For Chris Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer,’ an R Rating Is a Calculated Risk | Analysis

“Oppeneheimer,” Chris Nolan’s three-hour atomic bomb thriller detailing the origins and mechanics of the Manhattan Project through the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, will arrive in theaters on July 21 with an R rating.

An MPA classification of “restricted” for “some sexuality, nudity and language”: Is Nolan bringing sexy back to Hollywood? “Oppenheimer” will be his first R-rated title since “Insomnia” in the summer of 2002, and the first since he became Hollywood’s biggest marquee director.

It’s a calculated risk for Universal. While perhaps limiting the film’s commercial potential, the rating helps position the Cillian Murphy-led epic as the official grown-up movie of summer. It also furthers the narrative that the Comcast-owned studio is a safe home for prestige filmmakers.

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A bomb movie that may not bomb

Given the subject matter, an R rating may actually help market the film to adult moviegoers. “Who wants to see a PG-rated movie about the atom bomb?” one high-ranking distribution executive told TheWrap. That person noted that the rating could help “Oppenheimer” stand out from the crowd amid a packed summer movie season.

That’s not to say that the likes of “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part I” or “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” aren’t appealing for older moviegoers, but they are still PG-13 action-adventure movies. Meanwhile, the other R-rated wide releases this summer are mostly comedies like “Strays,” “Joy Ride” and “No Hard Feelings.”

Even in an industry dominated, particularly in the summer, by four-quadrant franchise fare, there is usually room for one or two big, R-rated, adult-skewing summer event flicks. See “Road to Perdition” in 2002, “The Wedding Crashers” in 2005, “Bridesmaids” in 2011, “Baby Driver” in 2017 and “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” in 2019. In short, it may be more valuable to be the big R-rated movie of the moment versus one of a slew of PG-13 action tentpoles.

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R still equals risk

One potential pitfall, a rival studio executive told TheWrap, is that an R rating might scare off certain older moviegoers who avoid explicitly adult-skewing movies in cinemas.

“When they see a ‘John Wick’ movie, they know what they’re going to get,” the executive said. “The idea of an R-rated film about nuclear explosions which also contains sexual content and nudity may cause some pause for the AARP crowd.”

When Harvey Weinstein went to bat over ratings for films like “Philomena,” it was because he wanted that PG-13 for older audiences. Nobody was expecting the teens to show up for the Oscar-nominated Judi Dench-starring melodrama. It’s also why Lionsgate took the unusual move of releasing a PG-13 version of Johnny Depp’s “Mortdecai” when the R-rated theatrical whiff came to home video.

Universal declined a request for comment.

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“Oppenheimer” has other risks, like its three-hour running time, as well as the possibility that “Barbie,” which opens the same weekend, will dominate the zeitgeist. Those could be worsened by the R rating.

Most of the biggest-grossing blockbusters have a longer-than-average running time — think “Avatar,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Return of the King” — but most are also PG-13 or PG, which means you can safely bring the kids and skip paying a babysitter.

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Learning the lessons from “RoboCop” and “Expendables 3”

“Interstellar,” a PG-13 outer-space sci-fi epic, skewed 75% above the age of 25 when it nabbed $49 million in its 2014 debut. The overall demographic split for “Dunkirk,” another adult-skewing, $100 million-budgeted release centered on World War II, skewed 88% above the age of 24 and 25% 55 and older. Both releases earned just under $190 million in domestic ticket sales. There’s a case to be made that most kids won’t want to see a three-hour, dialogue-driven character drama, even one featuring Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh. So why bother insisting on a PG-13 for “commercial” reasons?

Recall in early 2014, Sony produced a PG-13 remake of the infamously ultraviolent “RoboCop” only to watch kids and teens flock to “The Lego Movie.” Later that year, Lionsgate and Sylvester Stallone cut down “The Expendables 3” from an R to a PG-13 only for the kids to skip it for “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” In both cases, films that arguably should have been R-rated were released under the incorrect assumption that adult fans would bring their kids or that younger audiences would show up.

Should the next “Expendables” be R-rated? “Absolutely unequivocally yes,” Sylvester Stallone told Crave Online. “I believe it was a horrible miscalculation on everyone’s part in trying to reach a wider audience.”

“Expendables 3,” with its PG-13 in hand, played 66% over the age of 25 years old over its lackluster $16 million opening weekend. “Expendables 4,” on tap for theatrical release this year, will be R-rated.

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An R rating is no longer a commercial death sentence

Back in March 2011, when Universal decided to not go forward with Guillermo del Toro’s $150 million, R-rated “In the Mountains of Madness,” there were just 16 R-rated Hollywood films to earn $400 million or more worldwide. A decade ago, there were 21. Today, counting a few Chinese and Japanese blockbusters, there are 42 such releases.

The notion of an R-rated film pulling tentpole-worthy business isn’t anywhere near as rare as it was a decade ago. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” showed that R-rated movies could still pull $400 million-$600 million in global totals. That is not even counting comparatively youth-skewing R-horror flicks like “It” or R-rated superhero actioners like “Deadpool” and “Logan.”

For reference, “Deadpool” played 47% under-25 during its record-breaking $152 million Fri.-Mon. debut weekend in 2016. Conversely, “A Star Is Born” skewed 68% over 35 and 42% over 50 amid its $43 million domestic debut in 2018. Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” opened with $109 million over its Fri-Mon wide release debut in 2015. 63% of that audience was over 25 years old.

If the movie works as a propulsive thriller, Universal can pitch its post-debut marketing toward convincing younger audiences that it’s not a dreary historical biopic. Maybe Dr. Oppenheimer can become a character in Fortnite?

Universal’s welcome mat

After expressing public displeasure with Warner Bros. over AT&T’s Project Popcorn, which saw all of WB’s 2021 theatrical releases debuting in theaters and HBO Max concurrently, Nolan, the filmmaker behind “Inception” and “The Prestige,” left his longtime studio home. He set up “Oppenheimer” at Universal, which was seen as a major get for the studio.

The move came with some conditions, including the promise of a 100-day theatrical window, his preferred mid-July release date, a reported $100 million budget for a presumably action-light character drama, an event movie-sized marketing spend and 20% of the first-dollar gross. Whether an R rating was implicitly part of the package, the narrative is now that either Universal agreed or didn’t protest when the R arrived.

“It encapsulates the strategy Universal is embracing right now,” noted Boxoffice Pro Chief Analyst Shawn Robbins. “While the previous decade was comparatively dominated by the kind of fantasy franchises that flourished at Disney, Universal is attempting to succeed as a more conventional movie studio amid more challenging theatrical circumstances.”

This furthers the broader notion that the Donna Langley-led studio will let filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Wan, Jordan Peele and the Daniels make the adult-skewing, star-focused, concept-driven, non-franchise films they want to make.

We’ll soon know if Universal’s “Oppenheimer” can have its rating cake and eat box office too, but if the film is well received, the R may not matter. How the studio rates with star directors may be the real win.

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