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R-Rated Movies Are More Popular Than They’ve Been in 17 Years

The last time we saw so many R-rated hits in America, Bill Clinton was president and Wolverine was just making his movie debut.
By  · Published on October 4th, 2017

The last time we saw so many R-rated hits in America, Bill Clinton was president and Wolverine was just making his movie debut.

One of the interesting things about this past weekend’s box office race, besides the fact that the top three movies (Kingsman: The Golden CircleIt, and American Made) nearly tied for first place, is that those top three movies are all rated R. Two others in the top 10 (American Assassin and mother!) also share the rating, all together filling half the list. The same is true for the weekend’s top 20: 10 are R.

Are we in an R-rated renaissance? Cinema Blend ran a piece yesterday noting that 2017 has seen a surprising number of R-rated hits. So did IndieWire, and they look to the rest of the year starting with this weekend’s release of Blade Runner 2049 in anticipation of more movies geared toward mature audiences. But just how much of an anomaly is it?

Let’s first look at this year’s data. We currently have one R-rated movie in the top five on the 2017 domestic grosses chart: It. There’s another in the top 10: Logan. Both of them are $200M-plus hits. In the top 20, there are five R-rated movies, plus another three before you get to 24th place — that makes one-third of the top grossers. Even better for the top 30: 11 R-rated hits. There are 15 in the top 40 and 17 in the top 50. Not bad for a supposed box office killer.

Compare this feat to last year, when Deadpool was the only R-rated movie in the top 10, albeit with a domestic total above $350M. The next isn’t found until Bad Moms at 25th. Only one-tenth of the 2016 top 30 are rated R, with only seven examples in the top 40 and 10 in the top 50 (one-fifth). Even more notable is the fact that only three R-rated movies last year were in the $100M-plus club (four if we adjust for inflation) compared to seven already in 2017.

In 2015, seven movies total grossed more than $100M at the domestic box office, but not one went over $200M. The year saw no R-rated movies in the top 10 (best was The Revenant in 13th place), only three in the top 20, but then seven in the top 30, 10 in the top 40, and 15 in the top 50. In 2014, however, the #1 movie in America was R-rated: American Sniper. Four in the top 20, six in the top 30, nine in the top 40, and 12 in the top 50.

Now, it should be pointed out that by year-end, there were 200 R-rated releases tracked by Box Office Mojo. In 2016, there were 204. So far, there are only 110 in 2017 but already totaling $2.2B. R-rated movies this year have an average gross of $19.7M compared to $12.2M (adjusted) last year, $13.9M (adjusted) in 2015, and $14.7M (adjusted in 2014. The 2017 average could fall through December, of course, but for now it’s the best since 2003’s adjusted average of $21.2M.

Back then, 12 R-rated movies grossed more than $100M, four were above $200M, and one of those, The Matrix Reloaded, went above $400M (unadjusted, it’s only six titles with that sequel only $200M-plus). Four R-rated movies were in the top 10, but the same were all for the top 20, then there were six in the top 30, doubled to 12 for the top 40, and there are 15 in the top 50.

The further we go back, the more prominence R-rated movies had on the box office charts. Box Office Mojo’s earliest accounting shows a rating best average of $52M (adjusted), but that was before the existence of the PG-13 rating and before movie theaters cracked down more against selling R-rated movie tickets to kids. Still, through the ’80s and ’90s the average was mainly in the $30-$40M range.

Okay, so we can keep spewing a lot of numbers out for all kinds of comparison, but we should clean it all up with a simple handy list entailing a single stat worthy of reference. One way to go is with a clean percentage for 2017’s releases and show where each year (through October 4th) stands with its top 25 and top 50 domestic grossers. Here is that:

2017: 32% and 34%
2016: 28% and 30%
2015: 32% and 28%
2014: 20% and 22%
2013: 28% and 32%
2012: 32% and 30%
2011: 16% and 18%
2010: 16% and 30%
2009: 24% and 28%
2008: 20% and 22%
2007: 12% and 22%
2006: 8% and 22%
2005: 20% and 18%
2004: 20% and 24%
2003: 24% and 30%
2002: 16% and 22%
2001: 28% and 32%
2000: 40% and 36%

We had to go all the way back to 2000 to see more R-rated hits at this point in the year. But 2015 and 2012 weren’t so bad themselves. As far as how different it was back in 1982: 60% of the top 25 were rated R at this point in the year, while 56% of the top 50 were rated R. Movies with an R rating amounted to 44% of the year’s total domestic gross for all titles. So far, they’re only 30% this year, and in 2000 they were 31%.

Could 2017 finish better than 2003, which had the last best average for R-rated movies, or better than 2000, which had even better with an adjusted average of $23.3M thanks to Gladiator and many others? In addition to Blade Runner 2049, this month alone is bringing an R rating with The ForeignerProfessor Marston & the Wonder WomenThe SnowmanSuburbiconThank You For Your Service, and Jigsaw, and that’s just the wide releases. Then later there’s A Bad Mom’s Christmas, the Death Wish remake, Father Figures, and maybe some stuff that hasn’t been rated yet.

Blame nostalgia, blame our crumbling civilization, blame the competition of racier TV hits, but clearly Americans are going to more and more R-rated movies, and Hollywood is continuing to increase the supply of comedy, horror, drama, action, even superhero movies with the harder MPAA classification and restriction. Just don’t expect it to ever hit peak ’80s levels again, even those from after the PG-13 rating arrived.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.