By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — In the late ‘80s a thunderbolt of inspiration struck Jack Valenti, longtime chief of the Motion Picture Assn. of America: What if his organization got rid of the X rating, besmirched by years of misappropriation by hard-core exploitation films, and replaced it with a new marker that was both trademarked and respectable?
Thus was born the NC-17. Formally instituted in 1990, the restrictive rating aimed to signal moviegoers that a film included adult-oriented — but not necessarily pornographic — content and made those movies off-limits to anyone under 18.
Valenti had high hopes that the NC-17 — he called it “unstigmatized” — would usher in an era of mainstream acceptance for films with serious adult themes. But after some initial acceptance by directors, distributors, exhibitors and audiences, the rating fell deeply out of favor with filmmakers and moviegoers alike.
Now, even as basic cable is constantly pushing into ever-more steamy and violent territory and a wide variety of pornography is easily available on the Web, movie theaters are practically devoid of formally adults-only films. The number of movies released with the NC-17 rating has plummeted; those that do go out with that stamp sell few tickets at the box office.
The reasons are clear: Some theater chains, including Cinemark, the nation’s third-largest circuit, won’t play them. A number of media outlets, particularly newspapers and TV stations in more conservative states, won’t accept ads for them. Wal-Mart and other retailers won’t sell copies on DVD.
Now at 22 years old — the same age as the X was when it was retired — the NC-17 is seen inside Hollywood and beyond as ineffective and broken. But no one can agree on how to fix it.
“There’s no question there’s a stigma,” said Joan Graves, the head of the MPAA’s ratings board. “If you have any ideas on how to break it, I’d love to hear them,” she said, giving a small, not-entirely-happy laugh.
At issue is more than just what grade an industry trade group should assign to a particular movie, and more than questions of revenue and profit. At its core, the debate over NC-17 is a matter of what material society considers mainstream, who gets to make those determinations and what standards they use in doing so.
The NC-17’s fall has been dramatic. Last year, just three such films arrived in theaters, and the highest-grossing, Fox Searchlight’s sex-addiction drama “Shame,” didn’t even sell $4 million worth of tickets.
That’s a far cry from the NC-17’s promising beginnings in 1990, when more than a dozen films were released with the rating. Two of the first were serious art films: “Henry and June” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” They grossed $21 million and $14 million, respectively, in today’s dollars.
Small distributors who aren’t MPAA members have the option of releasing films given NC-17 ratings without any rating at all. (Among such films to have gone that route are Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” and the Martin Lawrence concert film “You So Crazy.” Increasingly, many filmmakers are choosing this course or are cutting their films to receive an R.
If theater chains and audiences have failed to embrace NC-17 films, it may be in part because there’s no clear, specific set of rules about what type of violence, sex or language prompts the MPAA to award the rating. Though many moviegoers know, for instance, that multiple uses of the F-word can turn an otherwise PG-13 movie into an R film, the boundary between R and NC-17 is much less distinct.
The MPAA says NC-17 ratings can be based on “violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” The group says NC-17 “does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ … and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience.”
But many adults won’t go to an NC-17 movie, convinced that they’re going to watch smut.
Neither the public nor filmmakers are privy to how MPAA raters arrive at their decisions, and when a film is given an NC-17, the MPAA provides only a limited description.
In 2011, for instance, “Shame” got the marker for “some explicit sexual content” while another movie, “A Serbian Film,” was given the rating for “extreme aberrant and sexual content including explicit dialogue.” Yet R-rated films can sound similar: “Arena,” for instance, received an R for “strong brutal and bloody violence throughout, graphic nudity and language.”
Even some critics of the NC-17 acknowledge that the ratings group has been at the mercy of changes outside its control, such as cautious theater owners and media outlets.
“I don’t think it’s the MPAA’s fault that the NC-17 has become what it is,” said Ethan Noble, a consultant who helps filmmakers deal with the MPAA. “But it is its responsibility that this is continuing. The MPAA needs to find another path.”
Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics and others have suggested a new adult rating that specifically excludes exploitative pornographic content. Asked about this, Graves said the MPAA does not want to get into the business of adjudicating art. To split an NC-17 rating into a more serious rating versus a pornographic one, she said, is to wander into the choppy waters of aesthetic judgment.
(Graves said there has been discussion about dividing the territory now covered by the R rating into two ratings that distinguish between “harder” and “softer” versions of the R. The R, after all, encompasses movies as diverse as the über-violent “Saw,” the racy comedies of Judd Apatow and the gentle drama of “The King’s Speech.”)
And then there’s another, perhaps more fundamental question: whether any rating that bars filmgoers outright is a good idea. After all, the MPAA says it simply wants to guide parents, not legislate social policy.
“Ratings will always be imperfect,” Solondz said. “But when it comes to children, parents should be determining what’s appropriate. I don’t like the idea that if you’re under 18 you’re de facto not allowed to see a film.”