As moviegoers, we are a nation of children. How else to explain the fact that the U.S., unlike England and Canada, lacks a working movie rating that indicates that a film is for adults, not kids?
Sure, in theory there's the NC-17, an abbreviation of "No Children 17 and under," but for all practical purposes that rating doesn't exist. Since the Motion Picture Association of America introduced the NC-17 to replace the pornography-tainted X in 1990, only two major releases have carried the rating: Philip Kaufman's "Henry & June," for which NC-17 was invented, and Paul Verhoeven's bomb "Showgirls" (1995).
As a result, the MPAA rating system is like a thermometer that doesn't go above 60 degrees. More than half of the movies re-leased in the U.S. carry an R rating, which allows children to be admitted alongside a parent or guardian. That category now in-cludes everything from the family-themed but profanity-filled "Billy Elliot" to the ultra-gory "Hannibal" to the ultra-explicit "Freddy Got Fingered."
The film industry makes a logical point when it complains about the bill that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is pushing to allow the federal government to fine studios that violate the rating system by marketing R-rated material to kids. The rating system is, after all, subjective and voluntary (the major studios have an agreement to submit all of their films for ratings), and kids technically aren't allowed into R films without a guardian, anyway.
But at the same time, Hollywood isn't even willing to admit that it makes movies that should be seen solely by adults. Either kids should have some access to everything, or an adults-only category must be accepted.
The failure of NC-17 takes its toll on the creative community as well. Currently, almost any director who makes a movie for a major studio is contractually obligated to deliver nothing stronger than an R; if the film crosses some line with the MPAA, it must be watered down. Thus while U.S. moviegoers watched surgically altered versions of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" and Mary Harron's "American Psycho," viewers in other countries could see the uncut versions.
Some independent distributors allow filmmakers more freedom, such as Artisan Pictures with Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" and Wayne Wang's "The Center of the World," both of which include graphic sexual scenes that raised red flags with the MPAA. But as is often the case with adult-targeted indie films, Artisan opted to release those films unrated rather than to tar them with the dreaded NC-17.
The MPAA typically gets the blame for the failure of NC-17 as filmmakers, producers and studio officials decry the vague criteria that the ratings board uses to determine what differentiates an NC-17 movie from an R (or an R from a PG-13, etc.).
"The fact that it's illegal to show a 15-year-old 'Requiem for a Dream,' someone who the movie could help, is wrong, I think," Aronofsky said. "For me (the NC-17) was a big crime against the film."
At the same time, the MPAA wouldn't generate such heat if NC-17 weren't seen as the kiss of death in the marketplace.
"There are a number of exhibitors who won't show your movie and a number of newspapers that won't run your advertising if it's got an NC-17," Artisan worldwide marketing executive vice president Amorette Jones said. "We found if we take the picture out as an unrated picture, there are fewer exhibitors who have an issue with that, and we don't run into the same types of roadblocks with newspapers." (The Tribune doesn't bar ads for NC-17 movies.)
Blockbuster and Hollywood Video won't carry NC-17 films or high-profile adults-only unrated films. Artisan created a severely edited R-rated version of "Requiem for a Dream" just so the video chains would stock it.
What customers want
Blockbuster corporate spokesman Blake Lugash said the chain's longstanding no-NC-17 policy stems from its customers' stated preferences. "They want to come to Blockbuster for new releases, for convenience, for service, and coming to us for adult product is not something they told us that they wanted from us," Lugash said.
Here's part of the problem: The porn industry not only appropriated the X rating in the early '70s (the more X's, the dirtier the movie) but also the word "adult." When asked whether "adult product" referred to so-called "adult movies" or just movies intended for adults, Lugash wouldn't make the distinction.
Yet there's a huge distinction, and the failure to recognize it may help explain why multiplexes and video stores are overflowing with such infantile product. The harrowing, anti-drug "Requiem for a Dream," which earned Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Oscar nomination, doesn't cut Blockbuster muster, but the unrated "Takin' It All Off," starring Betty Boobers, and "Bikini Summer 2," starring Jessica Hahn, do.
An adults-only movie rating hasn't always been taboo. MPAA chairman Jack Valenti created the ratings system in 1968 as a replacement for the highly restrictive Hays Code, which from 1930 to 1966 dictated characters' moral behavior and prohibited such on-screen actions as open-mouthed kissing.
