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 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 television stations in more conservative states, won't accept advertising 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.
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 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," 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 Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee were coming into their own, making movies that were adult in theme but artistic in style. It was possible to imagine these directors making films for adult audiences that would solidify the NC-17 as a rating just as acceptable as an R.
(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 Sharon Stone thriller "Sliver" (1993) were edited to land an R rating (which means children under 17 can be admitted, if accompanied by a parent or guardian).
A year later, Oliver Stone was given an NC-17 for "Natural Born Killers," as was Quentin Tarantino for "Pulp Fiction." Both re-cut their films so that they would end up with an R. (Both cinema history and the history of the NC-17 may well have unfolded very differently had "Pulp Fiction" gone out with an NC-17.)
The movies that did come out with an NC-17 — most notably Paul Verhoeven's über-campfest "Showgirls" (1995) — were so sufficiently silly and skin-filled that they only confirmed the perception that it was not a rating to be taken seriously.
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 Bernardo Bertolucci's art house drama "The Dreamers" as NC-17.
But that proved short-lived. Tom Bernard, the Sony Pictures Classics executive who was in charge of releasing Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" that year, said he was surprised by the opposition from media outlets and theater owners when he sought to bring out the movie as an NC-17. "The rating certainly hurt the box office," he said.
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 Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," Todd Solondz's "Happiness" and the Martin Lawrence concert film "You So Crazy." In 1995, Disney-owned Miramax set up an independent releasing entity for Larry Clark's "Kids" after it received an NC-17.) Increasingly, many filmmakers are choosing this course or are cutting their films to receive an R.
One recent film that stuck by its NC-17 was "Killer Joe," a revenge drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch. The movie, directed by "The Exorcist" helmer William Friedkin, received the NC-17 primarily because of one graphic scene of violence tinged with an unconventional sexual act. Although McConaughey told The Times that he thought the film should wear the rating as a "badge of honor," the movie has had minimal commercial traction.
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 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 an NC-17 "does not mean 'obscene' or 'pornographic' in the common or legal meaning of those words, 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." 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 "Blue Valentine," for an oral sex scene that featured no nudity.
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 "Black Swan" received an R. Cianfrance called the NC-17 "a form of censorship" and said he was "confused and baffled" by what he saw as a double standard.
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 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'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."