How the Creation of the PG-13 Rating Changed Movies Forever

What Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg, and divorce had to do with a brand new rating

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Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

Look back on the last 10 movies you’ve watched. I’m certain at least 75% of them were rated PG-13. This rating has become the most prominent — and profitable — movie rating in entertainment.

PG-13 would perfectly bridge the gap between family movies and inaccessible R ratings. With PG-13, a movie could push the envelope, but not take it too far. The PG-13 rating also has an interesting origin story.

And it wouldn’t have happened without a certain swashbuckling hero…

The First Movie Rating System

The MPAA movie rating system started in 1968 with G, M, R, and X. They were there to provide parents with information on what would be best for children.

It was tougher to get movie insights in a pre-internet world, so they created a rating system. ORC International developed the system in 1968, and they rated an average of 587 movies per year.

In 1968, the “Hayes Code” was created to help rate movies. The country was more religious, so the code was used to give warnings for things like blasphemy or the mocking of the clergy.

It would also identify things like violence or prostitution. It would be the standard for rating movies for 16 years.

And now our story turns to Indiana Jones, toy sales and divorce…

How Indiana Jones Factors Into the PG-13 Rating

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great movie. It was full of adventure, action, intrigue, and set the stage for one of the greatest trilogies of all time.

But the second installment of the series took on a darker tone.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came with a normal PG rating, so what could be so bad about it?

Turns out a lot. George Lucas had just gotten divorced, and Steven Spielberg was going through a breakup. A lot of the anger and darkness they were feeling was reflected in the film.

Their bad moods would lead to scenes that included human sacrifice, child slaves dying in their parent’s arms, and eating snakes and brains among a lot of other violence.

Remember, this was a PG-rated movie.

Spielberg had already been pushing the boundaries with movies like Poltergeist and Gremlins. Gremlins appealed to kids with the cute Mogwai featured in the commercials. The movie trailers definitely didn’t show that blender scene…

Poltergeist was supposed to be rated R until Spielberg fought to get it reduced. Yikes. If you like Indiana Jones, check out my article on the actual people they based him on:

The Importance of Toy Sales in Dictating Movie Ratings

Because of the monumental success of toy sales attached to movie properties such as Star Wars, it was imperative to get these new franchises in front of as many kid’s eyes as possible.

And what better way to do that than with a regular PG rating? Kids won’t care about toys from a movie they can’t see, so pushing for a PG rating would make your film much more lucrative. Case in point: for every dollar that Star Wars has made at the box office, it has made two in merchandise sales.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was clearly marketed towards kids with all the merchandise they had ready, such as action figures, cereals, and video games. Here’s some more about the dangers of marketing to children:

The Temple of Doom was a massive hit opening on a record-breaking weekend for the time. It would end up bringing in $179 million just in the US, which converted for today is $428 million.

And then parents flipped out.

Trusting the PG rating, kids would end up being traumatized by the excessive violence and gore. Parents thinking they were going into a family movie were in for a rude awakening.

The Backlash Begins

Parents were going nuts, and they were getting backed up by movie critics. Most critics loved the film, but couldn’t help but point out what this might do to children. A review from 1984 would state that the movie:

“…might prove extraordinarily frightening to younger children who, indeed, are being catered to in this film by the presence of the adorable 12-year-old Ke Huy Quan.”

People Magazine called it “a cinematic form of child abuse.” Even Spielberg’s own friends said he took it too far with this one. They had let it slide with things like Gremlins — but the Temple of Doom was too much.

This issue had come up before in 1975 when Jaws was rated PG. But they at least had a warning on the movie poster saying it would be too intense for children.

Spielberg needed to solve this problem.

Creating a Brand New Rating

Spielberg stayed adamant that the Temple of Doom shouldn’t have an R-rating. But he realized there needed to be something that bridged the gap between PG and R, as there was such a wide range.

He needed something that would allow him to push his vision — as violent as it may be — while not isolating kids they were trying to sell products to.

A compromise was created that would end up changing movies forever.

Spielberg went to Jack Vilente, who was president of the Motion Pictures Association about bridging the gap:

“I remember calling Jack Valenti [then the president of the Motion Picture Association] and suggesting to him that we need a rating between R and PG, because so many films were falling into a netherworld, you know, of unfairness. Unfair that certain kids were exposed to Jaws, but also unfair that certain films were restricted, that kids who were 13, 14, 15 should be allowed to see. I suggested, ‘Let’s call it PG-13 or PG-14, depending on how you want to design the slide rule,’ and Jack came back to me and said, ‘We’ve determined that PG-13 would be the right age for that temperature of movie.’ So I’ve always been very proud that I had something to do with that rating.”

A PG-13, a PG-14, and a PG-2 rating were first proposed before the MPAA decided that PG-13 would be the best choice.

The new rating would be ushered in by July. By August 10th, 1984, just 3 months after the Temple of Doom came out, PG-13 was being used. And the first movie to use it? Red Dawn starring Patrick Swayze.

Why PG-13 is So Popular & Profitable

PG-13 is perfect: teens know it won't be a kiddy movie, and parents know it will be intense — but not as bad as an R-rated movie.

You know that you’ll get some violence, swearing, and maybe the odd exposed body part — It just wouldn’t go over the top with those things.

PG-13 became the seal of approval for younger people; It meant this thing is going to be GOOD.

R-rated movies up to that point had been huge. Beverly Hills Cop was R-rated and was the highest-grossing movie of 1984. Purple Rain and Police Academy were also up there, but today, you never see R-rated movies in the top ten.

This is because those movies from 1984 could have done even better. How many more people would have seen Beverly Hills Cop if it was PG-13? I was dying to see it when it came out, but there was no way in HELL my mom would let me. I’m still not sure if she would today.

PG-13 Would Be the New Standard for Studios.

Billion-dollar movies didn’t happen until PG-13. 6 of the top ten highest domestic grossing films of all time are PG-13, including the top 2: Avengers: End Game, and Avatar.

The highest-grossing R-rated movie ever was the Passion of the Christ until the Deadpool movies and now Joker. The Passion of the Christ’s overall gross was around $370 million. That puts it at #40 on the all-time list. Even Joker comes in at #31 despite grossing over one billion — that’s how far behind PG-13 they are.

Studios just don’t want to risk anything with R-rated movies today. Deadpool would even re-cut a PG-13 version so more people — younger people, mainly — could see it.

Final Thoughts

PG-13 is perfect because it’s slightly geared towards adults but won’t turn young people off. We have now associated PG as a family movie and can be the kiss of death for studios unless it’s animated.

There is also the downside of PG-13: many movies today feel like they all blend together. They all follow the PG-13 format and don’t dare stray from it, to not risk losing huge returns.

Some studios are even starting to push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, but we’ll see how this plays out. Ultimately, we can thank the personal lives of Spielberg, Lucas, and the brain-eating scene from the Temple of Doom for a whole new era of movies.

If you want to check out more about some great 1980s topics, head over to everything80spodcast.com to relive the greatest decade.

Some health, a little marketing, and a lot of 80s| The Startup, The Ascent, Better Marketing/Humans, PSILY|

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