LOS ANGELES, May 30 -- A new study has found that R-rated films are taking a significant hit at the box office because of tightened enforcement of the age restrictions on the rating, and Hollywood executives say that this is deterring them from making such movies.
The study by MarketCast, a company that polls prospective audiences and projects box-office earnings for the studios, confirmed what movie executives have been feeling instinctively for months -- that they are paying a price for bowing to pressure from Congress and accepting more effective enforcement of restrictions on movies that are not supposed to be seen by children under 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Basically, the study, whose results were released today, found that significant numbers of children under 17 who wanted to see particular R-rated films were not going to them, deterred by increased scrutiny of younger customers in ticket lines.
Movies appealing to girls were especially affected by underperformance at the box office, the study found. For example, "The Mexican," starring Julia Roberts, and "Angel Eyes," starring Jennifer Lopez, both lost major chunks of their opening weekend revenues, it said.
"Angel Eyes" took in only $9 million its opening weekend instead of a projected $14 million, according to the study, and "The Mexican" could have opened with $28 million in business, instead of the $20 million it did, if the younger teenagers who wanted to see the film could have gotten in.
"I think the implications are that studios will take a hard look at movies that could be cut to be PG-13," said Michael Schwartz, research director at MarketCast. "They'll ask whether the R-rated scenes will gain them enough appeal to offset the losses, especially where there is strong teen interest."
Hollywood executives say they have already drawn this conclusion. The study found that the sex comedy "Tomcats," an R-rated movie from the new Revolution studio, lost 30 percent of its potential opening-weekend revenues, taking in only $6.5 million.
Joe Roth, a veteran Hollywood executive who heads Revolution, said he won't make movies like that anymore. "I would never do that again. It's like beating your head against a wall. This is material that's mostly innately appealing to 12- to 16-year-olds, so you're really stuck," he said.
Of the 10 movies Roth now has in production, only one is rated R: an action war movie, "Black Hawk Down," with heavy adult appeal.
"I'm consciously steering away from the R," he said. "My one-line philosophy on the R rating is if you're making an R-rated movie, you'd better want to. You can't just slip into it."
Similarly Amir Malin, the president of Artisan Entertainment, said he realized that "Blair Witch II" had been a box-office dud at least partly because of the rating restrictions. The study said that the sequel lost about a third of its potential revenue its opening weekend, taking in only $13 million instead of $20 million.
"When we opened to $13.5 million all of us were very surprised. There had to be some underlying reason," he said.
Now the studio is shying away from the R rating, he said. "When we're dealing with genre-oriented material, we're trying to achieve a PG-13 rating without destroying the artistic merits of the film," he said. Indeed, many in Hollywood fear that if the R rating becomes a kind of scarlet letter, it will inevitably impede artistic freedom.
Artisan has just recut a new film, "Soul Survivor," which was slated for release this fall with an R rating, to a PG-13.
After the Federal Trade Commission issued a scathing report last fall accusing Hollywood of marketing violent entertainment to kids, followed by Senate hearings in which studio executives were taken to task, Hollywood studios promised to change their approach.
Under new guidelines announced by the Motion Picture Association of America, the major studios agreed to a series of measures aimed at keeping R-rated movies away from underage teens. Studios are generally choosing not to advertise R-rated films on television shows where more than 35 percent of the audience is under 17, and have stopped playing trailers for R-rated films ahead of G- and PG-rated features. Theater owners, meanwhile, began to more strictly monitor the age of ticket buyers.
This has created a marketing struggle for some upcoming films. One is "American Pie 2," the sequel to 1999's R-rated blockbuster, which was one of the films criticized last summer for offering inappropriately explicit sexual material to teens.
Of course if fewer R-rated movies are made, many parents might consider it a victory and conclude that the crackdown accomplished exactly what it was meant to do. But some critics have remarked on a phenomenon that might be called "ratings creep": Some movies that were intended to be R-rated are being edited very slightly and given a PG-13.
The study found that in this new climate of stricter enforcement the average R-rated movie made 12 percent less than it could have in its opening weekend -- but that average figure included R-rated films with little appeal to teens, such as "Enemy at the Gates."
The MarketCast analysts undertook their study when they noticed a significant dropoff in the revenues for R-rated movies starting last summer. Compared with measurements of audience awareness of and desire to see films just a day before their release, the actual ticket sales were falling appreciably short. That great a disparity had not occurred before, nor did it show up with PG or PG-13 films.
The study offers a glimpse into a little-seen aspect of the Hollywood machine. The movie industry relies heavily on research to plan its movie releases and marketing. But the statistical data are rarely revealed to the public. In gathering data, MarketCast randomly polls people about their level of desire to see particular movies, and the studios depend on these polls to get an idea of what box-office turnout will be.
In this study, MarketCast focused on the opening-weekend figures because most movies make the bulk of their revenue in the early days of release, when the most dedicated moviegoers turn out and fuel all-important word-of-mouth support.
Noting that the movies that lost the greatest percentage of their prospective audience were those with heavy appeal to teenage girls, the analysts concluded that boys are more likely than girls to try to evade the restrictions and see R-rated films.
But even among horror and slasher films -- which appeal mainly to teen boys -- there were lower ticket sales than could have been expected. The study said the blockbuster "Hannibal" would have made another $18 million its opening weekend had teens under 17 been allowed to attend on their own. Instead "Hannibal" made a still-huge $58 million that weekend.
An R-rated science-fiction psycho-killer film, "The Hollow Man," lost 30 percent of its potential opening-weekend revenues because of the enforced restrictions, making $26 million instead of $34 million, the study said.