MPAA tries to remove NC-17 stigma

Glickman takes a hard look at ratings

In the past three months, MPAA chairman-CEO Dan Glickman has been working to fine-tune the movie-ratings system. But this week at ShoWest, he will face his biggest hurdle yet: trying to make NC-17 respectable.

The awkwardly named rating, which originated in 1990, has become synonymous with tainted goods. Distributors and exhibitors blame each other for the fact that the category is virtually nonexistent for Hollywood product.

Parents have been pressuring Glickman and his cohorts at the Motion Picture Assn. of America, along with National Assn. of Theater Owners John Fithian, to find a solution to the dilemma. Naysayers claim that the R rating is too broad, encompassing everything from a few swear words or brief flashes of nudity to repeated scenes of stomach-churning mutilation and disembowelments.

The biggest complaint is that, with parental permission, children and teens are allowed to see R’s, and parents think the definition of R is too wide-ranging to guide them.

The goal is to find a category for some films that are now informally called “hard R’s” — i.e., content so graphic that no one under the age of 17 should be allowed to see it at all in theaters. The new generation of horror pics, namely, the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, are pushing the limits of the “hard R” category.

While most sides agree that there is a need for a change, the big debate is whether to create a category or to revive — and make respectable — a rating that’s been around since Universal’s 1990 “Henry & June.” Because of the realities of the marketplace, one idea that has been floated is to create a disclaimer for R-rated pics, saying it isn’t appropriate for children, period. And there’s been talk in the past of creating a rating between PG-13 and R.

Glickman, along with Fithian and Classification & Ratings Administration topper Joan Graves, will raise the subject of NC-17 when briefing exhibs at ShoWest this week on overall changes being proposed to the ratings system that are designed to make the system more transparent.

Also, the trio are expected to talk about somehow incorporating smoking into the ratings sytem. Watchdog groups have long complained that movies romanticize smoking.

When Jack Valenti debuted the ratings system in 1968, there was an X category, but it eventually became hijacked by the porn business.

Before porn took over, the X category yielded several Hollywood hits, including United Artists’ 1969 best pic winner, “Midnight Cowboy.”

But the major studios have released only 19 films rated NC-17. The highest grossing was MGM’s 1995 “Showgirls,” which took in $20 million at the domestic box office after costing well over $40 million.

As one studio exec puts it, “There really needs to be a good, commercial movie that can break through the tide. The problem is, most of the NC-17 films have been niche or arthouse. It’s unclear whether the problem is the rating or the movie.”

Glickman, Fithian and Graves face a tough task in trying to persuade a skittish film business to embrace NC-17. If hard R horror pics were rated NC-17, they would lose a large chunk of the teen audience.

“The ship has sailed on this one,” says one top studio exec.

Studios say some exhibitors won’t book NC-17 films, and some daily newspapers refuse to carry ads for such pics. (An unrated film, in contrast, is considered on a case-by-case basis.)

Exhibs deny a policy against NC-17, pointing to a NATO survey in which a majority of exhibs said they would give screen space to such a film, depending on the pic, of course.

Blockbuster, too, refuses to carry DVDs rated NC-17.

Studio execs doubt exhibs would really book NC-17 films, despite what they said in the NATO survey, and they aren’t exactly rushing to test the waters. Studios consider the R rating restrictive enough, with its marketing limitations (e.g., no TV ads before 9 p.m.) and a proviso that kids aren’t allowed in without an adult.

The studios’ bread and butter comes from films rated PG-13, which in 2006 accounted for roughly 50% of box office receipts.

The ShoWest talks are a continuation of discussions that began in January. At Sundance, Glickman and Graves told independent filmmakers that directors would have more freedom to pursue edgier arthouse fare if the system were more viable.

Case in point: Buyers at Sundance were intrigued by “Teeth,” about a girl with a toothy vagina, but steered clear because of the ratings implications. Harvey Weinstein partnered with Lionsgate in buying distrib rights, since Lionsgate isn’t a member of the MPAA and can release unrated pics.

Indies have long claimed the MPAA has double standards, allowing major studios to get away with stuff an indie cannot. (Their other complaint is that the MPAA is tougher on sex than on violence.) But indies have one advantage over filmmakers at the majors: If a film gets an NC-17 rating, an indie (as a non-signatory to the MPAA) has the option of releasing the pic unrated.

“Many movies have tried to reinstate a level of validity to the NC-17 rating, but it’s complicated,” says one specialty distribution executive. “The rating does have a chilling effect on the marketplace.”

The ultimate fear is that watchdog groups and Washington lawmakers could try to exert political pressure on the industry — precisely the reason Valenti started the system in the 1960s.

And, of course, there is always the worry that the ratings system will somehow make its way into the 2008 election campaigns.

“It’s better to self-regulate ourselves than for the government to do it for us,” says another studio exec. “God knows, that would be worse. It is very important to have standards. It protects the system. It’s good that Dan (Glickman) is trying to open a dialogue.”

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