The Very PG-13 Summer of 1984

Cristen Conger

PG-13 instigators Steven Spielberg, Harrison "Indiana Jones" Ford and George Lucas. (
PG-13 instigators Steven Spielberg, Harrison "Indiana Jones" Ford and George Lucas. (
PG-13 instigators Steven Spielberg, Harrison "Indiana Jones" Ford and George Lucas. ( © Stephane Reix/For Picture/Corbis)

If you want a film to rake in cash at the box office, here's a tip: make it PG-13. From 1995 to 2012, PG-13 films made more money than those under any other rating, with PG-13 flicks grossing $42 million on average, compared to $38 million for G, $37 million for PG, and $15 million for R movies. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) unveiled the rating on July 1, 1984, it wasn't looking to create a Hollywood cash cow; rather, it was seeking to assuage parents complaining that the 1984 blockbuster "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," which features a man holding a still-beating heart in his bare hands and other visual delights, was too gory for its original PG rating.

Indiana Jones director Steven Spielberg wasn't too ruffled by the parental hue and cry, however. "I created the problem and I also supplied the solution ... I invented the rating," he once said regarding the origin of the PG-13 rating. Producer of the PG-rated "Gremlins" that also hit theaters in the summer of 1984 to much parental horror, Spielberg didn't think his movies warranted R ratings and instead suggested a new in-between: "I went to [former MPAA president] Jack Valenti, who's a friend of mine, and I said, 'Jack, why don't we do a rating called PG-13, which would suit films like "Gremlins" and "Indy 2"?"'

Thus PG-13 was born, and on August 10, 1984, "Red Dawn" starring Patrick Swayze became the first movie released with the new designation. The MPAA specifies what distinguishes PG-13 from a mere PG:

Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.

Another unwritten PG-13 designation is that it will likely pull in more viewers, since it's just edgy enough (adding "hot sauce," as Spielberg said) to attract adult audiences, but still clean enough for parental approval -- not to say that PG-13 hasn't attracted criticism for depictions of violence, cigarette smoking and other "mature" content. Since 1984's summer of PG-13, studios quickly have come to view the teen-friendly rating as a selling point, and it certainly paid off for "Titanic" and "Avatar," film history's two the highest-grossing -- and also PG-13 -- titles. Gawker's Rich Juzwiak sees the evolution of PG-13 from necessary middling ground in an era of cinematic boundary pushing to concerted marketing ploy as having an ultimately negative impact on the quality and veracity of what makes it to the multiplex: "The PG-13 label signals that we'll be seeing something that is most likely compromised for the sake of another demographic, that unfounded fears of early exposure to depictions of sex and violence are guiding mainstream entertainment." Regardless, young and old still flock to PG-13 movies, as evidenced by a trio of this summer's shoot-em-up, action-packed blockbusters "Man of Steel," "World War Z" and "White House Down?," all of which, predictably, are rated PG-13.