Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his biography, has a section where he talks about Conan the Barbarian and the follow-up Conan the Destroyer. Now, if you haven’t read the bio, he actually doesn’t talk about every one of his movies in it. And some of those that he does talk about only get in some cases a paragraph or two of mention.
CtB, aka Conan the Barbarian, released as an R. It had the violence the target audience expected such a movie to have in it. After all, it’s a story about a literal barbarian living a harsh and hard life in a violent realm. That barbarian carries a sword bigger than some teenagers. The expected audience was mostly guys, and mostly people who like such stories. It was a great success for the era, the very early 80s. On a budget of less than $20 million, probably less than $25 or $30 million once you add in the marketing costs for the time, and it returned $130 million from theaters. It’s gone on to be a steady seller on all the forms of media that’ve come since; VHS, laserdisc, DVD, VOD, and who knows what else is coming.
The producer was convinced that it would’ve made even more if they’d only toned the rating down, so a ‘broader audience’ could buy tickets. In his bio, Arnold talks about how he was very against this change; arguing it ignored the core audience who’d made the first such a success. Arnold was not listened to, and we all know how CtD turned out. Line budget of $18 million, box office of $100 million. And it’s definitely not the classic that CtB is in the media/downloads market.
In other words, by going for the ‘broad appeal’, they missed their mark. Core audience members of a project, whatever the project is, are not locks for viewship; especially when you start changing core elements in an effort to draw in outliers. A lot of people have been grumbling for this for, literally, decades. And, like Arnold, have been ignored by the money men in Hollywood. Everything gets toned down and dialed back to be ‘suitable’ for an audience that includes teenagers. That’s the point of the PG and PG-13 ratings; they indicate teen tickets can be sold.
And an awful lot of otherwise great films have been screwed up, even completely ruined, with these changes. Kevin Smith has a story, talking about the fourth Die Hard film, where the screenwriter of that project explained to him how the one “fuck” that is allowed in a PG-13 movie was reserved for the iconic John McClain “yippie-kai-yay motherfucker” quip. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have several stories about dealing with the MPAA and the ratings for their projects; the one they didn’t have major issues with was the one where Paramount was paying the bills. The indie efforts they produced were harshly rated.
The 80s was a great time for R movies. We had R, even hard-R, action and comedies all across the board. Not every movie was an R, but there were significantly more of them than there’ve been starting around 1989 or 1990 until hopefully now. That’s over twenty years of work being dialed down and censored in an effort to chase kids, ignoring the adults.
TV has quietly started the trend back to adult fare. Not adult as in “porn”, but adult as in “for adults.” Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has a small storyline where the showrunner characters irritate the network head they work for when they advise a fellow creator to take his project to HBO. When confronted by the executive, they explain the show’s both “too good” for network television, and also that it would be ruined by the channel. Let’s consider that concept like this …
We’re working on the 6th season of Game of Thrones, probably the most well known and obvious example of adult television. Stop and think about how incredibly bad a network television, even a basic cable version, of GoT would be. I’m not even talking about the nudity; let’s make it easy and toss that aside. Let’s just talk about the violence, the themes, the family members and political rivals killing each other, the harsh reality of life in that fictional world. How would the story work with all of that removed? Do characters like Joffrey or The Mountain have anything like the same impact if they’re cleaned up for the fucking Parents Television Council?
And GoT is just one example. We’ve got The Walking Dead, which is a cleaned up show that leaves a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor because of censoring for ratings. Not an actual rating, TV doesn’t have a formal PG or R or whatever; but we all know TV usually adheres to a pretty middle-of-the-road PG. Even after 9 or 10 pm. And GoT isn’t the first show HBO has produced catering explicitly to adults; it has dozens in its catalog that are very definitely not interested in cozying up to the under 18 audience.
Netflix has, thankfully, continued full bore with this trend. Projects like Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Orange is the New Black use language and adult themes to tell their stories. These themes make the work more realistic and believable to the audience. Real people swear, they talk about things with blue tongues. They talk about dirty things. When they get into fights or whatever, blood flows.
Does language or blood make something better? No, of course not. But when it’s appropriate, when it’s called for by the story, shying from it is artificial and shreds the suspension-of-disbelief all creators strive to create. Soft peddling projects the way a PG world does might let teens in the door, but it turns a lot of adults away because they can’t get past the silliness of what those compromises put in front of them.
Now Hollywood, both big and small screen, only cares about money. The actors and writers and directors are the ones who care about creativity; most of them atleast. But the check signers could honestly give two shits; they just want cash.
Enter Deadpool, which is breaking records as an unabashedly R rated story. A PG-13 version of Deadpool would destroy the character; the merc with a mouth needs to revel in violence and vulgarity and all the other things that come with being an adult in an adult story doing adult things to truly work. The best thing about Deadpool is how the money it’s making has turned check-writing heads. We’re starting to hear about other projects that are being allowed to move into R territory, and it’s long past time.
When we become adults, we put away childish things. That means we get to be adults. And adult stories should cater to adults. If that means blood flows, if that means tits and asses and genitals are out, if that means the topics are enough to make the PTC collapse in apoplexy; so be it. Kids have their movies and shows, teens should have theirs, and adults should definitely get theirs. Arnold is a smart guy, and was right back in 83/84 when he lost the battle with the Conan the Destroyer producer over the sequel’s tone.
48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cops, Animal House, Matrix, Saving Private Ryan, Gone Girl, Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, American Beauty, Speed, Total Recall, 8 Mile, Black Hawk Down, Deadpool … the list goes on and on. It should be longer.
Hopefully in the next few years, a lot more titles will be on it than have been getting added for sometime now.