The box office success of "Minions" this weekend — with a $115-million total and a $27,000 per-screen average, the "Despicable Me" offshoot had one of the most successful animated openings of all time — is attributable to a number of factors.
On screen, it's the jibber-jabber charm of its main characters. In theaters, it's the diverse demographics, as more than 40% of its opening weekend audience was Latino or African American, according to Universal Studios.
And, of course, as an animated movie, "Minions" gave family audiences another strong option now that Disney/Pixar's "Inside Out" is on the downslope of its run.
But "Minions" also came with another tag that may prove more durable than some in modern Hollywood tend to believe: the PG rating.
PG has fallen on hard times in recent years. A study a few years ago showed that studios in the current era made about double the number of PG-13 movies as they did PG. Those that are made don't tend to rake in as much as their PG-13 counterparts.
A glance at the year-end box office top five movies shows just one PG movie last year. In 2013, there were two. In 2012 and 2011, there were zero. You have to go back 13 years to find the last time the majority of the year-end top five consisted of PG- (or G-) rated movies.
This year could continue that trend, as prototypically PG-13 movies like "Jurassic World" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron" — as one film-business wag once put it, the "just-violent-enough movies" — continue to dominate. Studios make a simple calculation: An old-fashioned PG movie isn't going to bring in older teenagers, a key constituency in today's moviegoing climate. And filmmakers of darker material that appeals to young adult audiences like "The Hunger Games" and latter-day "Harry Potter" movies want to make sure they can get some violence in too.
At the same time, studios fear the dreaded R, which is perceived as an automatic ceiling on a summer or holiday action-adventure. So the PG-13 — initially conceived as a rather narrow strip of middle ground between the soft- and the hardcore — is now a go-to.
But as movies like "Minions" and "Inside Out" — animated, yes, but also PG in that throwback sense of holding appeal for adults — perform well, it shows that these movies have plenty of box office potency too. (Both of those films have a reasonable shot at ending up on the year-end top five.) Another PG hit has been Disney's live action "Cinderella," which took in more than $200 million in domestic ticket sales and remains in the top five for the year.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which received
a splashy musical promotion at Comic-Con in San Diego over the weekend, is the biggest open question. It
will certainly be one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. Will it do so as a
PG film? Five of the previous six "Star Wars" installments were PG. The first three,
admittedly, were in a pre-PG-13 era. But the two
that followed were also PG. By 2005, "Revenge of the Sith" had evolved to fit
the PG-13 vogue — but notably, it grossed less than
the PG "The Phantom Menace."
The argument for Hollywood to produce more family friendly films because audiences are longing for them — one that's popular with some critics of Hollywood — doesn't hold up. If that were the case, movies like "Max" and "McFarland, USA" would be blockbusters instead of down-the-chart wobblers.
And the proposition that movies have grown startlingly more violent or risqué — often the point that accompanies the argument for more PG movies — also misses the point. Among the most successful films of 1980, to pick one long-ago year, were "Blue Lagoon," "Private Benjamin," "The Blues Brothers" and "The Shining" — hardly fit for the whole family.
But there's a powerful
argument for PG movies that goes beyond the culture-wars issue — they're often better. Sure, it's nice
to have freedom of language, sex and violence, and some of our best movies have all three.
But making a good PG movie can actually be harder to do. Some of the best films are born of strictures and restraint; they're the result of not being able to immediately lean on screen-shattering violence or the most ribald joke you can think of.
The PG-rated "Back to the Future" is one of the great action-adventures of all time because it told a story that had to rely fully on the power of its character and story. A modern remake of the Robert Zemeckis classic would no doubt ensure that there were at least four broad incest jokes and that Biff would take a gun to the school dance.
Later this year, Sony will try its hand at the big PG movie with the cinematic adaptation of the children's literary series "Goosebumps," about a group of young people on a monster-quashing adventure, and the studio is also bringing another Zemeckis PG movie into the world: the much-anticipated Philippe Petit movie "The Walk," which will open the New York Film Festival. Disney is ramping up live-action PG movies such as "Beauty and the Beast."
Speaking by phone from the set of that film Monday, director Bill Condon, who has made PG-13 genre movies via two "Twilight Saga" installments, noted the opportunity to make "an exciting live-action musical with a real score," and he extolled the good fortune that "those films are being embraced."
Hollywood won't stop making PG-13 comic book movies or YA adaptations any time soon. But "Minions" is the latest to prove that PG can work. More of those films — outside animation — might make the same case.