Movie Ratings Vs. Ticket Sales: A Love Story

By Sean Joyner | June 24, 2010 AAA
Movie Ratings Vs. Ticket Sales: A Love Story

The mass-marketing machine that turns otherwise mediocre movies into household names is truly a magnificent beast. Without it, stars like Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence would likely have had far less success than they did in the last two decades. But the saving grace for all of these actors has been that they have primarily made family-friendly films, complete with all of the necessary ingredients: people falling off of ladders, animals biting genitalia and grown men comically sullying their seemingly simple relationships – all with "PG" ratings hovering over their heads.

In Pictures: Celebrities With Big Dreams That Paid Off

For certain, a G (General Audiences), PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) or PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) rating can do wonders in turning slapstick humor into box office gold. But does this calculation work in the opposite direction? Will a rating of R (Restricted) or NC-17 (Under 17 Not Permitted) negatively affect a movie's box office income?

"MacGruber" (2010)
(Rating: R for strong, crude and sexual content, violence, language and nudity)

About a month ago, the "MacGruber" theme song would have been rolling though your head at one point during the day, whether you liked it or not. The media blitz that accompanied the Saturday Night Live-based farce of the '80s TV show "MacGyver" was phenomenal. Cast members made appearances, often in character, on all of the major media outlets. They hosted a Q&A panel at South by Southwest (SXSW), appeared on Independent Film Channel (IFC) and even during the Super Bowl in a Pepsi (NYSE:PEP) ad. "MacGruber" even "blew up" a WWE superstar on "Monday Night Raw".

With all of the buzz, "MacGruber" was set to be the first big SNL hit movie since Wayne and Garth hit the screen in "Wayne's World" (1992), which happens to be the highest-earning SNL-based film to date and grossed $183.1 million in theaters.

So it was even more of a surprise when "MacGruber" brought in only $1.5 million on its opening night - $4 million throughout its opening weekend. This is a far cry from its $10 million budget, and desperately below what the hype would have you estimate. (Sometimes hype pays off. Find out more in Money-Making Movies With Terrible Reviews.)

"Kick-Ass" (2010)
(Rating: R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and drug use - some involving children)

Any movie about a group of tween- to teenage non-superheroes starring Nicholas Cage and Christopher Mintz-Plasse should be expected to draw some box office attention. But this film, which featured enough underage swearing to make Art Linkletter burn his archives, far exceeded expectations (and its $28 million budget).

According to boxofficemojo.com, the film brought in $95,364,424 worldwide, which, for an action-comedy movie where the buzz was largely critical and focused on adult-on-child violence, is pretty impressive.

"Zach & Miri Make a Porno" (2008)
(Rating: R*)

Initially, "Zach & Miri Make a Porno" was rated NC-17 for its graphic sexuality and nudity. Director Kevin Smith successfully appealed the rating to the Motion Picture Association of America. He argued that sex should be no more harshly critiqued than violence, and an NC-17 rating would ruin any chances of his baby becoming a hit. Smith noted the movie "Hostel", which was rated R and featured numerous extremely graphic scenes of violence.

After the rating was overturned and the movie released, "Zach & Miri Make a Porno" went on to earn $42,015,263 worldwide. While this was technically profitable, considering the $24 million budget, Smith has stated that the earnings were a disappointment, and he'd hoped this to be his first Judd Apatow-esque hit. Even the star power of Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks couldn't drive this one to mass success – but when you're going up against the multi-layered storytelling genius that is "High School Musical 3", what can you expect? (If you adjust movies' box office income throughout history, the top sellers are surprising. Find out more in The Actual Top Grossing U.S. Movies.)

Comedy and Misery
Comedies generally bring in lower box office returns than other, broader movies do. And usually, PG-13 movies (like "Avatar", "Titanic" and "The Dark Night") are the highest earners – "Avatar" being the highest historically, with $749,434,950 domestically and $2.73 billion worldwide. Even the highest-earning of R movies, "The Passion of the Christ", topped out at $611,899,420, and the top-earning NC-17 movie ("Showgirls") peaked at $20,350,754. There's no word as to whether that number accounts for the tons of soap viewers used on their eyes afterward. (Learn more about how genre can affect box office sales in Movie Genres That Make The Most Money.)

Closing Credits
It's no surprise that writer/directors like Kevin Smith fight for the more widely-approved ratings for their works. Not only do G- or PG-13-rated movies broaden viewer base, but they are also more widely accepted by a greater number of multiplexes and movie theaters. With the huge differences in earnings, to which ratings are most likely a contributing factor, a more accessible rating can certainly make a movie more financially (even if not artistically) beneficial.

Catch up on the latest financial news, read Water Cooler Finance: Billion Dollar Summits and Barack Vs. BP.

comments powered by Disqus
Related Articles
  1. 5 Famous MLB Players Who Went Broke
    Investing News

    5 Famous MLB Players Who Went Broke

  2. 4 History-Making Wall Street Crooks
    Personal Finance

    4 History-Making Wall Street Crooks

  3. What $1 Million Buys You in America's ...
    Retirement

    What $1 Million Buys You in America's ...

  4. A Day Without Spending, A Lifetime's ...
    Budgeting

    A Day Without Spending, A Lifetime's ...

  5. Play The Market Like Tiger Plays Golf
    Active Trading

    Play The Market Like Tiger Plays Golf

Trading Center