Twenty-five years after the Motion Picture Assn. of America inaugurated its voluntary ratings code, the system is still getting mixed reviews from Hollywood.

While parents across America appear to like the code even more than they like many films — a recent poll found a 75% approval rate — filmmakers say the Classification & Ratings Administration is at best a maze of contradictions and at worst a form of de facto censorship. Critics say that’s because the most extreme ratings — the G (for general audiences) and, most important, the NC-17 (no children under 17) — automatically marginalize a film. Among the industry complaints:

o Although the system was designed to protect the creative process from outside interference and overt censorship, the ratings have, albeit by accident, become the tail that wags the dog — influencing scripts, contracts, editing, advertising, distribution and ancillary markets.

o While the ratings have largely succeeded in eliminating capricious local ratings boards that created havoc for distribs and exhibs, the code’s standards have had little effect on local newspapers’ advertising acceptance policies, which are still wildly inconsistent.

o Even though Congress and many Americans say they’re fed up with excessive violence in entertainment, critics claim the ratings board is far more likely to deem a violent film suitable for younger auds than a film with lots of sex, however artistically the lovemaking is presented.

o Except for certain animated films and other overt kids’ fare, the G rating is considered the kiss of death because teens won’t go to a perceived “kiddie” pic. Filmmakers handed a G rating regularly insert a profanity to graduate to PG.

o Then there’s the opposite end of the rating spectrum: the deadly NC-17 tag, initiated in 1990. The MPAA acknowledges that NC-17, which was supposed to designate serious adult fare without the stigma of the X rating, hasn’t panned out as expected, but it disagrees with filmmakers on how to make it work.

At its best, NC-17 would probably be a fringe rating, since most filmmakers want to exclude as few patrons as possible. But the NC-17 battle brings to a head all the hard feelings about the MPAA code — about the limits of what it can do, and the demands of what it should be doing.

The X rating itself began life respectably: United Artists released “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) with X ratings before the designation became the universal symbol for hardcore porn. X was the only rating letter not copyrighted by the MPAA; Valenti says, “We wanted anybody to be able to use it if they didn’t want to submit the film for a rating”– but it also saved board members from viewing porn pix seeking the designation.

New tag

By 1990, with the porno biz essentially a homevideo medium, the MPAA created a new adult-film rating that was intended to remove the taint of the X. Though the skin trade, and everyone else, was still free to self-apply the X, the rating board ceased to hand out that tag.

The creation of NC-17 was “an attempt to start all over again,” says Valenti. But while NC-17 was copyrighted, it replaced the X in almost every other way: Although the rating was taken seriously at first (Universal released “Henry and June” with an NC-17), three years later, many theaters won’t carry films with the NC-17 tag; some newspapers refuse ads for NC-17 pix.

More significantly, major videostore chains — including the largest, Blockbuster — boycott the rating. Ancillary markets account for 20% of a film’s income.

Bill Kartozian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, admits that “a lot of exhibitors wonder about the commerciality” of NC-17. Mall owners often put it in their lease that theaters can’t show NC-17 films, and many newspapers refuse to carry even discreet ads for NC-17 pix.

Not surprisingly, all studio contracts with directors now insist that their films receive a rating below NC-17. In the first 11 months of ’93, only four out of 556 rated films came in with an NC-17. And none of those four was released by a major studio.

Malle a tete

“If NC-17 was doing what it was supposed to do, it would work,” says Vincent Malle, co-producer of his brother Louis Malle’s “Damage,” which was cut to avoid an NC-17. “New Line absolutely insisted that the film get an R because of the economic problems that come with an NC-17,” he says.

The Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA) originally rated “Damage” NC-17, without offering specifics, according to Malle. “First we cut one second, then two seconds; we never knew exactly what their problem was. We came back something like five times.”

Rating board chairman Richard Heffner says that’s not true: “I can tell you that he was given precisely the scene.”

MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Pollock says, “While you can’t get 1, 500 screens to play an NC-17, you can get maybe 500,” which would make an NC-17 economically feasible if the budget were well below the studio average of $ 25 million.

“It is economically viable to make movies for adults,” says Pollock. “That was not true 10 years ago, but we have lots of movies that do very well without getting that audience under 17. The problem is really in the ancillary rights area.”

