The family values era is dead — with Britney Spears and her little sister doing their best to ensure that it isn’t coming back soon. But there’s at least one arena in popular culture where parents have been receiving a world free of drug use, sexual shenanigans and strong profanity: the movie theater.
“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” made more than $88 million during its first seven days in theaters, and is the latest PG-rated film to find success in 2007. If the trend continues over the next few weeks, seven PG movies could end up among the 20 highest-grossing films released in 2007 — the most since 1989, when Ronald Reagan left office and studio offerings including “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Driving Miss Daisy” were on the list.
This year looks even more geared toward 10-year-olds, with family-friendly releases including “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and the latest “Chronicles of Narnia” film, “Prince Caspian.” Even the Wachowskis — best known for their violent and R-rated “Matrix” movies — are working on the colorful and kid-accessible “Speed Racer,” which could end up with a G rating.
The change comes as more parents are making their voices heard, especially online, about children’s movies.
Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer thinks the studios are listening; Steyer says he even heard “Kill Bill Vol. 1” producer Harvey Weinstein say at a conference this year that he wants to make PG films.
“The bottom line is, it definitely seems like a trend, and I think that’s good,” said Steyer, who in 2003 founded Commonsensemedia.org, which offers family reviews and ratings of media and entertainment. “It almost seems as if there’s a hunger out there for quality media for children.”
After the first PG-13 movie, “Red Dawn,” was released in 1984, that rating has dominated the box office. Fourteen of the Top 25 highest-grossing films of all time own a PG-13 rating. While PG movies performed well in 2007, the year will still probably end with eight of the 10 highest-grossing films rated PG-13 or R.
But there also seems to be fewer PG-rated failures this year, with “Shrek 3,” “Hairspray” and “Enchanted” exceeding expectations. There also were lower profile winners, including “Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Game Plan,” each grossing more than $80 million on smaller budgets. The highest-profile PG-rated flop this year was the big-budget summer film “Evan Almighty,” which still grossed more than $100 million in the United States.
Pressure from Internet sources might be one factor in the appearance of more high-profile family films. In addition to parenting groups with conservative leanings including the Dove Foundation, organizations with no religious ties such as Common Sense Media have started reviewing films for family-friendly content.
Changes have occurred in the studios as well. After years of broadening out to even some R-rated movies, Disney has been focusing on more kid-accessible franchises such as the PG-13 rated “Pirates of the Caribbean” series and the PG-rated “National Treasure” films.
“Disney has refocused itself in the last year or two, and their priority seems to be family films,” said Gitesh Pandya, editor of Boxofficeguru.com, which tracks and analyzes weekly box office numbers.
Another huge influence has come from Walden Media, founded in 2001 and owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz. After releasing mostly small-budget movie adaptations of children’s books including “Holes” and “How to Eat Fried Worms” during its first years, the production company has its most ambitious and expensive schedule of family films yet in 2008, including “Prince Caspian,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D” and the fantasy adventure “City of Ember.”
The 2007 holiday season has been particularly strong for PG films. Of the four movies that broke $100 million in ticket sales over the past month and a half, three were rated PG — “National Treasure,” “Enchanted” and “Alvin and Chipmunks.”
The closest thing to a PG-rated disappointment in recent weeks has been the Walden film “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep,” which grossed $2.4 million when it premiered on Christmas Day, but has seen larger crowds during each day since its opening.
“Family films always do well around the holidays,” Pandya said.
They appear to be finding audiences during the rest of the year, too. Gary Meyer, who owns the Balboa Theater in San Francisco, said, “We did really, really well with ‘Ratatouille’ this year. … “When we show the right kind of family films, we get a big crowd.”
Family-friendly movies are a constant theme on parenting Web sites and blogs, and new ones are popping up every week. Common Sense Media recently got some competition from San Francisco startup Whattheylike.com, which currently features the video game guide for parents Whattheyplay.com, with plans to add similar sites for books and movies in the near future.
Steyer says more competition is a good thing and an indication that parents are becoming more involved and vocal in what kinds of media their children are consuming. He expects to see even more family films in the future, whether it’s because of the success of PG films or the demographic makeup of the studio heads, many of whom have small children.
“I think they’re recognizing that there’s a demand. And when that happens, more people are going to be willing to make these kinds of movies,” Steyer said. “My hope is that this is a start of a trend that will cut across multiple platforms — including video games and (online) media — and really effect change.”