Biz writes firm rules on pic ratings

Nevermind recent R-rated hits like “Shutter Island,” “It’s Complicated,” “Gran Torino” or “300.” Studios continue to be wary of adult fare.

Though the majors are willing to take a risk on raunchy low-budget comedies in the wake of successes like “The Hangover” and “Wedding Crashers,” most studio execs are insisting that writers otherwise keep it clean if they want their scripts to have a shot at making it to the bigscreen.

“On the tentpole front, it is understood that a script needs to be brought in at PG-13,” says scribe Matt Manfredi, who has found himself on both sides of the ratings divide over the past decade.

Manfredi and writing partner Phil Hay, who together penned Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Clash of the Titans” remake, are all-too-familiar with what can stay and what must go in order to keep an R rating at bay.

“It’s fine to kill monsters. It’s harder to kill real people,” says Hay. “(Director) Louis Leterrier knew exactly was acceptable (to the MPAA). The blood can’t be red. If it’s black, it’s OK.”

Like most tentpoles, “Clash” was always envisioned as PG-13 in order to reach the largest possible audience.

“If we tried to make it R-rated, if we made it more violent, we would be pushing the tone to something it’s not,” explains Manfredi. “Not to mention it would be a real bummer to think of an 11- or 12-year-old not able to see the film, because that’s how old I was when I first saw (the original).”

By contrast, Manfredi and Hay are now working on Columbia Pictures’ superhero pic “The Boys,” which is envisioned as a hard R.

“We wouldn’t have gotten involved if we were being asked to soften the source material,” says Hay of the project, which is based on Garth Ennis’ comicbook that depicts rape, mutilation, mayhem, drug addiction and suicide — all in the extreme. “It would immediately set off alarm bells if it was made family-friendly.”

Sony, which is actively developing the project, will hedge its bet on the Neal Moritz-produced pic by keeping the budget moderate like it did for the R-rated gorefest “Zombieland.”

But when it comes to big-budget films, the studio will move mountains to make sure a pic stays PG-13, as was the case with the Will Smith starrer “Hancock.” Vincent Ngo’s spec “Tonight, He Comes,” which became “Hancock,” was originally a hard R but was softened over numerous drafts, earning the PG-13 stamp just weeks before bowing in 2008.

“There’s no way Amy Pascal was going to let a Will Smith Fourth of July movie go into theaters with an R,” a marketing exec involved with the campaign says.

Like “Hancock,” a number of recent projects conceived as R pics have had some nip/tucks done to land a PG-13, including “The Grudge,” “Couples Retreat,” “Alien vs. Predator” and, most famously, “Die Hard 4,” a cleaner installment in a franchise previously known for the catchphrase “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

“Even Screen Gems, which keeps their horror films moderately budgeted, has a mandate — with few exceptions — to bring projects in at PG-13,” notes a manager who has worked with the genre label.

While 1980’s “Prom Night” scored an R rating, Screen Gems’ 2008 version toned down the violence to keep the pic PG-13.

That mindset reflects a state of affairs in which some of Hollywood’s most expensive R-rated gambles in recent years have failed to pay off. Universal’s “The Wolfman” and Warners’ “Watchmen,” which each cost more than $100 million to make, unspooled with R ratings. “Wolfman,” in particular, failed to light up the box office, earning $61 million domestically.

Producer-manager JC Spink (“The Hangover”) says studios have reached a point where their tolerance for R-rated fare is extremely limited — not a new trend but an edict that’s picking up steam given the risk-averse mood enveloping Hollywood. Even a fanboy-friendly comicbook like “Kick-Ass” couldn’t lure a studio; most passed on Matthew Vaughn’s ultraviolent script. Instead, Lionsgate will release the R-rated pic.

“Unless you’re making a broad comedy or horror film, in general the studios want to avoid the R rating,” he says. “The drama doesn’t exist right now, never mind the R-rated drama. Of course, there are exceptions. But the writers have figured out that the studios are not buying them, so they’re not writing them.”

Manfredi and Hay, ironically, got their Hollywood start by writing teen drama “Crazy/Beautiful” for Touchstone.

The pair recalls that after the film was shot, the studio decided to make it PG-13. What resulted was Kirsten Dunst inexplicably showing up to school clearly under the influence of drugs, while she’s never seen doing drugs — a point that wasn’t lost on critics.

“It was a strange experience because if you watched the movie, you’d be like, ‘What’s the matter with her? What does she have ‘a problem’ with?” Hay says.

The in-demand writers haven’t worked with Disney since. Currently, they are writing the comedy “Staycation” for “Hangover” helmer-producer Todd Phillips and Warner Bros. — a project that could fall either way on the PG-13/R fence.

“Todd said to us, ‘Write it the best it can be. And we’ll figure it out later,” Hay said. “It seems to lend itself to being more PG-13 because it’s family-oriented. But just because something’s PG-13 can’t mean that it’s less funny. It just has to be funny in a different way.”

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