The new system liberated filmmakers to expand their themes and to create serious X-rated works, such as John Schlesinger's 1969 Best Picture Oscar winner "Midnight Cowboy," Ken Russell's "The Devils," Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's "Performance" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris."
But as the porn industry deluged the marketplace with X-rated films during the '70s, newspapers dropped the movies' ads, and malls and other landlords created leases to ensure that their theaters couldn't show X films.
The NC-17 was the MPAA's attempt to remove the stigma from the adults-only rating, yet it hasn't become much more respectable than the X.
"We did not do a good job as an industry when we made the transition from X to NC-17," said Mary Ann Grasso, vice president and executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners. "The intent was pure, and it was to allow filmmakers a rating to communicate to parents and adults: 'This is for you, not kids.' But somehow it didn't gain acceptance. The press really didn't help a lot because they said, 'All you've done is change it from X to NC-17,' and in the public's mind X meant bad."
The rating's biggest test was "Showgirls," which demonstrated that if an NC-17 film were backed by a major studio (MGM) and major director (Verhoeven, following up his hit "Basic Instinct"), it could receive a reasonably wide theatrical run supported by newspaper advertising. But the movie was a flop as well as a joke, giving the rating's opponents cover for abandoning it.
Geographical and cultural forces play a role in the conflict. General Cinema, which runs theaters mostly in major cities, will book NC-17 and unrated films it considers artistically and commercially viable. Carmike Cinemas, a huge chain operating primarily in small towns, won't.
"We don't play any NC-17s at all in any condition," Carmike president Mike Patrick said. "We have a hard time selling R's."
Aside from limiting theaters, NC-17 bans the under-18 crowd from the box office. For the corporate-owned studios, which try to avoid controversy anyway, the battle between artistic expression and ticket sales is no contest.
"As a studio we will not release an NC-17," said Nikki Rocco, Universal Pictures' president of distribution. "If for any reason a film is rated NC-17, we make sure it's edited to a version that is accepted by the (ratings) board as an R."
Universal led the way
Universal, by the way, is the studio that originally lobbied for creation of the NC-17 with "Henry & June."
"I think adult films for adults can work economically," Aronofsky said. "The problem is it can't work economically when it's restricted by many multinational corporations."
An adults-only rating doesn't face such resistance in Canada, where each of its 10 provinces has its own government-enforced ratings system. In Ontario, the R for "Restricted" actually means, "Viewing restricted to persons 18 years of age or older."
"Our Restricted classification is the same (as the NC-17), and our theaters will show it, the video stores will carry it, and there's not the stigma attached to it," Ontario Film Review Board chairman Bob Warren said.
He noted that 16 percent of Ontario releases receive the R rating; "Freddy Got Fingered" recently landed in this category, as well as "The Center of the World" and the violent "3000 Miles to Graceland."
"The United States is much more Puritanical about nudity and sex but don't seem to care that much about violence, whereas in Canada we're a lot more tolerant of sex and nudity but not as tolerant of violence," Warren said.
The category below R in Ontario is "Adult Accompaniment" (AA), which requires viewers under 14 to be accompanied by an adult. Many MPAA R films receive this rating, including "Scary Movie," "Me, Myself & Irene" and "Hannibal." Warren said by year's end the Ontario and other Canadian classification boards hope to institute an "18A" rating (ages 14-17 must be accompanied by an adult) to apply to the harder AA films.
The British Board of Film Classification includes an "18" rating for films or videos "suitable only for adults." Among the British "18" films are the unaltered "Eyes Wide Shut," "Fight Club" and "Scary Movie."
Why can countries with government-enforced rating systems recognize adult fare while the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave can't?
"They're a more civilized country than we are," film critic/historian Leonard Maltin said of Canada. "It's the British and European influence."
"I think it's a Puritanical thing," agreed Mark Urman, the New York president of Lions Gate Films' feature projects division. "So much is permissible in R-rated films that when you go beyond it, there's a feeling of 'We don't want to be associated with it.'"
Indeed, one of the byproducts of the non-functional NC-17 rating has been the broadening of the R, which makes Warren wonder about the MPAA system's overall usefulness.
"Classifications are supposed to give an indication of the age appropriateness of the movie, and if you have most of your movies going into one category, then it's really not an indicator," Warren said.