And the key is Blockbuster. The country’s largest vidstore chain, with 2,273 outlets in the continental U.S., refused to carry X films and that ban was immediately carried over to NC-17s in 1990. (The chain will, however, consider unrated films on a case-by-case basis.)

Though the NC-17 rating is financially punitive for filmmakers, the ratings people say the ancillary marketing problems are not their concern. “It’s domestic theatrical exhibition for which we rate,” says Heffner, “and nothing else is in our minds; it can’t be.”

Broader implications

MPAA topper Jack Valenti agrees: “The rating board is not the council of economic advisers. We tell (the members of the rating board), ‘Forget about the economics of the picture.’ ”

“This is the whole problem: They set themselves up as a guideline group, but its ramifications are far greater than that, and they know it,” says Bingham Ray , a partner in October Films. October chooses to release most of its pix, including the recent “Ruby in Paradise,” unrated.

Mark Lipsky, senior VP of PR firm Baker Winokur Ryder and veteran of many ratings battles from his stint as president of Silverlight Entertainment, agrees that the ratings “affect every part of the filmmaking process, and it’s a role they won’t admit to. The obscenity inherent in the system is that they won’t accept the responsibility they’ve earned through the success of their system.”

Part of that system is that every rated film must submit all ad material to the MPAA’s advertising department.

The ad wing has been under fire recently for rejecting a newspaper ad for the ’70s comedy “Dazed and Confused” because it carried the tagline, “Finally! A movie for everyone who DID inhale.” The MPAA also excised a review quote in the ad from US magazine that said: “Deliciously accurate in its portrayal of the generation that fell betweeen LSD and R.E.M.”

Prudes and nudes

The department also nixed a trailer for MGM’s “Six Degrees of Separation” because it showed Michelangelo’s nude Adam from the Sistine Chapel fresco. MPAA advertising director Bethlyn Hand says “MGM never said a word” of protest.

The ad department is run separate from the rating board, and Heffner says the board can’t be swayed by knowledge that a rating could cost a film company millions of dollars. “This is all voluntary,” he says. “Nobody has to submit a film.”

Veteran producer and former studio head Robert Evans scoffs at that argument. “Voluntary? What hypocrisy, what Washingtonian nonsense. It’s ‘Go broke or do what I tell you to do.’ ”

Evans had to cut four minutes — all of it sexual — from his summer ’93 Paramount release “Sliver” to avoid an NC-17. The film, he states, had “nothing graphic. They cut out even a movement as too suggestive.”

T
he scene in question was a rear shot of Sharon Stone during intercourse with William Baldwin. “She was nude but you don’t see her ass,” says Evans. “But you see her movement. In other words, she has to be a statue. They had a problem with it because it was effective. That’s the artistry of it. It suggested, but it didn’t show anything.”

“Sliver” grossed $ 36 million in the U.S.; an uncut version took in almost $ 78 million overseas.

Heffner admits that the NC-17 category has not worked out the way it was intended. “It was clear we needed a public service campaign. A mistake was made in not educating the public” that the NC-17 was not the same as an X.

Call for new rating

Lipsky, who helped spearhead a campaign for a new category, says, “The only one way to resolve the problem is to add a rating, not to change the name of it.”

But Valenti says, “My lawyers tell me if we have two ratings that both bar children, you’re asking the rating board for the first time to make a judgment based on quality; the minute you do that, the person given the NC-17 would charge you with antitrust and discrimination.”

Valenti has long rejected that the MPAA can make a distinction between “acceptable” adult films and porn: “‘Pornographic’ and ‘obscene’ are judgment words,” he says, saying that CARA can’t make those decisions.

Lipsky counters that, across America, “Videostore owners have had no problem separating porn from mature films, so why can’t the MPAA? … Even Jack Valenti knows the difference between pornography and art films and it has nothing to do with quality, as much as he wants you to think it does.”

Greg Dunn, VP of marketing for Knoxville-based Regal Cinemas, want to bring back the X rating, which he says “would signify that NC-17 is for adults, but not pornography.” The return of the X, he says, “would give some validity” to the NC-17.

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