Lisa Fiore, the dean of faculty at Lesley University and mother of 9- and 11-year-olds, loves taking her kids to the movies. But while she's mindful about what they see, she no longer relies on Hollywood ratings to help her decide between, for example, the funny- looking creatures of "Monsters University," the dramatic narrative in "Epic," or the juvenile jokes in "Despicable Me 2."
With the line blurring between G–rated movies (designed for a general audience) and PG ratings (parental guidance suggested), she would rather make her own judgment.
"I feel like our society has changed," Fiore says. "Children are exposed to more, and that's not necessarily bad. And so even children's films have more sophisticated plots and more mature themes."
Plus, G-rated films, long considered the safest for young children, are a lot harder to find these days. From 1995 to 2010, a typical year saw 15 to 20 G-rated films released and shown. But in two of the past three years there were just nine G movies.
And this year? More than 250 feature films have been released, and so far only one — "Monsters University" — is G-rated.
Film industry experts say studios are aggressively steering G audiences to the more lucrative PG movies. As society has grown saltier and more accepting of crude language, crazy violence, and even sexual references and innuendo, studios are increasingly confident that parents of young children will find a few seconds or minutes of risque scenes or language in children's films acceptable.
"It's an understandable perception that there are fewer G-rated movies available these days," says Paul Schneider, a film and TV director and chairman of the Department of Film and Television at Boston University. "The perception comes from the rise of the PG movie. That has been the evolution of child-friendly films for decades now. It snuck up on many people . . . You could say we just don't live in a G-rated world anymore."
Take the recent animated film "Epic." Its appeal to children is obvious, with a flirty-talking slug and tiny forest people in Robin Hood-esque green tights who are discovered by a teenage girl who doesn't believe in little creatures and fairies. But from the sometimes ominous soundtrack to a romantic subplot, to armed battles with fanged, ogreish foes, the movie also has a somber tone. One line not likely to help younger viewers sleep at night comes when a leader of the little people tells the scientist's daughter, "If our world dies, your world dies, too."
Kids and dying planets leads to the film's PG rating for "mild action, scary images, and brief rude language."
"From an industry perspective this is all about marketing," Schneider says. "It has nothing to do with morality plays. It is about the industry's conclusion that films rated to either extreme — too harmless or too adult — don't attract big enough shares of the market to make them worth their production costs."
That safe middle ground is PG. The-numbers.com, a film industry tracking site operated by researchers Nash Information Services, says between 1995 and 2012 only 276 G-rated films were made, compared with 2,027 PG-13 movies, 986 PG movies, and 3,575 R-rated films.
"We live at a fast pace, and film production companies know that with the rise of Netflix and similar home viewing options, they have access to less of consumers' time," says Terrence Masson, a former film producer and executive professor of animation at Northeastern University. "So like many industries, they've opted to throw their eggs in the basket of one size fits all or fits most. And that size is PG."
The alternative for filmmakers, Masson says, is to give a movie a G rating and risk alienating preteens, teens, and adults who might assume the film is too babyish.
"But they will go to a PG film or PG-13 because there's a feel of maturity that comes with the edgy material that might have gotten a film one of those ratings," he says. "And that's what the producers want — films that a bulk of the spending consumer market might enjoy. You can trace that formula back to the early to mid 1990s."
BU's Schneider says the tide shifted with the release of G-rated "Toy Story," the 1995 animated blockbuster that marked Pixar's first effort at full-feature film-making.
Pixar has released 14 animated feature films since 1995, including two sequels to "Toy Story," as well as "Finding Nemo," "Monsters University," and "Brave," a commercially and critical successful 2012 film about an archer girl in the Scottish highlands.
IMDB.com, the Internet Movie Database, says "Brave" was rated PG for "some scary action and rude humor." "Despicable Me 2" scored a PG rating for "rude humor and mild action."
"Pixar changed the game," Schneider says. "Not only was 'Toy Story' a huge box office success, it became so on the strength of adult and teen filmgoers. This was not a film whose sales were boosted just by kindergarten-aged kids."
Thanks to Pixar's success, the rest of Hollywood began to realize that animated films can appeal to little kids as well as teenagers and even adults.
"There really isn't much of a G genre anymore, because we've all gotten used to even animated stories having more intellectual or mature story lines," Schneider says.
Nell Minnow, film critic and host of the popular MovieMom.com blog, which examines culture and values in film, says that while she strongly discourages parents from letting their kids watch much of anything — film or TV — before the age of 5, parents who take their kids to movies shouldn't be too alarmed that ratings have apparently graduated across the board from G to PG.
"I subscribe to the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that kids under 2 watch nothing at all," Minnow says. "But if you're going to take your kids to the movies I'd say don't get so caught up in the rating that you don't pay attention to the content and the context."
Minnow pointed to "Despicable Me 2" as an example.
"If you were going to make your decision whether or not to take your child to see that on the rating, you might avoid it because it's rated PG," she says. "But you know why it's PG? A couple of fart jokes and the presence of weapons. Not deadly weapons, mind you. Goofy weapons, but weapons nonetheless. In this day and age, I think kids — even young kids — can handle fart jokes."
Conversely, Minnow says, assuming a film is extremely "little kid-friendly" just because it's G-rated can be a mistake.
She recalled how years ago her sister-in-law took her 4-year-old daughter to see "Bambi."
Minnow objected and reminded her sister-in-law of the movie's sad elements: There's a forest fire and Bambi's mother is fatally shot early in the film.
"Seriously, I didn't see 'Bambi' till I was 38, and those scenes made me cry," Minnow says. "But she insisted that her daughter would be fine. So she took her. And sure enough the child was fine with the fire, with the shooting, with everything."
In fact, the girl made it all the way to the end of the film, only to then break down in tears, sad about having seen Bambi grow up.
For Fiore, one film that taught her to ignore ratings was the G-rated 'Toy Story 3,' which had a scene involving Ken and Barbie dolls.
"It wasn't that I found it disturbing," she says, "but I was surprised at the romance theme, given the target audience."