The hopes and prayers of sci-fi geeks and cinephiles were answered yesterday, as news officially came that Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" had landed an R-rating, as all four "Alien" movies did before it. The director had been non-committal about what rating he was shooting for, and even notoriously interference-happy studio boss Tom Rothman, in a sign of the new filmmaker-friendly side from 20th Century Fox, had promised that the film would "not be compromised," regardless of whatever rating it received. And so it came to pass: the MPAA have given it an R for "sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language."
But for all their public pride and bravado, Fox execs have to be a little nervous. While there's no news on what the studio might have spent on the film, it's likely to be in the $150-200 million range, like most other big movies this year. And with an R-rating, they've managed to exclude a big chunk of their audience. At least, that's the common viewpoint, as studios tend to avoid R-ratings like the plague if they possibly can, especially for big, expensive science-fiction tentpoles.
And there's plenty of stats to back that up. Of the top 100 grossers worldwide, only five were R-rated: "The Matrix Reloaded," "Passion of the Christ," "The Hangover Part II," "Terminator 2" and "Troy." In the U.S., it's six: 'Passion,' 'Hangover II' and 'Matrix Reloaded' plus "The Hangover," "The Exorcist" and "Saving Private Ryan." Only ten movies ever have made more than $200 million in the U.S. with an R-rating, about the number that Fox would probably need to target to make a profit (assuming it does more abroad, if the trend of international audiences flocking to 3D effects-heavy pictures continues).
And of course, the competition is tough. It hits IMAX screens two weeks after "Men In Black 3," with "Snow White And The Huntsman" coming the week before (albeit in 2D, and normal format). Two weeks after "Prometheus" opens, Fox puts out the similarly R-rated, similarly three-dimensional "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," which could cut 'Prometheus' screens, plus "Brave" will start taking IMAX showings too. And while the film might be tied to the "Alien" franchise, the connection in the marketing has been vague, at least to general audiences, and the series was tarnished by the "Alien Vs. Predator" movies. In fact, none of the "Alien" movies made more than $100 million in the U.S., and more than $200 million worldwide. And while it has a host of recognizable faces, like Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, none are proven box office stars (although Theron's presence in 'Snow White' the week before might help). What was already likely a tough box office battle has been made exponentially tougher by the R-rating.
Except that may not be the case, for a number of reasons. For one thing, when adjusted for inflation, the original "Alien" made $249 million in the U.S., and "Aliens" took $181 million. And that's without any kind of 3D or IMAX bump. And Scott's had big R-rated hits in the last decade or so, with "Gladiator," "Hannibal," "Black Hawk Down" and "American Gangster" all clearing the magic $100 million mark; few directors have had such regular success with adult movies. Adjusted for inflation, "Gladiator" would have taken a whopping $280 million in the U.S. It might have been a while since we had a bona-fide R-rated blockbuster that wasn't a comedy, but such things were once popular. And the signs are there that it might be again.
Look at "The Avengers." A big glossy superhero movie with an audience made up mostly of teens and kids, right? Wrong. According to exit polls at Deadline, 50% of the audience for "The Avengers" were over the age of 25 (that demographic that received Hollywood knowledge has long said doesn't go to the movies anymore). Of course, some would have been taking kids, but only 24% of respondents said they went with their family, and only 21% of the audience were teens. As we've said before, movie audiences are going the way of television and getting older, and an R-rating is no longer the kiss of death it was once deemed to be for a franchise movie.
"Prometheus" is never going to get close to the $207 million that "The Avengers" managed on its opening weekend, obviously. But given the smart marketing campaign, and the sense of a genuine event that's building up over the film, it's entirely possible that it could go as high as half that (although we imagine 60-80 million would be more realistic). At present, there's no box office tracking available (it'll probably start to emerge in the next week), but one early indication are its IMAX figures.
The film went on sale at the U.K. box office a week ago, tied to the premiere of the latest trailer during an episode of "Homeland," and a subsequent TV campaign. As a result, the film, according to The Hollywood Reporter, broke all existing sales records at the BFI IMAX theater, leading to the biggest ever grossing week, and the single highest day of pre-sales, with $221,717 worth of tickets being sold on the first day. And a scan of other showings around the country looks strong, given that it's still four weeks out from release. All this despite the film being labelled with a to-be-confirmed 15 rating in the country.
It's possible that this is all optimistic for the R-rated movie. There are a lot of factors that could slow down "Prometheus" — middling reviews, competition from other blockbusters, and more — but our gut says that the R-rating may not turn out to be the box office chestburster that some are concerned about. And that can only be a good thing.