Valenti, who frequently cites surveys showing parental support for the MPAA system, has resisted calls to amend it. "The reason why I have been reluctant to change it is the law of unintended circumstances," he said. "If I start breaking down R, where do you break it down? If I say with this picture, 15 and under can see it, then I'm attacked by people in Congress saying, 'You're liberalizing it, and you're letting young kids unrestricted into these movies without a parent.'"
Kevin Smith, whose debut film "Clerks" was initially rated NC-17 for its foul language before the ruling was overturned on appeal, suggested: "What they ought to do is get rid of the NC-17 and just call it R-Plus, because R is a rating (moviegoers) are familiar with, and they can sleep well at night. NC-17 to them is 'We're heading into ancient Roman times and utter debauchery, and we're going to bring civilization down around our knees.'"
Film critic Roger Ebert has long pushed for a separate A rating to denote serious adult films, as opposed to pornography covered by NC-17. Like the NC-17, the A rating would bar kids 17 and under, a point that Valenti said set off alarm bells among the MPAA's lawyers.
"They said if you have two ratings with the same restrictions, then one rating becomes the bad adult film, off limits, and the other becomes the good adult film," Valenti said. "Now because you're dealing subjectively with judging these films, you will undoubtedly have somebody get an NC-17 rating who will sue you for discrimination, causing him to lose $8 million at the box office."
Yet pornography has moved almost completely out of commercial theaters and onto video , as acknowledged by the separate British "R18" rating for porn films "to be supplied only in licensed sex shops to adults . . . "
Given that NC-17 already is most commonly associated with art films, it's hard to see how once again changing the letter for the same under-17 restriction would make much difference. The main question remains: Are the entertainment industry and our culture willing to acknowledge that some films are appropriate only for adults yet deserve the chance to be widely seen?
Grasso, for one, hopes so. She said that at a recent meeting, most theater owners said, "If you provide me with a quality (NC-17) film, I will play it."
Valenti said he'd like to see the studios support the rating.
"It's been an unsolvable problem, and I don't know what to do about it except I'm urging companies, please, if you get a good film that you made for a modest amount of money, go for it," he said. "Don't cut a millimeter out of it, and let it go to the public; get 2,000, 2,500 (screens), and you'll make some money out of it. But so far I've been unable to do that."
Putting the 'L.I.E.' to NC-17
One problem facing distributors and filmmakers who make adult-oriented films is a lack of consistency in MPAA rulings and theater policies.
The MPAA recently slapped an NC-17 on Michael Cuesta's "L.I.E.," a low-budget drama featuring Brian Cox as a pedophile. The stated reason is "explicit sexual content," even though the movie, which screened at January's Sundance Film Festival, actually contains no explicit footage.
Lot 47 Films might have released the film unrated, but United Artists Theatres announced late last year that it no longer will book unrated films but will consider NC-17. Because the distributor wants the film to play at United Artists' popular Union Square Theater in Manhattan, it grudgingly will release "L.I.E." with an NC-17 in August.
"That's a tough one to swallow," Lot 47 co-president Jeff Lipsky said. "When we go out with an NC-17, it will be for that one theater."
Lipsky's preference isn't for NC-17 to gain wider acceptance but to be junked altogether.
"When cinematic exercises in human degradation and butchery are deemed appropriate for some parents to take their children to and powerful, provocative, cautionary tales that actually can provide basis for dialogue between parents and teenagers about certain societal teenagers are called NC-17, (the situation) is preposterous," he said. "You want to talk about 'Scarface'? You want to talk about 'The General's Daughter'? You want to talk about 'Boogie Nights'? They're all R-rated films."
Different film boards have classified movies such as "Billy Elliot" and "Scary Movie" differently.
MOTION PICTURE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA
G General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. ("Billy Elliot" and "Scary Movie.")
NC-17 No one 17 and under admitted.
BRITISH BOARD OF FILM
U Universal. Suitable for all.
PG General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for some children.
12 Suitable only for 12 years and older.
15 Suitable only for 15 years and older. ("Billy Elliot.")
18 Suitable only for adults. ("Scary Movie.")
ONTARIO FILM REVIEW BOARD
F Family. Appropriate for viewing by a person of any age.
PG Parental guidance. Every parent should exercise descretion in permitting a child to view.
AA Adult accompaniment. Viewing should be restricted to persons 14 years of age or older or to persons younger than 14 who are accompanied by an adult. ("Billy Elliot" and "Scary Movie.")
R Restricted. Viewing restricted to persons 18 years of age or older.
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times