Playing the Ratings


In many ways "Armageddon" and "Small Soldiers" are the ultimate preteen movies. The first is about heroic efforts to prevent the end of the world, the other takes quintessential toy soldiers and lets them run amok--they're the stuff of video games. Both are rated PG-13.

"The Truman Show," a disturbing adult-themed movie about a clueless man living in virtual reality via a 24-hour-a-day soap opera televised worldwide, is rated PG. It stars Jim Carrey and has been a solid hit for Paramount Pictures.

So what's the difference these days between a PG and PG-13 movie? Very little, say those in Hollywood who've worked on PG and PG-13 movies--and certainly not much difference to younger audiences who are attracted to films because of the subject matter or the stars, not the ratings.

Basically the difference between the two ratings is a gray zone--maybe a curse word, some violence, a hint of sexual activity. A PG-13 tells parents they may want to consider these factors before shipping their preteens off to the theater.

That's in theory anyway. The reality is very different, some filmmakers say.

"The truth? I don't know how much it matters anymore since kids basically want to see things their parents don't want them to see," said "Armageddon" producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

"The kids can go to a megaplex, buy a ticket for one movie and slip into another theater showing a PG-13 film. Certainly the '-13' gives it more edge.

"What it means is you get to use the 'F-word' once. You want to use it more, you get an R. . . . You only hear it once in this film. In fact, you hear one of the characters say, 'No more cursing.' So there you have it! Frankly, for me, I need some reality in the picture."

"Small Soldiers," from DreamWorks, rolls out nationwide on July 10. Terry Press, DreamWorks marketing chief, said the film's tone is similar to "Gremlins," the 1984 film about a boy's pet who spawns terrible creatures that nearly obliterate a picture-postcard town. "Small Soldiers," no doubt, will attract youngsters and teenagers, especially young boys.

"The PG of today is basically the G of yesteryear. G is considered for babies and it's tough to get a kid over 4 to go to a G film," Press said. "Many, many 8-year-olds went to see 'Titanic' and it's PG-13. In most cases, it doesn't matter when you consider the video will eventually wind up in the house anyway."

Press believes that "kids are basically immune to strong language and violence because of what they see on television and that's what a PG-13 is about."

One AMC Theaters executive noted, "They [kids] hear worse on the playground. Besides, how does one judge with any degree of intelligence that everyone who is 13 or 17 has the same degree of maturity?"

What parents are really weighing today is not whether a film is PG or PG-13, he added. "They want to know if it's an 'R.' "

"Truman," which has taken in about $100 million so far at the box office, is a relative rarity in Hollywood: an adult-themed PG film that's a hit.

(In style, "Truman" has been compared to another Paramount hit, "Forrest Gump," which was rated PG-13. It was a blockbuster [$329.7-million domestic box office], crossing age demographics like "The Truman Show.")

"This movie ["The Truman Show"] opened to $31.5 million," said Paul Dergarabedian of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "It's a drama parents can watch with their kids. Not since 'Contact' have we seen this kind of serious PG drama perform."

Was PG a factor in shaping the final cut, a way for Paramount and director Peter Weir to bring in Carrey's younger audiences? Would results have been different if the rating was bumped up to PG-13?

"The answer to both questions is no," said Wayne Lewellen, Paramount's president of distribution.

"Typically a PG-13 rating can hurt you a little in smaller, rural markets. The strength of this picture has been in urban areas, although it really is doing well across the nation. A PG-13 wouldn't have made a difference," he noted.

Dergarabedian, exhibitors and Paramount's studio rivals agreed. All said Carrey is the swing factor.

But the PG rating is something new for a Carrey film. All of his bigger films have been rated PG-13, from mega hits like "Liar, Liar," "Dumb and Dumber," "Batman Forever," "The Mask" and both "Ace Ventura" films to his flop "The Cable Guy."

So will "Truman's" success signal a future move by studios to push for more PG-rated adult-oriented films? That's a question that cuts both ways.

"If a director has an adult movie he or she doesn't want a wider rating like a PG or sometimes even a PG-13," noted Larry Gleason, MGM's distribution chief. "I've seen some directors throw in a few more curse words just to get a tougher rating. They want the older audience.

"But from strictly a studio viewpoint," he added, "movies are costing so much more you want to go for a broader audience and a PG rating certainly guarantees that."

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