There’s an old kid’s joke that goes like this: You ask the child, “Hey. Did you hear what the pirate movie is rated?” And then when the kid screws up his face into a question mark, you shut one eye, make a hook with your index finger, and with a throaty voice you growl, “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

Then I stole this joke as a response to those moments when my dear departed mom would ask me what I was working on.

“Writing another pirate movie, mom,” I’d quip.

“A pirate movie?” she’d ask.

“Oh you know me, mom. The only movies I write are rated Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

Cue mom. She’d throw me a sideways look of disapproval and shake her head. Ahhh. So proud. For more on my mom and her formative parenting, read my post called F BOMBS ON MOM.

But back to them pirate movies. Or those of the R-rated variety. I do seem to have a knack for scribbling them. This despite having raised two kids. You would think being a parent I would’ve had some relevant insight into family fare. Lord knows I’ve sat through enough of it, from the excruciating to the sublime.

So picture this. It’s opening night of my movie Hostage. For fun – or a matter of tradition – I gathered up some pals and bar-hopped between movie times, checking for sell-out theaters and, more importantly, gauging audience responses. To my mind, nothing is more informative to a movie’s effectiveness than eavesdropping on conversations as ticket-buying civilians exit from darkness into the lobby lights.

Only this time I couldn’t so much focus on the what people were saying as much as what some of them were doing – which was holding the tiny hands of their extremely young children as they disembarked the theater. An extraordinary number of parents had somehow dragged their children – from eight years old to as young as one – to my two-hour, R-rated suspense thriller that was aimed entirely at an adult audience.

“What the hell?” I said aloud. “Can’t these people afford a Goddamn baby sitter?”

A rhetorical question, maybe. My kids were young. I knew the modern cost of a baby sitter. It was cheaper to drag the kids to an inappropriate movie than paying ten to fifteen bucks an hour for a sitter. And that didn’t include the standard large Dominos pizza and two liter soda.

“If you can’t afford the bloody sitter,” I continued, “Then wait for the friggin’ DVD.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly.

“Breathe,” said my friend, Robert. “You’re not the kids’ parent.”

“Can’t they read the rating?” I pissed. “What the hell is rated R supposed to mean?”

Sure. I wasn’t the parent of the aforementioned abused children. Yes. I said it. Abused. Regardless of whether you cared for my movie or not, I expect most would agree it is not “family” fare. And any parent who willingly subjects their young to sit through such a picture is, in my opinion, an abuser.

That said, if I was so perturbed by the potential result, why the hell did I have to write that kind of movie?

Well, maybe it’s in my DNA. Follow.

The genetic construct of my movie brain was formed in the nineteen seventies. Way back then there were only three channels on the home TV. Neither VHS nor Beta had been invented. If a film did show up on TV it was edited not just for objectionable content, but for time so it could reside neatly into a two-hour scheduling block, sliced and diced to allow for commercials, and reformatted to fit into a tiny, cathode-ray projected screen with lousy, interlaced resolution better suited for cataracts’ patients.

No. If I wanted to see a movie I had to go to a movie theater, drop a few hard-earned singles from painting fences or some such labor on a PG- or G-rated title, then when the usher had his back turned, steal into my pre-targeted R-rated feature. There I would buckle up in a big, dark, sticky-floored room with coke, a bag of popcorn and escape into someone’s beautifully manufactured celluloid dream.

It was my drug. And whenever I could, I would go back for more.

Maybe I was more discerning because I had to earn the money myself to pay for the movie. And because I was buying the ticket with my own sweat, I craved the most experiential bang for my bargain matinee buck. And back then, those movies were usually of the R-rated variety. Gritty, urban dramas directed by guys named Lumet and Friedkin and Coppola.

With age and perspective, I now understand the attraction. I was a geeky kid living a PG-rated rural life of pick-up trucks, Friday night lights, Sunday school, weekend assaults by the local Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more hours dedicated to dirty farm chores than homework. Thus those film dramas that catered to urban adults were my big escape.

Not that I haven’t tried to write more docile stuff. Welcome to Mooseport was PG-13. Then again, if Tom Schulman hadn’t done the actual pen to paper work I might’ve scripted a scene where Gene Hackman – as the former President of the United States – put the hammer down on a stolen muscle car as he car-chased local drug kingpin Ray Romano through the mean streets of Mooseport, Maine.

