2017: The Year That Brought the R-Rated Blockbuster Back

I think Hollywood learned a lot in 2017. They learned that female-led movies can perform above and beyond expectations (Wonder Woman, Beauty and the Beast) and that female directors can helm $100M+ budgets (Wonder Woman, upcoming A Wrinkle in Time). But, most of all, they learned that audiences still crave a good r-rated blockbuster. And boy-oh-boy did 2017 deliver.

Defining blockbuster is difficult; everyone has their own definition. A quick search online says that a blockbuster is “a thing of great power or size, in particular a movie, book, or other product that is a great commercial success.” 2017 had its fair share of r-rated commercial successes, but just because a film does good doesn’t make it a blockbuster.

In my mind, a blockbuster is a film with a production budget of $100M+. There are always the expectations to the case (2016’s Deadpool cost $58M, and 2017’s Logan and IT cost $97M and $35M), but it is a rule I tend to follow. I would also consider any film that makes back 8x+ their budget as a blockbuster success. Additionally, marketing has reached a point where it can be the saving grace or dramatic fall of a film. So if a film has a great marketing campaign (like Deadpool and IT had) with the intent of being a box office success, I count that as a loose second rule.

These two “rules” form a loose definition of what I consider a Hollywood blockbuster. Modern Hollywood has an obsession with the PG-13 rating. It is safe. Essentially, it hits all demographics. I’ve seen kids as young as four years old and adults as old as mid-80s at a PG-13 movie. A PG-13 movie opens the door for any age. Hollywood likes that. It means more money. Hollywood likes money. It keeps them afloat. They don’t like films that cut out an age demographic. Hollywood has a tendency to frown upon r-rated films (specifically r-rated blockbusters) as that cuts out a healthy chunk of ticket sales. However, it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time when Hollywood loved making r-rated blockbusters; the seventies, eighties, and nineties are full of them. Alien, The Terminator, Aliens, RoboCop, Rambo, Die Hard, T2: Judgment Day, The Matrix, the list could go on and on. There’s just one difference from that era of film and today’s: toy sales.

Back then, you could sell toys based on an r-rated film. Terminator 2: Judgment Day springs to mind as a toy commercial I remember watching. In fact, whole children’s franchises were built around films like Rambo and RoboCop. Both got animated series and multiple toy lines. It was a different time in Hollywood.

However, toys based on r-rated films soon met the chopping block and, without a lucrative toy deal, Hollywood started to tighten their grip over which r-rated films got greenlight. Once popular R-rated franchises like Terminator, RoboCop, and Die Hard began to churn out PG-13 sequels and reboots to a mixed reception. Hollywood thought that r-rated films could no longer be profitable in the modern age. With PG-13 blockbusters like Marvel’s The Avengers, Transformers, and Harry Potter grossing upwards of a billion dollars worldwide, while r-rated blockbusters were lucky to gross a quarter of that, it was hard to argue with the Hollywood executives.

Then Deadpool happened and changed everything.

I like to consider Kingsman: The Secret Service, released wide in 2015, as the first successful r-rated blockbuster of modern Hollywood, but it is foolish to not recognize Deadpool as the rightful King. Deadpool showed Hollywood that audiences were craving a well-written r-rated blockbuster. It didn’t hurt that the marketing campaign was balls to the wall crazy, and its lead star Ryan Reynolds knocked the promotional bits out of the park. 2016 ended with Deadpool sitting ninth at the highest grossing films worldwide of 2016 with $783M. An impressive feat, and one that certainly changed cinema to come. 2017 was looking at Deadpool‘s success and putting together the pieces for a r-rated renaissance like no other.

As usual, more than a third of films released carried an r-rating. However, 2017 offered the widest diversity in r-rated offerings then I have seen in a long time. Every genre whether it was action, horror, comedy, biopic, or romance was covered. Personally, I feel comedies and horror still do relatively well at the box office if they carry a r-rating. They don’t seem to be effected as much. So films like Annabelle: Creation, A Bad Moms Christmas, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and Jigsaw that performed average at the box office I consider the norm. Also, they’re not blockbusters, but entertaining films.

The real blockbuster talk begins now. I’m going to split it up into categories. First up, horror.


Horror

2017 was treated to r-rated successes pretty quickly thanks to Get Out. Jordan Peele’s solo directorial debut wowed audiences and critics and managed to rake in $255M off a $4.5M budget. To call it a success is almost wrong, because it was a box office smash. To top it all off, it recently received a couple Golden Globe nominations, and has been landing in numerous Top 10 Films of 2017 lists. An early crowning achievement for what was shaping up to be an amazing year.

Jump forward seven months and IT, an adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel, hit theaters… and quickly set the record for the largest opening weekend for both a September release and a horror film with $123M. Early projections had the film pegged to open with $60M; IT doubled that. It made back it’s budget three times within the first week of release. IT ended up grossing just shy of $700M worldwide, a near 20x multiplier. That’s almost unheard of nowadays. IT also landed on a lot of Top 10 lists for the year.


Romance/Comedy

I am going to start by giving a quick mention to The Big Sick, a r-rated indie that managed to make $55M off a $5M budget (an 11x multiplier). It’s not a blockbuster success per say, but any film (especially r-rated) that makes their budget back 11x deserves some recognition.

Continuing off the success of 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker managed to haul in a ton of cash even if it couldn’t reach the heights of the first film. Dubbed “Mommy Porn,” the Fifty Shades franchise has proven that audiences are willing to watch almost anything as long as there is a good amount of T&A in it. I kid, of course, as with almost a $1billion in worldwide grosses over two films, Fifty Shades is nothing to scoff at.

