Lisa Fiore loves taking her 9- and 11-year-old kids to the movies. But while she’s mindful about what they see, she no longer relies on Hollywood ratings to help her decide between, for example, the funny looking creatures of Monsters University, the dramatic narrative in Epic or the juvenile jokes in Despicable Me 2.
With the line blurring between G (designed for a general audience) and PG ratings (parental guidance suggested), she would rather make her own judgment.
“I feel like our society has changed,” says Fiore, dean of faculty at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “Children are exposed to more, and that’s not necessarily bad. And so even children’s films have more sophisticated plots and more mature themes.”
Plus, G-rated films are a lot harder to find these days. From 1995 to 2010, a typical year saw 15 to 20 released; in two of the past three years there were just nine.
And this year? More than 250 feature films have been released, and so far only one — Monsters University — is G-rated.
Film industry experts say studios are aggressively steering G audiences to the more lucrative PG movies. As society has grown more accepting of crude language, crazy violence, sexual references and innuendo, studios are increasingly confident that parents will find a little risqué business in children’s films acceptable.
The increasing emphasis on PG material “has been the evolution of child-friendly films for decades now,” says Paul Schneider, chairman of the Department of Film and Television at Boston University. “The perception comes from the rise of the. It snuck up on many people … You could say we just don’t live in a G-rated world anymore.”
Take the recent animated film Epic. Its appeal to children is obvious, with a flirty-talking slug and tiny forest people in Robin Hood-esque green tights discovered by a teenage girl who doesn’t believe in little creatures and fairies. But from the sometimes ominous soundtrack to a romantic subplot, to armed battles with fanged, ogreish foes, the movie also has a somber tone — and a PG rating for “mild action, scary images and brief rude language.”
“From an industry perspective this is all about marketing,” Schneider says. “It has nothing to do with morality plays. It is about the industry’s conclusion that films rated to either extreme — too harmless or too adult — don’t attract big enough shares of the market to make them worth their production costs.”
The safe middle ground is PG. The film industry tracking site the-numbers.com reports that between 1995 and 2012 only 276 G-rated films were made, compared with 2,027 PG-13 movies, 986 PG movies, and 3,575 R-rated films.
The tide began shifting, says Schneider, after the 1995 release of Toy Story, the animated blockbuster that marked Pixar’s first effort at full-feature film-making. Thanks to its success, the rest of Hollywood began to realize that animated films can appeal to little kids as well as teenagers and even adults.
“There really isn’t much of a G genre anymore, because we’ve all gotten used to even animated stories having more intellectual or mature story lines,” Schneider says.
Parents can’t let ratings be their guide, says Nell Minnow, film critic and host of the MovieMom.com blog.
“I subscribe to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that kids under 2 watch nothing at all,” Minnow says. “But if you’re going to take your kids to the movies I’d say don’t get so caught up in the rating that you don’t pay attention to the content and the context.”
Minnow pointed to Despicable Me 2.
“If you were going to make your decision … on the rating, you might avoid it because it’s rated PG,” she says. “But you know why it’s PG? A couple of fart jokes and the presence of weapons. Not deadly weapons, mind you. Goofy weapons, but weapons nonetheless. In this day and age, I think kids — even young kids — can handle fart jokes.”