Hell. I’m so not family friendly I got fired off the one and only PG-13 Die Hard movie. I even had the politically asinine chutzpah to argue with Fox CEO Tom Rothman over the marketing wisdom of whether he should’ve been able to advertise the picture during The Simpsons.

But what the hell did I know? I was just the writer of the moment.

Anyhow, I’m painfully aware that my movies have been restricted to a statistically smaller audience. And until recently, I wouldn’t have allowed my children to see most of ‘em. Which pretty much sucks when my kids have shown that rare interest in my work and my conscience disallowed it. I mean, how many more chances would I have to be a cool dad?

Don’t answer that.

I recall that my son was disconcerted that a bunch of his pals had seen Bad Boys and yet he hadn’t. Still concerned that all the crude references weren’t the right food for his mushy young brain – let alone the capacity to process that his dad had written the aformentioned sex jokes – I was able to convince Columbia Pictures to send me the TV edit of the movie as a lousy, unsatisfying compromise.

Then there’s my daughter. She doesn’t want to see my movies because she fears it’ll be awkward to watch and wonder why that dark, putrid stuff came out of her old man’s warped melon.

Yes. It’s up to the parent. Not the filmmaker. I have my standards. Others have theirs. And kids, like when I was young, will do their darnedest to sneak into the movies their moms and dads will most surely find objectionable.

Finally, this last exchange. I was in line one weekday to buy a ticket for a matinee. It was for an R-rated picture which I already knew was extremely violent and, in my humble opinion, definitely not for kids.

“Hey pal,” said the unshaven fellah at my rear. “You seein’ the twelve-forty-five movie?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Would you mind?” With that, he revealed a pair of nine-year old boys who’d been hiding behind him. “Theater won’t let ‘em in without a grown up?”

“You’re not -?”

“-Got someplace I gotta be,” said the guy. “No skin off you. Boys got their own money.”

“You do know the movie is rated R,” I said. “Not at all for kids.”

“Probably nothin’ they haven’t already seen,” he smirked. “You got kids?”

“Yes.”

“So you get where I’m comin’ from. Help another dad out, will ya?” he begged.

“Sorry, man,” I said. “Because I don’t know where you’re comin’ from. Not on my life would I take my kids –“

“-Whatever,” he said, shoving right past me to the next adult ear he could grind. “Hey man. You mind taking my kids to the movie? They got their own money.”

“Sure,” said the retired guy with bad socks without so much as a second thought.

“And while you’re at it,” I angrily suggested, “Why not buy the boys a case of Budweiser.”

That was when I walked away, blowing off the lunch show, uncertain anybody had even heard or cared a tinker’s whit about my moral protest.

Friggin’ pirate movies.

By reading this, my bet is that you’ve already figured that I haven’t come to any reasonable conclusion on my pirate movie predicament.

I also readily admit that I still prefer my movies with a more adult bias. And I do look back ever-so-fondly on having successfully snuck into to so many “Rrrrrrrr” rated pictures when I was underage, unaccompanied, and desperately seeking two hours of cinematic escape.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Bryan Walsh

    I feel you, Doug. My 10 year old daughter, who I can proudly say has started writing herself, constantly asks me “Daddy, when can I read one of your stories?” Like you, I too tend to write adult male themed R rated fare. Some of my favorite films, Jaws, Halloween, Se7en, Pulp Fiction, and yes, Bad Boys (have loved long before I discovered your site) have definitely influenced my writing topics/themes/style. Definitely not something a 10 year old should watch/read. So until she’s older I guess I have two options; she doesn’t read my work, or I start writing Disney XD films. And I don’t really see that happening.

    On a side note; I have a question about the first Will Smith/Martin Lawrence scene in Bad Boys, when they’re getting car jacked. The dialogue in that scene is one of my favorites of all time. “You’re one big KF chicken eating Mother Effer”, “Yeah, well I’m a stand up comedian. And I suck!”, “Wesley Snipes! Passenger 57, BITCH!!” How much of that was scripted and how much was improv? Great stuff.

