In the late '80s a thunderbolt of inspiration struck
Thus was born the
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 do little business 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
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.
Out of favor
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
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," about the romance between Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." They grossed $21 million and $14 million, respectively, in today's dollars.
The advent of the NC-17 coincided with an ambitious moment in American cinema — young auteurs such as
(After all, in its early days, the X generated some sizable hits — 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," which won best picture, took in $45 million, or $281 million in today's dollars; 1973's "Last Tango in Paris" made $36 million, or $225 million today).
But the NC-17 soon faltered. As signatories to the MPAA, the six major studios must release their films with ratings, and they began to get nervous about the commercial limitations of the NC-17. Potential mainstream NC-17 releases such as Paramount's
A year later,
The movies that did come out with an NC-17 — most notably
Around 2004, there was a brief renaissance of NC-17 films. Lionsgate chose to release a French horror film called "High Tension" as NC-17 instead of unrated and Fox Searchlight took out
But that proved short-lived. Tom Bernard, the
Smaller distributors who are not 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
One recent film that stuck by its NC-17 was
Director Jennifer Lynch, whose upcoming action thriller "Chained" was handed an NC-17 this year, grudgingly decided to cut her film so she could get an R. "I think it's clear by now that the NC-17 is not accomplishing what the MPAA hoped it would when they moved away from the X," she said. "If you know blue as blue, you'll always know it that way, whether you call it orange or any other color."
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 MPAA says NC-17 ratings can be based on "violence, sex, aberrational behavior,
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." But descriptions of R-rated films can sound similar: A movie called "Arena," for instance, was described as having "strong brutal and bloody violence throughout, graphic nudity and language."
In 2001, the MPAA gave Solondz's "Storytelling" an NC-17 for a graphic sex scene. As it turned out, Solondz had a clause in his contract that allowed him to release the movie with the scene intact, providing a large red box was placed over the anatomy to allow the revised film to receive an R. Moviegoers were then given an unusual object lesson in the content that can prompt raters to jump a movie from an R to an NC-17.
In 2010, more confusion came when the Weinstein Co. and director Derek Cianfrance found themselves facing an NC-17 with their romantic drama
They were eventually able to persuade an appeals board that the movie should be rated R. But the incident prompted head-scratching, particularly since an oral sex scene of about equal duration in that year's
Debating a fix
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 aids filmmakers and distributors in their dealings 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 possibility, Graves replied with a familiar MPAA refrain: The group 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 no serious consideration of splitting the NC-17, though there has been discussion about dividing the territory now encompassed by the R rating — that is, creating two ratings that distinguish between "harder" and "softer" versions of the R. The R rating, after all, has become a catch-all, encompassing movies as wildly diverse as the über-violent "Saw," the racy comedies of
And then there's another, perhaps more fundamental question: whether any rating that bars filmgoers outright is a good idea. After all, the MPAA's own mantra is that it simply wants to guide parents, not legislate social policy.
"I suppose 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."
The NC-17 seems to face a Catch-22: To produce more hits, the NC-17 needs to be on more movies. But few distributors want to release a movie with an NC-17 until there are established hits.
"Theoretically there's no reason the most restrictive rating should carry a scarlet letter," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "But ... we have yet to have a big, serious commercial movie released as an NC-17."
Filmmakers and their advisers, however, say they'd be more willing to use it if they didn't feel theater owners had a resistance to playing it. "I've worked with hundreds of clients and have never counseled anyone to take an NC-17," Noble said. "It's simply not worth the risk."
Graves said that though she thinks the media is partly to blame — "Why do they always refer to it as 'slapping with an NC-17?'" she asked — she acknowledged that there were, at the least, failures of communication on the MPAA's part. "We need to be educational about it more than anything else," she said.
Others aren't convinced that would work. "We need a new system," Bernard said. "But I think it will be a long while before there's any will to do something about it."