The Lost Art of Sneaking

May 12, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

October 1982. My seventeenth birthday was nearly two years in the future and, unlike many of my contemporaries, I looked younger than my age. On that fateful afternoon, I was standing in the lobby of a single mega-theater (2000 seats), awaiting my opportunity to pass the ticket to the usher and have it ripped. An older friend had purchased two, allowing me to bypass the crabby old woman at the box office who surely would have asked to see my nonexistent driver's license. The movie I was in line for was First Blood. The MPAA's rating: R. (For those unfamiliar with United States movie rating system, R designates "Under 17 not permitted without parent or guardian.")

First Blood was not my first R-rated movie. That was Conan the Barbarian, which I had seen some five months earlier (in the same theater with the same crabby woman at the box office and the same middle-aged usher). On that occasion, I had done it legitimately, dragging my poor father with me. I'm sure there were many things he would have preferred doing than watching the future Governator hack and slash his way through the hoards of snakes and men led by Darth Vader without his black costume. (Side note: While I liked Conan, the highlight of the afternoon was the preview for Star Trek II - "Beyond the darkness, beyond the human evolution, there is Khan, a genetically superior tyrant...")

The doors were open. My hands were sweating. With my friend in front of me, I shuffled forward with the line, trying to appear as inconsequential as possible. Suddenly, I was there, ticket proffered to the usher. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on the floor but I couldn't resist glancing up. My eyes met his. For a moment, he regarded me skeptically. Time stood still. My heart thudded so loudly that I was sure everyone could hear it. Then the beginnings of a smile touched the usher's lips. He ripped the ticket and I was in.

Twenty-six years later, that theater is no more. The crabby old lady at the box office has shuffled off to other realms. (She died in the early '90s.) I have only a fuzzy memory of the movie. But I recall with crystal clarity my first (and only) experience sneaking into an R-rated movie. I also wasn't the only one. When the movie started that Saturday afternoon, there were about 900 people in that theater and at least one-third of them were underage. A good portion of that group was not accompanied by a parent or guardian. Some got in the same way I did. Others entered via a more clandestine means: getting a compatriot already inside to open the exit door – the time-honored way to beat the system or avoid paying for a ticket.

Today's underage movie-goers don't have to work so hard. The advent of multiplexes and megaplexes made Sneaking a lost art. Now, all one has to do is pay for a PG-13 movie and wander down the endless halls of the theater to an auditorium showing the R-rated movie. Budgetary constraints at the 24-plex mean there are only two ticket takers (one at the entrance to each of the two wings) and no ushers to check for unauthorized patrons viewing R-rated films. At a Saturday evening showing of an R-rated movie last year (300), more than 50% of the audience was comprised of teenagers. None of them looked like they had endured sweaty palms and heart palpitations to get in.

There's a paradox at work here. Even as it has gotten pathetically simple for a 14-year old to see an R-rated movie, the number of such films in which this segment of the audience might be interested has dwindled to nearly zero. In 2008, the average male-centered action/adventure yarn (the R-rated staple of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era) is no longer rated R. It's PG-13. The violence and sex have been toned down just enough to cross the thin line between what's acceptable and what corrupts. So no sneaking is necessary.

Still, once in a while, along comes a Matrix Reloaded or a 300 - R-rated movies that 15-year old boys are dying to see. In 1982, I had to strategize a campaign for entry, from having someone else buy the ticket to the far-fetched story I was going to tell the usher if he stopped me. (Don't ask what it was. I don't remember, but I do recall it was outlandish. Fortunately, I didn't have to use it.) Today's teens don't have to worry about such things. They don't even have to dodge into the bathroom then furtively head for the R-rated auditorium.

All of this makes me wonder if there's even a point to the R-rating. If a boy or girl wants to see an R-rated movie, there's nothing stopping them. And things are more lax on home video. How many Best Buys check ID when a 15-year old buys an R-rated DVD? The idea that the R-rating is preventing anyone from seeing a title is an illusion to comfort out-of-touch adults. The only rating where entry is policed by theaters is NC-17, and there aren't many movies with that classification. (Plus, most major chains don't show them.)

The "R" classification is worthwhile only in that it allows viewers to know that the content is "harder" than in a PG-13 movie. It therefore has some (dubious) informational value. In terms of actually limiting a portion of the movie-going public from seeing the films, it's a failure. Theaters don't have the manpower to enforce the rating and, even if they had it, one doubts they would aggressively pursue such action. Because the majority of multiplex revenue comes from snack sales, it doesn't make a difference to the local AMC whether a teenager is actually seeing a Disney cartoon or torture porn. The rule when the bottom line is involved: don't mess with the revenue stream. Don't force teenagers to go elsewhere because of a strict policing policy.

This summer, there won't be any teenagers wondering if they're going to be caught in the act of jumping from a PG-13 movie to an R-rated one across the hall. (In fact, they could probably see both without paying twice. Theater jumping for multiple features is as frequent an occurrence as misrepresenting what's being seen.) The first and most obvious reason relates to the lack of high-profile R-rated movies arriving during the next few months. The second reason is that the art of Sneaking, like so many other relics of the pre-multiplex world, is a foreign concept to today's movie-goers.