When 16-year-old Carey, dressed in her school uniform, stepped up to the window to ask for two tickets to "The Matrix Reloaded" (rated "R: under 17 not admitted") on Friday, she received a steely glare. After a pregnant pause came the question, "For which showing, ma'am?"
It wasn't the question she had feared ("May I see some ID?"). Nor was it the one mandated by the National Association of Theater Owners, which requires ticket sellers to check IDs and theater owners to police multiplexes for underage theater hoppers.
The ease with which Carey and her 12-year-old brother, Danny, waltzed into an R-rated film is all the more telling, since it comes during a summer when Hollywood has resurrected a throwback from a decade ago. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger's rampaging Terminator, the R-rated blockbuster is back.
Since Congress took Hollywood to task in 2000 for marketing sex and violence to teens, PG-13 had become the rating of choice for studios.
Does the first increase in the number of R-rated blockbusters in five years mean that Hollywood has abandoned its target summer audience? Or does the prevalence of films like "Terminator 3" and "American Wedding" indicate that teens are once again gaining access to supposedly off-limits fare?
This past weekend, the Monitor set out to test the resolve of theaters on both coasts by sending out underage teens to infiltrate "The Matrix Reloaded" (with parents' permission). The $150-million sci-fi movie has generated much talk about whether a film with such a huge budget is taking a risk by posting an R rating that ostensibly puts it off-limits to the largest moviegoing demographic.
But the Monitor's results - as well as the movie's record-breaking pace at the box office - offer at least anecdotal evidence that teens are having little trouble seeing any adult fare they choose.
"Certainly the number of [R-rated] tent-pole films designed to draw all ages is far bigger this year than in the past," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which analyzes box-office trends. "This will be the biggest test of the voluntary policing system yet." It highlights "the temptations and the inherent limitations placed on theater owners, many who are financially hurting."
In Beverly, Mass., 14-year-old Chase C. was denied a "Matrix Reloaded" at two theaters but got into the movie in each case by buying a ticket to a PG-13 film and then switching theaters once past the ticket puncher.
"You can easily sneak in," says Chase, who has previously sneaked into "Phone Booth" and "Road to Perdition" using the same strategy. "Some of the people who work here are teenagers, so they don't really care. Sometimes [the ushers] know we sneak in and they don't say anything."
This summer, numerous lucrative R-rated blockbusters are being aimed at youth audiences.
Last year, only 43 R-rated films were released on 1,000 or more screens, down 30 percent from 1999. Besides "Matrix Reloaded," the upcoming list includes, "Terminator 3, Rise of the Machines," "Bad Boys II," "The Matrix Revolutions," "American Wedding," "Freddy vs. Jason," and "The Exorcist: The Beginning." Others potentially in the category have not been rated yet.
Also at the Liberty Tree Theater in Danvers, Mass., a 15-year-old boy who wished to remain anonymous, relied on an adult to buy his ticket to "The Matrix," too, but was more inventive in getting past the ticket takers.
His friends all huddled together, looking for adults they could follow into the cinema.
Another option for minors to get in is buying "R" tickets online with a debit card. "If I purchase a ticket online, I could get in," he says. "You can use a debit card on Fandango to buy the tickets."
Cinema managers complain of the extra personnel and cost to hire and properly train security and more responsible ticket takers. They are costs which will ultimately cause prices to rise, they say. Additionally, they complain that parents aren't playing enough of a role in enforcement.
"The thing about it is, the volunteer system is very difficult," says Robert Bucksbaum, who runs two theaters in California, often acting as ticket taker and chief of security. "I can keep an eye on them here very well, but when they go to a major multiplex with 16 or more screens, it's virtually impossible to keep them out. The cost is too prohibitive."
To test their own system, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) has twice in four years sent 500 underage kids to R-rated movies across the country to see what percentage were turned back. The result: 53 percent, according to John Fithian, president of NATO, which represents about two-thirds of the nation's theater owners. NATO has taken their research numbers to the guilty theater owners and requested necessary changes. "We would like the percentage to be higher, but it is higher than any other retail item that sells under voluntary restrictions, from CDs to videos," Mr. Fithian says.
AMC, a large, national chain which is not a member of NATO says the voluntary ID system has "worked very well" and say their theaters gear up with more staff for expected blockbusters - and this summer is no exception.
In the Danvers theater, a teen named Andrew says he can always get into an R-rated feature. He says he's even approached strangers in the mall and asked them to buy him "R" tickets. "I've never gotten caught," he says.
• Staff writer Stephanie Cook Broadhurst contributed to this report.