. For a litmus test take a look at British children's & teens programming & movies. They are much better at treating them their age.

zinjoMarch 14, 2011 2:09 PM

Hollywood hasn't been a story telling industry for quite a while now.
Essentiallly the PG13 film falls more into the Indie realm of film making.
The demographic has shrunk compared to the levels in the 80's.
While films like Shrek and Pixar produced entertainment are the exceptions, Harvard business grads don't have a clue about the creative side of the business. Thus, rely on their studies and tending to determine who gets studio funding.

SaltonerMarch 14, 2011 4:51 PM

The MPAA is like the Comics Code Auathority; irrelevant and does more harm than good. Hollywood needs to start bypassing this extremely outdated, archaic rating system criteria and force them out entirely.

davidcwmatsonMarch 14, 2011 5:20 PM

Awesome article we do need the movie equivalent of a Cory Doctorow. Little Brother is a perfect example of a young protagonist is real danger. Adventure is in dire need of a revival.

capnchaos13March 21, 2011 5:43 PM

I would agree with a lot of these points. I'm actually in the early stages of creating an all-ages serial adventure comic strip, which is probably appropriate mostly for the 10-13 range, though I'm trying to write it adult enough that it's not pandering, that is about an approximately 13-year-old girl which is inspired, in large part, by the Carl Barks stories of my youth. I plan on basically leaving out almost any references to sex, but she'll be in peril. There will be blood, monsters, gunfire and smoking, just the way it should be.

When one looks at the classics of 'kid's lit,' that the best stories are often the ones with stakes and risk. From Treasure Island to Harry Potter, it's obvious that most of them are adult stories with age-appropriate protagonists. These stories existed for hundreds of years before the thought police got hold of them and started trying to sanitize them for our protection. When I heard that anti-smoking zealots went after Rango for it's heavy tobacco usage, I just wanted to tear my hair out. They would have gone after Fantastic Mr. Fox too, had it made as much money. *gasp* Liquor and guns and tobacco! Oh my!