The Most Successful R-Rated Movie of All Time

From 1934 to 1968, most Hollywood films abided by the Hays Code, a system of self-censorship with scrupulous moral standards promulgated by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. The Hays Code was discarded in 1968, and what had by then been renamed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced a new rating system, separating films into four categories based on perceived appropriateness for various age groups. (Today there are five categories, defined slightly differently.)

The original R (for “restricted”) rating limited viewers to those over 16 unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian (today’s R raises the age to 17), and it freed filmmakers from the restraints of censorship. A school of emerging directors seized the moment, channeling new modes of expression and changing the face of cinema in the process.

An R rating, which might be applied to a film for some combination of violence, nudity, sex, foul language, or substance abuse, meant that it was forbidden to those under 16 unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian (the age was later changed to 17). The first title to earn such a rating was the 1968 noirish thriller “The Split,” about a robbery gone awry. However, previous blood-soaked classics like “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” got an R retroactively.

Which one has been the most successful of all? To determine the most successful R-rated movie of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed box office and production budget data from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by consulting firm Nash Information Services. Though both domestic and worldwide box office are given, movies were ranked according to lifetime worldwide box office earnings as of June 2021, adjusted for inflation.

The most successful R-Rated movie of all time is The Exorcist (1973) Here are some details:

> Worldwide box office: $2,302,868,661 — #13 highest of all time
> Domestic box office: $1,238,771,017 — #15 highest of all time
> Production budget: $12,000,000 — #3,283 highest of all time
> Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb

Author William Peter Blatty adapted his own novel when penning the script for this graphic horror film. Directed by William Friedkin, it presents the unrelenting demonic possession of a young girl (Linda Blair). Extreme viewer reactions such as vomiting and fainting arguably fueled word-of-mouth momentum, hence the film’s enduring blockbuster status.

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