Shifting to the comedy side, 2017 was met with only one true r-rated comedy blockbuster: Girls Trip. Featuring an ensemble cast composed of Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, and Jada Pinkett Smith, this film became the first 2017 comedy to gross $100M domestically (and only r-rated comedy to do so). Not bad for an original film.


Science-Fiction

This definitely feels like the “close-but-no-cigar” genre of the bunch. Two r-rated sci-fi films hit theaters this year that were expected to bring in the dollars. Unfortunately, neither lived up the hype.

Blade Runner 2049 is the critical darling of the the duo having earned a certified fresh Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%. However, it followed in the original’s footsteps earning only $285M worldwide against a rumored $185M budget (thus classifying it as a box office bomb). On the upside, many are calling it their #1 film of the year, and, if it wasn’t a genre film (i.e., science-fiction), it could see some Academy Awards love in the coming months.

Alien: Covenant faired slightly better box office wise, grossing $240M on a budget of only $97M. The anticipation was strong for Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Prometheus was set to tie more closely to the original Alien while answer lingering plot threads from Prometheus. However, reception was mixed and despite some praise (majority going towards Michael Fassbender’s performance) many felt it didn’t live up to their expectations.

So the science-fiction blockbusters were minor hits (depending who you ask) but overall not the blockbusters they were intended to be. However, I’d place money on the fact that Blade Runner 2049 gains a strong cult following in the coming years like the original. (Note: Blade Runner 2049 did manage to land at #10 on the r-rated domestic box office for 2017.)


Action/Adventure

This is where the cream of the crop sits. These next four films single handily brought back the r-rated blockbuster (in my mind): Logan, Baby Driver, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and John Wick: Chapter 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2 and Kingsman: The Golden Circle were both sequels that managed to perform as well, if not better, than their previous outings. John Wick was a sleeper hit when it opened back in 2014 and with three years for more people to fall in love with this film it is not a surprise that Chapter 2 nearly doubled the gross of the first film. The Golden Circle wasn’t able to top the first film in much, specifically the “church scene” (fans of Kingsman will know what I’m referring to), but it was still enjoyable and featured strong character development for some of the first film’s supporting characters.

However, if there was a R-rated Trifecta for 2017 it would have to be Logan and Baby Driver (IT being the third). It was rumored (and I believe never confirmed or denied) that the success of Deadpool garnered Logan a r-rating, but that doesn’t matter. Logan is a great film. The last ten years we’ve been talking about The Dark Knight being the pinnacle of superhero films. Now, I think their might just be a new champion. The film acts as a gritty western, and one could almost be forgiven for not knowing it was a superhero film. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart gave some of their best performances, and the film was a bonafide success grossing $616M (off a $97M budget) and earning a certified fresh RT score of 93%.

Only one film didn’t have a built in fanbase or was part of a franchise: Baby Driver. Sure, Edgar Wright has a good following, but his films have never been huge success stories. Baby Driver stands as Wright’s most commercially successful film to date, and one of the best original films of this year. In fact, based off of domestic grosses for any rating group, Baby Driver ranks in at #7 (fellow r-rated original hits Get Out and Girls Trip are slightly higher).

Yet, Baby Driver does something that no other PG-13 or r-rated film was able to do this year: Show Hollywood that there is still a hunger for original IPs. Baby Driver isn’t a sequel or reboot or adaptation. It is its own thing. For an original, r-rated action film to gross $225M isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

Before I conclude I want to take a look at the box office figures for 2017. Eight films carrying an r-rating grossed over $100M at the domestic box office. Of those eight, two grossed over $200M (Logan and IT). Other years have had a similar number of r-rated films grossing over $100M (2014 & 2015 each had 7, while 2013 had 10). However, what I’ve noticed looking at the data is that the films released in 2013-15 that made $100M+ fell into two categories: Oscar bait, and comedies. There was the odd action outlier, but overall successful r-rated films tended to fall into those two categories.

2017 isn’t like that. I mentioned before about the diverse array of genre films carrying an r-rating. It’s truly a mixed bag of genres appealing to a wide variety of audiences. With the exception of science-fiction, which I already covered, every genre had one or two major blockbuster hits. In fact, looking at the domestic grosses for any MPAA rating, a number of r-rated hits are high on the board. IT clocks in the highest at #6, followed by Logan at #9, Get Out at #16., and Girls Trip at #25.


I’ll break down 2017 and r-rated blockbusters down to one word: Quality. Eighty-five percent of the 2017 r-rated blockbusters had a combination of a phenomenal story, a charismatic cast, and an outstanding production/direction/etc. These films gave audiences something new, something fresh, something cinematic to see on the big screen. Even the sequels like Logan, John Wick: Chapter 2, and Blade Runner 2049 offered something visually stunning that elevated them from their previous outings.

Personally, I think after the successes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool that 2017 brought the r-rated blockbuster back. It’s yet to be seen if this will continue or if it was one-and-done. 2018 brings some guaranteed successes in Fifty Shades Freed, Deadpool 2, and The Predator, but beyond that, only time will tell if the r-rated comeback truly is here.


Did you think 2017 brought a full on renaissance of R-rated blockbuster glory? What was your favorite r-rated film of 2017 (or second since most of you will pick Logan or Blade Runner 2049)? Let us know in the comments below.