R-Rated Movies Are Disappearing From Movie Theaters

It seems that R-rated movies might soon be a thing of the past, at least if you want to go to see them in theaters.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

rated-r movies

We are living in a pivotal moment of change for the movie industry. The combination of the explosion in popularity of streaming services, the enormous blow to theatres in the Covid-19 pandemic, and the monumental dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have made this a pretty weird time for movie studios. One of these changes seems to be that R-rated movies are increasingly not being shown in theaters. There are a lot of complex factors that are making this happen, but ultimately, as in all things, it pretty much comes down to money. 

Per Axios, box office revenue from R-rated movies has been steadily dropping in recent years and is currently at the lowest point in the last 25 years. Most R-rated movies tend to be in the drama and romance genres and are currently being trounced in popularity by family-friendly PG and PG-13 movies. In a sense, this is logical. Given that R-rated movies by definition are not supposed to be seen by anyone under 17 without a parent or guardian present, they inherently limit their audience. PG and PG-13 are available to audiences of all ages, and thus draw in more people. This inevitably leads to a feedback cycle in which PG-13 movies make more money than R-rated movies, so more PG-13 movies are made and thus have more opportunities to make more money. 

It is notable that all recent movies that have made over $100 million at the box office have been PG-13. Since movie studios are in the business of making money, it is hard to fault them for pushing R-rated movies out of theaters and taking up valuable money-making space. The effect of the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe on the box office is also impossible to overestimate. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, MCU films have increasingly dominated the box office, with a number of the entries in the series becoming some of the highest-grossing movies of all time. To date, all Marvel films have been rated PG-13, which maximizes potential audiences and thus grosses. As the film industry famously imitates success, it is no surprise that other studios would begin making more PG-13 films to try to compete. 

Marvel Studios has said it will begin making R-rated movies in the future, beginning with the next Ryan Reynolds Deadpool movie. It will be interesting to see whether an R-rated Marvel movie has the same box office impact as previous PG-13 movies, and how that will affect them in the future. It is also worth noting that more independent films are rated R than studio releases, which has pushed them out of theaters as business trends more toward big-budget family-friendly movies. It has caused more independent and lower-budget films to be released on streaming services; it is great that there is still an avenue for their release, but also unfortunate that this trend is de facto removing them from the theatrical experience. Finally, it is interesting to see in this chart that at the same time that ticket sales in theaters cratered during the pandemic, R-rated movie ticket sales skyrocketed.