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What Hollywood Should Learn From ‘Logan’s R Rating

Logan
20th Century Fox

When Logan arrives on Blu-ray next week, it will include one of the better bonus features in recent home entertainment history: A black and white cut of the film called Logan Noir, which made its premiere last night at a special screening at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse. The Noir cut looks great, but the real story coming out of last night’s event wasn’t the new version, it was a comment made by director James Mangold during the post-screening Q&A.

During the question and answer session, which also featured star Hugh Jackman and producer Hutch Parker, Mangold talked about why he returned to make another Wolverine movie after The Wolverine, and why he fought so hard to make that movie R-rated. In previous interviews I’ve read, Mangold spoke candidly about how he wasn’t interested in simply extending a franchise, or giving Fox and Marvel a fresh opportunity to market new Wolverine action figures, breakfast cereals, and flamethrowers. What I hadn’t read before was what Mangold said next. Here are his comments in full:

One of the main reasons I wanted it to be R wasn’t per se blue language or violence, while all those things were in some ways, particularly the violence of this character, value added for me, it was really because when you make a movie of this scale, or with this kind of pressure on it — whether it’s a smaller one or a bigger one it’s still a ‘summer movie’ and there’s a lot of pressure on the movie in the marketplace. If the movie’s rated R, frankly, it gets graded on a curve. Not everyone can go. It’s just that simple now. Not every 14-year-old or 11-year-old or 6-year-old, God willing, is going to be able to buy tickets to this movie.

So it reduces the box office. Okay. That’s a problem for the studio, that’s why we made it cheaper.

But it does something else. It suddenly means you’re not making a movie for 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds and 11-year-olds. And the kind of story you can tell [changes when] you’re not worried about the attention span of a 7-year-old and whether they’re going to be looking up from their gummy bears or not, whether you’re just telling a story for essentially grownups. A huge part of the comic-book world, of the world of the graphic novel, is adults who read them, not children.

And then at some point, the marketing skew when you make these movies all aimed at carrying really young children along, first of all produces movies that are, frankly, even at PG-13 too violent for kids, in my opinion. But second of all, it also cheats grownups of having some part of their fantasy experience or their comic-book experience honored with adult themes and ideas. And I think that by getting an R rating gave us a driver’s license to make — I hope you agree — a more sophisticated movie, or a movie that even took its time sometimes with the characters as opposed to having to move along so fast.

This explanation is obvious when it’s laid out this way, but that’s just it; it’s not something Hollywood directors talk about. This is the reason why Logan felt like a breath of fresh air while so many would-be blockbusters now feel stale: They’re designed to feel stale, or at least incredibly safe. They’re meant to appeal to the widest possible audience, and so they’re made to be understood by the widest possible audience. That limits what they can be, what they can say, and what they can do, because all of it has to be palatable (not to mention comprehensible) to second graders. To put this in perspective: When was a second grader my favorite TV show was ALF. What I’m saying, essentially, is that second graders are morons and the rest of us should not be beholden to their crappy taste.

This is the same reason why almost all of the great shows of our current Peak TV era come from cable channels and streaming services; they are narrowcasting for a specific mature audience while the big networks primarily broadcast to every potential consumer. If HBO had to make sure its shows appealed to you and to a second grader at the same time, they never would have made Game of Thrones or The Sopranos or pretty much any good HBO show produced in the last 25 years.

This ties in with my piece last week about Hollywood’s struggle to compete with television. As the movie industry chases larger audiences with diminishing creative returns, cable channels and web portals narrows their focus and sees continued growth and critical success. Give credit to Mangold for fighting to direct a movie for adults — and to the executives at Fox who eagerly backed that vision all way through production, up to and including the decision to make this new Noir cut, something that will definitely not have broad appeal. (Asked about the future of black-and-white cinema at the Logan Noir Q&A, Mangold essentially said there is none because many international territories, the lifeblood of the modern film industry, simply won’t release a black-and-white movie.)

As Mangold himself said, the perceived risk of an R rating is smaller box office; he and Jackman agreed to make Logan for less than The Wolverine to offset that danger. But then a funny thing happened. By letting the filmmakers tell the story they wanted to tell without compromises for second graders, they made a movie that resonated with a large audience. Despite its rating, Logan is the most successful of the three Wolverine movies by a large margin; it outgrossed Mangold’s The Wolverine by almost $200 million. It didn’t gross $1 billion worldwide. But by any measure, it is an enormous hit.

We need more directors willing to make big movies for adults, and more studios willing to support them. There are a lot of gray areas in the entertainment industry, but some things are as clear as black and white.

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