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‘Chappie,’ ‘Unfinished Business’ Disappoint, But is R-Rated Film Fatigue Real?

R-rated film fatigue is becoming the ailment du jour among studios and exhibition types looking for explanations for what’s behind a recent box office downturn.

The virus is blamed for the anemic performance of “Focus,” “Chappie” and “Unfinished Business,” all of which were categorized by the Motion Picture Association of America as intended for mature audiences and none of which made much of a stir at ticket booths.

Believers point to the eight R-rated films released since the beginning of the year as evidence that adults are so overwhelmed by the panoply of entertainment options available to them that they’re choosing to forgo the multiplexes altogether. Moreover, there is a statistical basis for the financial hurdles these pictures face. Films with R ratings deliver half the box office punch of PG and PG-13 offerings, according to a recent analysis by TheWrap.

“I don’t want to lay it all on the doorstep of the R rating, but R-rated movies are by their very definition restricted, and it’s tough to be a four quadrant movie when you’re rated R,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

There’s a reason, after all, that most summer blockbusters tend to be rated PG-13, a designation that allows parents to bring their teenagers along.

It’s a theory that’s carried weight in exhibition circles for some time, with theater owners often decrying the number of R-rated pictures Hollywood churns out. In 2013, the first quarter box office was mired in a slump, one that National Association of Theatre Owners CEO John Fithian blamed on an overabundance of R-rated films.

Reached by email, Fithian said the problem was more attributable to a lack of alternatives for families and other types of ticket-buyers.

“The market always does better with diverse titles appealing to diverse demographics,” he wrote.

Not everyone is convinced that it’s all about the rating. After all, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” did impressive business with R ratings and “American Sniperjust became the biggest domestic release of 2014 despite having that scarlet letter affixed to it.

“To say there’s something wrong with R-rated movies is short-sighted,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “You have to take each movie on its own terms … these are movies that, for whatever reason, the public wasn’t engaged by and didn’t respond to.”

Indeed, all of those recent disappointments had other obstacles to contend with beyond their ratings. “Focus” sold itself heavily on Will Smith’s appeal at a time when star power is at a low ebb (Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. have similarly struggled with “Mortdecai” and “The Judge”). “Unfinished Business” had the misfortune of being yet another vehicle for Vince Vaughn’s motor-mouth comic stylings, coming on the heels of commercial and critical duds such as “The Internship” and “Delivery Man.” Meanwhile, “Chappie” was an original science-fiction release, which as “Jupiter Ascending” also demonstrates, is one of the most difficult genres to pull off.

Moreover, “Chappie,” with its posters and commercials featuring a cute robot learning to paint and play with blocks, struggled to make a coherent pitch to audiences unsure what to make of this violent futuristic fantasy.

“It was a tongue-in-cheek, interesting marketing campaign, but I think audiences got a little confused,” said  Dergarabedian. “It’s why studios like easy-to-grasp concepts.”

It also didn’t help that critics took the brass knuckles to both “Unfinished Business” and “Chappie,” handing them a series of excoriating reviews.

If there is indeed a serious case of R-rated fatigue gripping the public, then the movie business is in trouble. Each weekend in March contains a new R-rated release, among them “The Gunman,” “Run All Night” and “Get Hard.”

Maybe it’s time for audiences to get inoculated.

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