    • Doug Richardson

      Bryan. That aforementioned scene was a reshoot, cobbled together from some old pages and newer stuff penned by I don’t know who. Possibly Shane Black, who the studio told me performed some favors after Michael Bay and I stopped communicating. Though I might give some props to my pal, Kim Coates who might very well have improved the “And I suck,” line. And “Passenger 57,” sounded a helluva lot like something Martin woulda come up with on the fly.

      • Roger Ward

        Hard to make a comparison to most of the comments, except to you Doug, but coming from a different angle. You see my 12 year old boy was with me when I made, (as an actor) Man From Hong Hong, and Stone, and also escape 2000, (Turkey Shoot) all high action and violent films. In fact he appeared as an extra in Turkey. So when there was a double, Man From Hong Kong and Stone at the local drive in, both with an R he begged me to take him. Sure, he knew enough about film making not to be affected by the content and was a budding Grip and cameraman already, so into the back seat with a blanket over him and me the sole person in the front. But as fate would have it, his 12 year old mind came back at the crucial time and the idiot began to giggle and shake the blanket as a result. Well, one would think I was committing murder; judging by the attitude of the ticket sellers and management, I was ordered from the premises and called all of the sons of bitches in the world. My explanation went unheeded and apparently unheard and I slunk from that Drive in like the Pedophile low life they indicated I was.
        The apologetic letter and freebies offered a week later came too late. And I don’t think, to this day, my son has seen the films. As an ironic finale to this comment. I took my mother to the World Premiere of Man from Hong Kong and the poor Darling fainted when the naughty nude lady made love to the Chinese lead. ‘Lack of Oxygen’ she claimed later. ‘The Dress Circle was too high.’ So there’s a point of view from three generations.

  • Scott

    Excellent piece, on so many levels, although your experience with that kind of biological “parent” sounds specific to certain pockets of the country that produce/attracts more of these oblivious narcissists. I’m guessing he had a certain type of luxury vehicle idling at a red curb?

    • Doug Richardson

      Didn’t check out his ride, Scott. Though mine was probably my ’87 Jeep Wrangler. That was and still is my go to matinee-mobile.

      • Aaron C

        Awesome. That was my high-school vehicle — ’87 Wrangler. My dad replaced our ’76 CJ-5 with it (which was my daily driver), so I got to drive the new one to school my senior year. What a treat that was. Built by AMC just before Chrysler bought them. He still has it.

  • Thank you Doug for sharing this. On some level, I think that movie theater management staff with support of the community should be able to intervene in this type of poor parenting. The management should be called and parents should be questioned about this behavior. I know that this is a very idealistic solution but if we can approach our daily lives with “see something, do something mentality” we can begin flexing the psychological muscle of this ability by intervening in the lives of patrons attending domestic movie theaters. I think parents who do not adhere to R ratings and subject their children to this form of abuse is a form of democracy gone amuck. Perhaps there is no way to win this battle but I admire your stance on all of it. …and we all wonder why our children become so numb…..

    • Doug Richardson

      Mr. Blwriter. One of the problems with the rating system is that it is voluntary – from the studios, the MPAA, and the exhibitors. Not a whole lotta feet being held to the fire. I’m not advocating more governmental interference. Though it might be wise for some kind of liability be applied to exhibitors who flaunt the code.

      • Hi Doug, Thanks for taking the time to reply and to share your thoughts. Please call me Brian. I think how you communicated with the other Dad was very helpful, a ripple. I believe in ripples otherwise my life as an African American boy and now a man would have succumbed to many hopeless circumstances. I am not advocating government interference but am suggesting that we create new norms through peer pressure. Years ago none of us recycled and now it seems that most of us do, we accomplished this, through essentially peer pressure. Imagine if we created a conversation with children at school about why R rated movies are not good who would then bring the messages home to their parents about R rated movies. Imagine if you embedded the idea of children not going to R rated movies within the scripts you write. These are just some ideas that I hve in solving this seemingly unsolvable problem. Again my idealism spews out like a hole in my basement water pipe, but keeping hope alive may be part of the solution.

  • Aaron C

    I’m absolutely amazed at what people let their kids watch. My 7-year-old still loves kiddie stuff on Sprout and Nick Jr., maybe because we haven’t rushed to move him over to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Planet. Most of the other kids in his class have seen movies that I just can’t even imagine watching WITH my son to explain to him what’s going on.

