Little Kids in R-Rated Movies Can't Be Good for Business

Bloomberg View , August 11, 2017

With its compelling action scenes and incoherent plot, the Charlize Theron spy thriller “Atomic Blonde” received mixed reviews. Even critics who praised it acknowledged its flaws.

No one, however, thought it was kiddie fare. Except, that is, the people sitting next to us at the AMC Century City in Los Angeles. They brought two children who couldn’t have been more than 8 and looked quite a bit younger.

“Is that a man?” a tiny voice asked as the camera homed in on Theron’s bruised and battered back rising from a bathtub filled with ice cubes. It was the scene the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern (not a fan) called “chillingly beautiful” and “almost worth the price of admission.” But this little boy was simply confused. Theron got out of the tub -- clearly not a man -- and poured a glass of vodka. “Is that water?” he asked.

“Atomic Blonde” is a very R-rated movie. It portrays Cold War spy craft as brutal and grim. Its fight scenes are lethal and bloody. “Character is choked with a garrote, very visible and intense, lasts for a :30-:60 seconds,” is one note from IMDB’s parents guide. The only respite from the mayhem is a lesbian love scene.

The movie’s sensibility is as icy as its heroine’s baths. Critic David Edelstein called it a “nihilist’s vision of competing psychopaths, greed heads, and imperialists.” “Atomic Blonde” is not “Goldfinger.” It’s not even “Deadpool.” Under the U.K.’s rating system, children under 15 are banned entirely.

Like most U.S. theaters, AMC bars kids under 6 from R-rated movies after 6:00 p.m. “Since implementing this policy, guest complaints concerning noise in the theatres have decreased significantly,” a spokeswoman told me by email. Our 7:15 showing was covered by the rule -- and demonstrated its flaws.

The first is that children under 6 don’t have driver’s licenses. If the parents say the kids qualify for admission, the theater has to take their word for it. Unless a child is so disruptive that the rest of the audience complains, it’s easy enough to break the rule. Maybe the kids near us were 6, maybe not.

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The second is that the mere presence of children too young to understand a movie disturbs other audience members. After some shushing, the little boy quieted down. But like watching a sex scene with your parents, knowing he was there was distracting. What’s worse, I wondered: the movie gives the kids nightmares or they take it in stride? When you watch a movie at home, you don’t have surprise guests.

These are troubled times for theater operators. Last week, AMC Entertainment said its North American ticket sales were worse than previously projected. “To say we were disappointed would be an understatement,” CEO Adam Aron told analysts. “The quarter was simply a bust.” In response, theater-chain stock prices dropped sharply

“Cinema operators have managed for years to keep increasing sales by raising ticket prices amid stagnant attendance,” observed Bloomberg’s Anousha Sakoui and Emma Orr, “but a sharp drop in filmgoing would make that harder to sustain.” Variety calls this movie season “a summer of hell.”

With its powered recliners and fancy sound system, the premium theater where we saw “Atomic Blonde” was designed to lure audiences away from binge-watching the flat screens in their living rooms. Taking advantage of a Tuesday night discount, we paid a steep $18.99 a ticket, plus snacks. We wanted a big-screen experience. Thanks to our unexpected companions, we didn’t quite get our money’s worth.

AMC and its competitors need regular moviegoers like us -- and they know it. But they don’t want to drive away parents of young kids either. “No 6 After 6” is an awkward compromise.

Here’s a way to improve it: Instead of charging children $3.00 less than adults at R-rated movies, charge them $5.00 more. If parents really want to give their kids a movie night, they’ll pay. But if they just don’t want to pay a babysitter, they’ll stay home and let everyone else enjoy the show.