This summer, underage moviegoers across the nation will get to do something they haven't done in years: sneak into R-rated action movies. Or at least they'll finally have an opportunity to try.
Granted, on May 15, most people will actually buy their tickets to ''The Matrix Reloaded''; the film will likely have the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated movie in history. Unspooling on more than 3,000 screens, it's the widest R release Hollywood has ever attempted -- not to mention the most expensive. And in its wake will come even more big-budget event films with probable R ratings. Later this summer, there will be ''T3: Rise of the Machines,'' ''Bad Boys II,'' and ''Exorcist: The Beginning,'' along with such cheaper R-rated comedies as ''American Wedding,'' the third slice of ''American Pie.''
After years of PG-13-rated fluff filled with bloodless gunplay and an alarming paucity of gratuitous nudity -- films like ''Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,'' ''The Mummy,'' and ''Men in Black'' -- the big-budget R-rated bone cruncher is ready for a gut-splattering comeback. ''People are being as aggressive about R-rated movies as they've been in years,'' says Rob Moore, a partner at Revolution Studios. ''You've got three R-rated movies each costing well over $100 million. And they're going to be three of the biggest movies of the summer. I would definitely not say that the R-rated movie is dead.''
Not anymore, anyway. But for a time it looked on the verge of flatlining. Over the past decade, the number of major studio releases with R ratings has dropped as much as 50 percent, and last year not one made the list of top 20 grossers. ''Those sorts of movies don't make economic sense anymore,'' says a publicity executive at a studio that once made lots of R-rated movies (and which probably will again, when they get a peek at ''Reloaded'''s grosses). ''It's impossible to make your money back.''
It's certainly much more difficult, especially because teenagers continue to be the genre's best customers. ''With an R rated movie, you've got 20 to 30 percent of your potential audience unable to get in without a parent,'' calculates Chris McGurk, vice chair/COO of MGM, home to the always PG-13 James Bond franchise. ''When you're spending $100 million or more, you can't afford the risk. It'd be like going in with one hand tied behind your back.''
Both hands, actually, because there's another demographic causing problems for R-rated releases: politicians. After the 1999 Columbine tragedy, Hollywood was cast as a villain by such senators as John McCain and Joseph Lieberman (both of whom were running for national office at the time). The studio heads were dragged before Congress and arm-twisted into public promises not to market violent R-rated movies to minors. Ever since, it's been a nightmare marketing any R-rated movie to anyone.