    My adult stepson and I went to see Inception a few years ago. After watching a few sequences of particularly extreme destruction and lots of machine gun fire, I was wondering how the film escaped with a PG-13 rating. It was then that I saw what I assume to be a father helping a small child back up the steps. Must have been three years old, that kid, because he walked just like my old son at the time. I vividly remember looking back at the screen and seeing blood, more machine gun fire. I was just absolutely astonished that someone would bring a three year old to see this film. I mentioned it to my stepson, who went to the theater a LOT more often than I did, and he said he saw it in every movie.

    I wonder when it became OK to bring small children into violent movies? Hey, it’s America, right? Guns and violence is what we do best. Might as well get the kids used to it young, huh?

    My first sneak-in was “Hot Dog: The Movie.” My guess is that far more Americans would be upset with kids sneaking into a film like that than the latest blow-em-up. Priorities.

    • Doug Richardson

      Aaron. Definitely different tastes depending on the parents. My complaint is that stupid parents believe PG and PG13 are a hair’s breadth from G.

      • Aaron C

        I think the “hair’s breadth” comparison is just as apt from a PG-13 to R. I don’t really pay attention to ratings (other than the aforementioned G or PG for my kid), but it seems that I see just about everything in an R movie that I see in a PG-13 movie. I guess I just have different sensibilities than the ratings board. I don’t give a crap about language, but it appears as though a couple extra “eff you’s” will get you an Rrrrrr. I think the PG-13 rating is almost meaningless. What’s the difference between a 15-year-old seeing an R-rated film and a PG-13 rated film? Doesn’t seem like much of a difference. It might have started as a noble goal (OK, this movie has a couple swears and a little more violence, is it fair that 15-year-olds are blocked from it)? These days, I bet it’s more about marketing. “We need to get RIGHT under that “R” line for monetary reasons.” I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but it’s just a stupid “feeling” I get.

        • Doug Richardson

          No. Totally agree about the whisper thin difference between PG13 and R. In fact, many present PG13s would’ve been Rs ten years back. My point was on the parents. R appears to be a stronger warning sign to moms and dads who assume anything with a G in it is okay.

          • Aaron C

            I did see your point, I’m just not sure that parents care about the ratings at all. They just want to hand the kids off for two hours, and as long as it isn’t “R.” Maybe that’s *because* there’s a “G” in it, as you say, but I’m not convinced these parents would behave any differently if the ratings were G, PG, T(een), R, X. If it was “T” they’d still think, “at least it isn’t R.”

            At least for those of us paying attention, there are descriptions next to the ratings now. That helps people like me get at least a slightly better understanding of what’s in a movie. Hell, even PG movies now can say things like “scenes of peril” or whatever.

            But like I said — parents who just want to drop their kids off for a couple hours I don’t think care what the rating is. As long as the movie isn’t titled, “300 People Killed Graphically and Gratuitously In Cold Blood,” they don’t care.

  • Phil

    My home town of St Helens near Liverpool had a musty old cinema and in the early 90’s it was due to be closed down. They didn’t care who they let in as long as you paid and I was 13 when I managed to attend my first 18 rated film.

    As you’ll know Doug, the UK has a slightly different ratings system to the US and our PG-13 here is 12 A which has actually only appeared in the last 10 years.

    Previous to that we had U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 and the rules where clear, U and PG were family friendly entertainment but beyond that NO ONE Under the age stated were allowed in to see the film. No exceptions. Personally I think that is a very good system.

    I remember reading a brilliant piece Roger Ebert did when he saw Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead in 1969 just before the MPAA ratings came out.

    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-night-of-the-living-dead-1968

    Most of the audience watching that horrific zombie classic were kids under 16 and some where even 9 and 10. It’s well worth a read and a great companion piece to this.

    Oh and my first illegal movie going experience? Which modern classic did I sneak in to watch and impress all my friends by seeing it before them back in 1991?

