TCS Daily

Capitalist Tool

By Stephen W. Stanton - June 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Michael Moore is upset. His movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" got hit with an R rating by the MPAA. Moore wants a PG-13. Are you surprised?

You shouldn't be. The more restrictive R rating can cost a movie millions in potential revenue. Millions of teenagers never make it into the theatres. This translates into significantly lower box office revenues.

This fact has been proven through empirical research and built into industry forecasting methodology(pdf). Based on a study of IMDb data, R ratings proved to be less lucrative than other possibilities. "For PG-13, both older kids and adults come to enjoy the movie independently. Both PG and R... may hit narrower demographics." Look at this list of the top-grossing R rated movies of all time. Only five of them are in the top 50 movies of any rating. Clearly, an R rating comes at a price. There are lots of other sources to back up the conclusion that PG-13 movies simply make more money that R's.

So unless a movie is being marketed specifically for its grotesque or erotic content, everyone involved should lobby for a rating below R. Producers, directors, actors... They all try to make a strong case for a PG-13. It's simple movie economics. They say things like "the violence is in context" and "the material is appropriate for teenagers." Complaining about R ratings is a Hollywood tradition. Everybody does it. They're in it for the money.

"To Do" List for Truly Important Films

If you really want people to see your movie, there is much that you can do. First, you can edit your movie for language and graphic violence to get a lower rating. Surely, a talented director could still get the message across with slightly less gore. The History Channel does a fine job on Hitler, Rasputin and Saddam Hussein while never crossing over into R-rated territory. Does Bush deserve worse than these bad guys?

Moreover, if you really care about getting the message out, you could sacrifice some earnings and distribute your movie through less lucrative channels. Nobody forces you to show it in theatres and charge admission. Movie tickets cost a lot of money. If you want to perform a public service, put the film on the internet, sell DVD's for two bucks a pop, make a deal with Showtime or Cinemax. There are lots of ways to reach people if you don't care about money. Traditional movie distribution paradigms are designed to serve greedy capitalist pigs like me. I think I just heard Mr. Moore oink.

Thirdly, if your movie really is as important as you say it is, the teens will see it. Their parents will take them. That's how the R-rated Passion of the Christ made almost $400 million. In fact, The Passion of the Christ is among the top-grossing movies of all time. And it was utterly disgusting.

Capitalist Populist

I'm sure Mr. Moore will not accept my suggestions. He's going to do whatever it takes to get more media attention and get more money for himself. In fact, he encouraging kids under 17 to lie about their age and see the movie anyway. (That way, he gets paid more.) Although he advocates income redistribution on TV, in real life he's a shrewd and selfish business man, a fat Gordon Gekko in a baseball cap.

Look... You can love Bush or hate him. You can believe Michael Moore's film is important and enlightening or hateful propaganda. Your opinions of the movie, its creator, and its subjects are not the point.

The point is that all moviemakers try to get their R ratings cut down a notch for purely mercenary reasons. It gets them richer. Michael Moore is doing the same thing. He's no better than anyone else with a movie to sell. However, he's dishonest. If he wants more young people to see his movie, he can do any number of things to make that happen, from toning it down to putting it on TV right away.

But he's not doing any of those things. His bellyaching about the rating is a win-win moneymaking proposition for him. He still might get a favorable PG-13 rating, but no matter what, he already got some free publicity out of it.

Why Not Go Way Over the Top?

If Michael Moore is convinced that the gore and violence is such an integral part of his film, why not put more of it in? Why not go way over the top and shoot for an NC-17 rating? Surely, if war is hell, and hell is the most vile place imaginable, then wouldn't an accurate depiction of war demand our most restrictive rating? Wouldn't that be true to Moore's vision as an artist?

If Michael Moore wanted to show the absolute grisliest footage he could muster, he'd get hit with the adult rating and the scant revenue potential that comes with it. Sure, R rated movies do attract more viewers than films rated NC17. But hey, why compromise your vision as an artist? If Moore cannot bend to get a lucrative PG-13 rating, why not go all-out and prove to the world he's not doing this for the money?

Stephen Stanton is a frequent contributor. You can find more of his writing at


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