X Film Rating Dropped and Replaced by NC-17 : Movies: Designation would bar children under 17. Move expected to clear the way for strong adult themes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to complaints of undue censorship from movie makers and film critics, the Motion Picture Assn. of America abolished its X movie rating on Wednesday and replaced it with a new adults-only classification.

The MPAA, in a joint announcement with the powerful National Assn. of Theater Owners, said the X rating would be replaced immediately with a designation of NC-17, which indicates that no children under 17 can be admitted.

The groups also said they would add explanations to R ratings, telling parents whether films contain violence, explicit language or sex. Only adults or children accompanied by adults are permitted at R-rated movies.

The new rating category is expected to clear the way for strong adult-theme films to be released and marketed in theaters without the taint of pornography now associated with an X rating.

The Writers Guild of America West and the Directors Guild of America, which had sought dialogue between their members and the MPAA on the ratings, issued a joint statement supporting the new category and the expanded explanation of the R rating.

"We are going back to the original intent of the rating system," said MPAA President Jack Valenti. "We have an adults-only category and anybody who wants to go see (an NC-17-rated) film can go see it, period. It takes us back to the days, hopefully, of 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'A Clockwork Orange.' "

Those films were among the few major studio releases with X ratings after Valenti installed the modern system in 1968. For the last 15 years, few distributors--or mainstream movie makers--have attempted to buck the public perception of the X as pornography.

The new rating was met with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm from people in the industry.

"It was a change that was obviously necessary," said Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson ("Rain Man"), one of 31 leading directors who petitioned the MPAA to adopt an A adults-only rating. "The name doesn't matter as long as it accommodates the adult films. It makes perfect sense, whatever you want to call it."

"It's better to have a category that can work with honor, to replace the X which had a stigma attached to it," said Tom Pollock, chairman of the movie division of MCA-Universal. Universal may be the first beneficiary of the new rating. "Henry & June," a soon-to-be released erotic film based on the sexual relationships involving writer Anais Nin and novelist Henry Miller and his wife in 1931 Paris, had been rated X, but Pollock said Wednesday he will submit the film for an NC-17 rather than proceed with appealing the X rating.

"Henry & June" was seen as a key element in the battle to overturn the X rating. It was one of the first major studio productions to be unwillingly strapped with that designation.

Pornographic filmmakers co-opted the MPAA's non-copyrighted "X" in the early '70s, and as a result many newspapers and television stations have refused advertising for X-rated films and many theater chains have refused to book them. The new NC-17 rating is copyrighted.

Valenti had long resisted changing the adults-only rating. But, he said, changes in the pornography business have taken most hard-core films out of theaters. "Pornography's a video business now, it's extinct as far as we're concerned," he said.

Valenti's original rating system included four designations: G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance, R for films restricted to adults and children accompanied by adults and X for adults only. In 1984, protests over the violence in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" prompted the adoption of a fifth rating--PG-13--which cautions parents that the films may not be suitable for children under age 13.

Valenti said that the MPAA will reclassify any X-rated films in current release with the NC-17 if the distributors request it.

Miramax Films, a New York-based distributor that sued the MPAA and lost over the X rating given the Spanish-language film "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," said it is too late to help the film.

Miramax alleges the X limited its ability to market the movie. The company will ask for the NC-17 rating for the videocassette of the film and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," which was rated X earlier this year.

"The issue of what needs to be cut to get an R rating will still need to be addressed," said Russell Schwartz, executive vice president of Miramax. "But I'm happy there is now a legitimate category for adult movies . . . that the stigma of pornography has been removed."

Others were less enthusiastic.

"It's certainly an improvement, but (Valenti) really hasn't resolved the issue," said Mark Lipsky, a New York distributor who initiated the directors' petition after his film, "Life is Cheap . . . but toilet paper is expensive," received an X this summer. "What we were hoping for was a rating in between an R and X that would signify adult."

Some people said they were reserving judgment until newspapers and television stations commit themselves to accepting advertising for NC-17 films.

"For this to be meaningful, we'll have to wait and see if the ad media will allow the ads to be placed," said Bill Shields, chairman of the American Film Marketing Assn., which represents many international distributors of American movies. The group has been critical of the X-rating because the designation hurts overseas sales. "(The ability to advertise) will be the key to distinguishing between pornographic films and motion pictures that have artistic merit."

Valenti said he did not believe advertising would be a problem on NC-17 films since the advertising bans were established in reaction to pornographic films. "The last thing a pornographer wants to put on his film is 'MPAA-rated NC-17,' " Valenti said.

The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have published editorials calling for a rethinking of the MPAA ratings, but officials at both newspapers said Wednesday they are not ready to grant blanket acceptance to all NC-17 ads.

"We don't carry ads for hard-core pornographic movies, but there have been occasions in the past when we ran ads for X-rated films if we felt there was an artistic reason," said Laura Morgan, public information supervisor for The Los Angeles Times. "Our review process will remain the same: Any movie above an R rating will need to have our film critics review it for subject matter."

The MPAA also announced on Wednesday that within two weeks, movies rated R will be accompanied by brief explanations of the reasons. "One thing I hear from parents that they want from us is more explanation of the content of films," Valenti said. "We will have from five to 10 words explaining whether it's strong sexuality or language or violence or just what."

Such explanations have become common in listings of cable-system movies.

Valenti said the content information on R-rated movies will be sent weekly to about 1,000 film critics throughout the country in the hope they will add that information to their reviews.

Nearly everyone agrees that the new adults-only rating will work only if it is enforced at America's 23,000 theaters, whose owners have been frequently criticized for allowing children into R-rated films unaccompanied. Bill Kartozian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, said the owners are behind the new rating.

"Most owners realize that the system is good for the business and it is for the public," Kartozian said. "If we didn't have the system, we might be confronting governmental censorship, which is something everyone tries to avoid."

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