    Nightmare On Elm St….. Part 6…..:smh:

    • Doug Richardson

      Phil… Can I call you Phil? I don’t think the fault lies with the rating systems as much as the parents. UK system, US systems – most are similar all over western culture, the only difference being that some are run by some government bureaucrat. Yet it’s up to the exhibitors to enforce. Until ratings are regulated like drugs, alcohol, or gambling…

  • jimmytwiz

    I got busted trying to sneak into Animal House, had to wait to see it on VHS years later. 🙁

    I have frustrated my 11 year old by not letting him see almost all PG-13 or higher films. Last year he got to see the Star Wars movies, most of his friends saw Star Wars when they were 7 or younger. I certainly don’t understand taking little kids to see Captain America or Guardians of the Galaxy (bunch of kids in both of those).
    I think it’s somewhat of a cultural thing. My guess is that the parents wouldn’t take the kids if they knew the film had nudity, but violence is no big deal.

  • Milo

    I remember when I had thirteen and watching “The Last Boy Scout” on TV. Then I understanded some stuff that I didn’t very few years before. And it kinda disturbed me the fact it contained frank dirty language (mostly from Bruce Willis), cursing, talking about sex in casual but rude manner. I was “are they really allowed to say that”? Youth and stupidity. And to mentioned a bad guy falling to chopper’s blades. Few years back I saw Die Hards, Commando, Predator (I missed p—y jokes then) or any other R-rated standard action spectacle. It didn’t had any effect on me, probably ‘cuz I was blown away by action sequence (people got shot, some blood, objects on ablaze; I thought it’s cool – I didn’t care). And I didn’t pay much attention what people are actually saying.
    Recently, some people discussed about “Hellraiser 2”, some watched it when they were kids. Despite it “scared the s–t out of them”, they thought the movie is(was) pretty cool. Which is much adult movie when compared to “Hostage”.

  • Jim Cliff

    i’m with you Doug. I used to classify movies, DVDs and games for the BBFC – yes, I was one of the guys that slapped the PG, 12, 15 and 18 on them. Our principle was always that we should allow adults to see whatever they wanted, within the law, but that we would classify the films for youngsters according to what society agreed was OK.

    To find out what the hell that meant, we went out and talked to society on a regular basis – we engaged with the public, did questionnaires, town hall style meetings, film festival visits, and more.

    I don’t think we always got it right, but I think we did a difficult job pretty damn well. The gatekeepers at the cinemas in the UK are generally pretty good – we knew there was some underage viewing going on, but most of it would have been kids sneaking into different films from the ones they paid for, like you did! There’s certainly no chance of taking a kid in with you to see a 15 or an 18 film. It’s against the law, and the cinema risks losing its licence.

    Underage viewing on home video is more of a problem in the UK (selling or renting DVDs to kids under the age on the label is illegal, but there’s nothing to stop the parents showing them whatever they like, and Netflix etc make it easier) but it’s still not as prevalent as you might think.

    Where I see it the most, and where I have exactly the same reaction as you, is in the video game market. Countless times I’ve been in a game shop and seen a parent buying Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty for their 9 year old. Parents who I suspect wouldn’t show their child The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on DVD are quite happy to ignore the 18 rating because ‘it’s just a game’. I’ve seen the staff at the game shops try to tell the parents that it’s not suitable for their child, but the parent is buying it, so there’s not much the staff can do.

    My eldest is 10, and he hasn’t read any of my writing, and he hasn’t played GTA. He’s happy with Lego Star Wars and I’m happy letting him grow up in his own time. I would rather most of his friends hadn’t seen so much stuff they shouldn’t have done, but I guess that’s not my call.

    Great post as always, Doug. Thanks

  • fbluhm

    An excellent piece, Doug, and one that should be shared beyond your blog. I’m not sure, however, that it’s a battle we can win, considering movie outlets like iTunes make everything available at home.

    If I may, I’d like to stray off subject just a bit and expand on Aaron C’s comment, “They just want to hand the kids off for two hours, and as long as it isn’t “R.”

    As we all know, theater attendance is down; profits from that venue aren’t what they used to be. I personally feel that a big reason for this is that theaters, today, are becoming the new day care centers for parents. When young parents, who can’t afford babysitters, bring their one-year-old baby to the theater, we’re often left with the sounds of a baby’s cries muffling out the actor’s dialogue. I’ve seen (I assume) unattended kids literally skating up and down the aisles. Oftentimes, kids would rather talk on their iPhones, or with their friends, than watch the movie. All of this takes away from the great experience the big screen has to offer.

    That said, I hereby promise to see your next movie – especially if it’s a pirate film – in a theater. It may be at 1pm, when the kids are in school, but I’ll go. Fred