EDITORIAL: “Prometheus: How the Sci-Fi Flick’s R-Rating Helped It Conquer Audiences Worldwide”

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Earlier this year, Universal cancelled a proposed $150 million adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness when director Guillermo del Toro refused to settle for less than an R-rating. A fervent devotee of the novella, the Pan’s Labyrinth director had been working on the script for more than half a decade and didn’t want to see the darkness in the original story toned down on screen by a PG-13. Big-budget blockbusters are so amazing in their scale – think of the thousands of hours poured into a film by thousands of talented people – that it seems humorous that one rating carries a stigma so powerful in Hollywood that it can doom a picture. In a city where money speaks the loudest, one letter seems to silence everyone.

The story explains why Fox executives were panicking all year for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s R-rated Alien-prequel that debuted to a healthy $50 million this weekend. Even with a popular director attached and the film’s official / unofficial connection to one of the most popular movie franchises of all time, there was no guarantee that a $130 million production targeted at adults could lure enough of them to theaters in the most competitive movie season of the year. At a certain point in post-production, Scott was prepared to present both a PG-13 and R version to executives. As it turns out, the more mature rating actually helped the picture. Here’s why Prometheus was a hit at the box office:

1. Content that spoke for itself

Prometheus was more than just “an R-rated movie”; it was a smart, expertly crafted, well-written R-rated movie. If we consider all films with the rating as one and the same (which Hollywood seems to do), there are plenty of commercial failures to cite. However, if we examine the cream of the crop, there’s actually many critically acclaimed adult flicks that have performed well in the last few years: The Town, The King’s Speech, Shutter Island, Inglorious Basterds, Gran Torino, and American Gangster.

Perhaps the problem is that many R-rated flicks, especially the raunchy teen comedies and the low-budget horror gorefests, use the rating as an invitation to put more adult content into the film rather than as an assessment of the original product. Prometheus was smart enough to keep the focus on the film – its visuals, its story, its director’s return to science fiction. Audiences clamored for the R rating because it offered creative room for Scott’s original vision, not because it promised heaps of sex and violence.

2. Respect for the older audience

It’s rare to see Hollywood place a bet on older viewers rather than teens and young adults. A passionate outcry on the Internet months before opening day to release Prometheus complete and uncut likely influenced the studio’s decision to push for the harder rating. The bet paid off this weekend.

Why didn’t the R-rating matter? Because teens were never interested in the first place. 64% of the Prometheus audience was 25 years of age or older. Turning off adults with a watered down sci-fi flick posed a greater threat than turning off teens with an R-rated one. The news should give adults unimpressed with the generic blockbusters of late a reason to celebrate.

3. Excellent marketing campaign

Released to the Internet over half a year ago, the intense Prometheus teaser trailer managed to pack more excitement into one minute than most films do in their running time.

With a cast of strong actors but few with massive box office appeal, Prometheus had to sell the story, the visuals, and the Alien appeal. The trailers completed the job exceptionally well and a strong viral marketing campaign further boosted the film online.

In many ways, the marketing was actually a bit understated. There were a few product tie-ins (art book, action figures, ads in Amazon.com shipments) but Prometheus didn’t come across as aggressively as many summer releases do, desperate for the viewer’s attention.

The film was also released in less markets than a typical summer release to avoid oversaturation. Prometheus was shown in 3,396 theaters this weekend (a “blockbuster” usually exceeds 4,000) but managed to pull in an impressive $14,473 theater average. The result is higher than that of box office champ Madagascar 3. The positive response this weekend suggests that Prometheus will continue to perform well with audiences in its second and third week.

Written by: Boris Paskhaver

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  • DrewMEB

    Great read. Totally forgot that this was rated R. 

  • FunpiecePokemon

    Great movie!
    Instant Classic