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How Gremlins Helped Change Movies Forever by Forcing the PG-13 Rating into Existence
Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are responsible for the PG-13 rating.
Not unlike the way the cute, cuddly Mogwai transform into evil, impish Grelmins, the iconic ‘80s comedy-horror flick helped transform movies forever. Gremlins (airing this month on SYFY), which will turn 40 years old this summer, was one of two films that prompted the invention of the PG-13 rating. It may shock younger viewers to learn that the Joe Dante-directed film, which features blood, mayhem, and murder in addition to its many laughs, is rated a mere PG.
Gremlins premiered in theaters on June 8, 1984; at that time, there were only four possible movie ratings. The Motion Picture Association could give a film a rating of G, PG, R, or X (which has since been replaced with the rarely used NC-17). Whereas today a movie that’s rated PG or lower implies that it’s a kids’ movie, back then the rating signaled that a movie was for general audiences. A movie that was rated R was only for adults.
This meant that movies like 1975’s Jaws, which features a man spitting out blood while getting eaten alive by a giant shark, were rated PG. That seems obviously wrong, in retrospect, yet is there really enough violence or sex or adult themes in Jaws to merit an R rating? That would have prevented anybody under the age of 18 from seeing the first summer blockbuster in theaters. The problem with the space between the PG and R ratings was looming, but it wouldn’t be until 1984 when Gremlins, which Jaws director Steven Spielberg executive produced, and Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom hit theaters that the issue came to a head.
Why the PG-13 Rating Became Necessary
Temple of Doom was a much more graphic, violent movie than the PG-rated Raiders of the Lost Ark. If concerned parents could stomach one scene of a melting head, Temple of Doom’s extended heart-ripping-out sequence was too much. Gremlins might have been an even worse offender. Imagine a parent in the 1980s. Here’s a movie about cute, mischievous little critters coming from the same guy who made E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial. Seems like that should be fun for the whole family, right? Instead, Gremlins is a delightfully nasty horror-comedy with bloodshed and murder and a monolog about one of the main character’s dad dressing up as Santa and dying when he got stuck in the chimney. Gremlins is great if you’re a teenager. If you’re 7 years old? Maybe it’s a bit much.
In response to complaints about the violence of Temple of Doom and Gremlins, it was Spielberg himself who came up with a solution.
“It was sort of a perfect storm of movies that I either produced or directed," Spielberg explained in a 2008 video from the MPA to honor what was then the 40th anniversary of the ratings system. Spielberg said he agreed with the parental objections to Temple of Doom and Gremlins’ PG ratings, but he also thought it would have been unfair to slap an R rating on them, which would prevent teens and older kids from seeing them. So, he called Jack Valenti, who was the president of the Motion Picture Association of America at the time.
“I said, ‘Let’s get a rating somewhere in between PG and R.’” Spielberg recalled. “Jack was proactive about it, completely agreed, and before I knew it there was a PG-13 rating.”
The new PG-13 rating was implemented quickly. The first film to be released with a PG-13 rating came out later that very summer when Red Dawn hit theaters on August 10, 1984.
You can watch all of Gremlins in its technically PG-rated glory when it airs on SYFY. Check out the network schedule for exact listings.