Universal Takes a Gamble on R-Rated Movies

Summer Slate Will Feature Sacha Baron Cohen -- and Strict Advertising Guidelines

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Conventional wisdom holds that if a PG-rated film has a bigger potential audience than a PG-13 film, then a PG-13 film similarly will reach more moviegoers than an R-rated picture.

Universal is betting on R-rated fare this summer such as 'Public Enemies.'
Universal is betting on R-rated fare this summer such as 'Public Enemies.'
One must marvel, then, at the chutzpah of Universal Pictures, which will release only R-rated pictures for the rest of the summer: Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," Judd Apatow's "Funny People" and Sacha Baron Cohen's "Bruno." No other studio in recent memory has made such a bold bet on grown-ups during the summer, especially in the midst of a family-film renaissance.

How, then, will Universal sell its R-rated summer?

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Unapologetically, said Kevin Misher, a former president of production at the studio and producer of "Public Enemies," about gangster John Dillinger.

"You can't tell the story about America's most famous badass any other way," he said. "It might feel disingenuous if you neutered that."

Can such a gamble pay off?

Warner Bros. proved as much last weekend with its raunchy, $35 million, R-rated Vegas comedy, "The Hangover." Its victory was an astonishing testament to the power of programming unabashedly for adults. Unlike Universal's "Land of the Lost" -- a PG-13, $100 million CGI blockbuster dripping with tie-ins from Subway and swimming in an ocean of TV spots -- "Hangover" couldn't advertise on network TV before 10 p.m., according to guidelines from the Motion Picture Association of America. Nonetheless, the bawdier comedy won the weekend, taking in $45 million, while "Land of the Lost" managed only $20 million and a distant third-place finish behind No. 2 "Up," the 3-D animated film from Pixar.

PG-13 'Terminator' punished
Universal may have little choice but to embrace R ratings, because if adult audiences can reward a movie that makes no apologies for its adult themes, they can also punish movies they perceive to have been diluted for profit. Case in point: The first three "Terminator" films were R-rated, but Warner's recent "Terminator Salvation" was cut to a PG-13, despite the protestations of star Christian Bale and director Joseph McGinty Nichol, aka McG, who wanted a darker, and more violent, surprise ending.

"There's an expectation for a level of carnage, of energy, that comes out of the R-rated history of the other 'Terminators,'" said Mr. Misher, who said while marketing materials suggested audiences would see the requisite carnage onscreen, the lack of an R rating told them otherwise.

"You can't half-ass it," says Paul Degarabedian, Hollywood.com's in-house box-office analyst. "You have to commit to the R rating. If you start diluting it down just for marketing purposes, it becomes [a mess]."

An R rating severely curtails TV advertising on network TV. There has been no network TV advertising at all for Universal's "Bruno," the latest comedy from the creator of "Borat," though an age-restricted online trailer went up on MySpace in April, and a theatrical trailer hit cinemas Memorial Day weekend.

But that's not to say the R is the marketing Siberia it once was.

"I used to hear [production] executives complain, 'The good stuff, we can't even show you!" said Frank Chiocci, exec VP of creative advertising at Universal. "Not anymore."

Great equalizer: online video
The great equalizer for his studio's grown-up summer slate, Mr. Chiocci said, is video sites such as Hulu, which allow R-rated marketing material that would never be allowed on TV to travel freely.

"With an R rating, you approach marketing more holistically -- not just more online but different media online," said Nicholas Weinstock, one of the producers of Mr. Apatow's "Funny People," starring Adam Sandler.

To avoid advertising 'Funny People' on broadcast TV, Universal is going online.
To avoid advertising 'Funny People' on broadcast TV, Universal is going online.
"Funny People" centers on a comic (Jason Schwartzman) who's miserable because he stars on a terrible TV sitcom about a teacher with a class of failing students. Mr. Apatow went so far as to shoot several episodes of the fictitious "Yo, Teach!" for Hulu -- solely as additional marketing material.

"Our fiction, in the movie, is that [the sitcom is] airing on NBC," said Mr. Weinstock. "What we're doing online is blurring the reality of it. On Hulu, the sitcom can be watched by a whole different quadrant than the one awaiting the movie. That way, it can incite interest from people new to our films, while it provides insiders with more fodder for their expertise."

But Mr. Weinstock cautioned against being overt or ham-handed in the delivery of R-rated marketing content online.

"There should be an element of discovery on the internet that you want to allow and encourage and honor," he said. "That means giving people a way to come upon it and feel ownership of it, and pride in the discovery -- as opposed to straightforward studio marketing, which usually involves massive TV spending and targeting people in their homes during prime-time hours and on public buses everywhere you turn. More-strategic tactics online allow people their dignity."

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