Take, for instance, the recent installment of "Star Wars," which the franchise's maestro George Lucas called the darkest of the Dark Side sagas. "Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith" drew promotional partnerships from all-family marketers Burger King, Pepsi-Cola, Kellogg and Masterfoods despite the rating for "sci-fi violence and some intense images."
On the other hand, the deliberately gritty "Batman Begins," with the same rating, has tie-ins with a few adult-targeted brands such as Verizon Communications, Symantec software and Dell, giving the movie exposure in cellphone stores and big-box retailers, but not the package-goods and fast-food chains that go hand-in-hand with summer superstardom.
To some movie fans, it might not seem much of a stretch from PG to PG-13. To parents and corporate America, it can be a canyon. Even so, marketers that wouldn't have considered linking with a PG-13 movie in the past are doing so now, though they risk criticism, as Burger King and some merchandising partners learned from the "Sith" promotions.
Some marketers' policies prohibit them from tying in with a PG-13 movie, but others have become increasingly malleable on the subject, looking for an edgy way to snag consumers' attention.
"A family film used to be G or PG only," said Brett Dicker, Buena Vista Pictures' exec VP-marketing. "But over the last few years, movies like `Lord of the Rings' and `Spider-Man' became family films, and partners started coming along." Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man" movies were rated PG-13 "for stylized violence and action," as was the "Lord of the Rings" series "for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images."
There's a considerable amount of gray area within PG-13 itself, a rating that aims to warn parents of potentially objectionable content. Some movies squeak in just under an R rating, perhaps by trimming some violent or intense sequences, while some are barely over the line from PG, industry executives said.
The Motion Picture Association of America, answering public concerns more than a decade ago, refined its policy to include more specifics about why a movie received a certain rating. That doesn't necessarily clear up the confusion, even with those in the industry. "I thought I knew what an R-rated movie was, but now I'm not so sure," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of movie-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "There's been a ratings creep" where movies considered intense or racy not so long ago can earn PG-13s today.
Most studio executives know well the conundrum-if it's a PG-13 movie, young frequent moviegoers are more likely to think it cool, but marketers might be more gun-shy about the very same content that generates buzz.
"It depends on the brand and the objective," said Devery Holmes, president of NMA Entertainment & Marketing, which represents such brands as Baskin-Robbins, Hilton Hotels and General Motors Corp. "Every brand has a different strategic reason to partner with a movie. The question they all ask is, `Does it help promote and extend and break out the brand without alienating the core consumer?"'
For years, cross-promotions have been dominated by all-family marketers like cereal, fast-food restaurants, soda, chips and candy, particularly in the heavy summer moviegoing season. More recently, players as varied as tourism boards, financial services, wireless carriers and mass retailers have become heavily invested in co-marketing Hollywood's products.
"This space continues to grow, and there are new categories willing to partner with edgier films," said Sabrina Ironside, VP-integrated marketing for Fox Home Entertainment and chairman of the board elect of the trade group Promotions Marketing Association. "At the same time, as movie promotions evolve, we've seen traditional players perhaps take a few more risks."
In fact, according to a poll taken by The L.A. Office, a Hollywood marketing consultancy, 47% of marketers surveyed said their companies allowed them to cross-promote with PG-13 films. Though there aren't hard comparative numbers, executives in the industry estimate that's a larger percentage than ever before.
The consensus seems to be that brands judge on content and not rating. "Some brands still say they won't partner with a PG-13 movie," Mr. Dicker said. "But most will consider it."
Most studio executives know the conundrum--if a film is rated PG-13, young moviegoers are more likely to think it cool, but marketers might be more gun shy about the very same content that generates buzz.