Last week, to no one's real surprise, the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board slapped the sex-addiction drama 'Shame' with an NC-17 rating. The surprise is that distributor Fox Searchlight is not only not contesting the ruling, but embracing it: as the studio insisted to The Hollywood Reporter, the NC-17 rating should be "a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter." If only. Pretending that NC-17 no longer carries a stigma that severely limits box-office potential won't make it so. Critics and discerning moviegoers have been complaining for more than 20 years that we need a new adult rating that distinguishes between pornography and serious dramas -- like the Oscar-hopeful 'Shame' -- that are not for kids. In fact, we should go beyond that. We need a rating that doesn't just protect kids from adult content, but one that protects adults from cinema oriented toward the juvenile.
It's clear that NC-17 has failed in its mission to create a safe space for grown-up movies. The MPAA invented it 21 years ago to do what the X-rating had done in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- designate movies like 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Last Tango in Paris' as too mature for kids, but too serious for the raincoat crowd -- before the pornographers seized the uncopyrighted X and made it their own. To many, however (especially to the gatekeepers at theaters, video retail chains like Blockbuster, and newspaper advertising departments), NC-17 was just X with a new name. The first NC-17 movie was the arty but sex-drenched 'Henry & June' (1990); the most notorious was the campy but sex-drenched 'Showgirls' (1995). Neither was a commercial success; 'Henry' grossed $11.6 million, 'Showgirls' $20.4 million. And those were the rating's high water marks at the box office; no other NC-17 movie has earned more than $7.7 million and half have earned less than $1 million, in part because of the difficulty getting NC-17 movies booked in theaters, advertised in newspapers, and stocked on video shelves.
It's no wonder that, with very few exceptions, studios contractually obligate directors to deliver movies rated no higher than R. Of the thousands of movies the board has rated over the last two decades, only about two dozen have gone into theaters with an NC-17 seal. Distributors whose movies get the dreaded rating almost always either appeal the board's decision or trim the film until any child can see it as long as their parents bring them to the theater.
There's still some publicity benefit to be reaped from the controversy over an NC-17 rating (or a potential NC-17 rating), but not much. It was only a year ago that Harvey Weinstein, who used to relish this sort of scandal-driven publicity when he was running Miramax, fought tooth and nail to prevent 'Blue Valentine' from earning an NC-17 rating over a fairly discreet oral sex scene. He won the appeal without trimming the scene, and the R-rated film earned a modest $9.7 million in 450 theaters and garnered an Oscar nomination for star Michelle Williams. That's certainly better than it would have done with an NC-17 rating, but still meager enough that the controversy can't be said to have boosted the movie's box office or its visibility to Oscar voters.
Fox Searchlight is being either naive or disingenuous in stating that 'Shame' could be the film that erases the NC-17's stigma. (At least they're not going to cut the film to earn an R, not that there would be much left if they did.) There's no evidence that newspapers are any more likely to advertise an NC-17 movie now than they were during the 'Blue Valentine' battle, or that video retail chains (today, that means Wal-Mart, not Blockbuster) are any more likely to stock one.
As for theaters, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian seems to back the distributor's sentiment, calling it a "myth" that theaters won't book NC-17 movies. "We've surveyed 100 of our leading members, and 97 percent say they will play an NC-17 film if the movie has commercial appeal," he told The Hollywood Reporter. Ah, but there's a lot of wiggle room in those last six words. After all, an NC-17 by definition limits the potential audience, and its 21-year history demonstrates an inherent lack of commercial appeal.
Besides, 'Shame' is an intense drama that can be hard to watch, as much for its raw candor as for its actors in the raw. So the movie was never going to have much commercial appeal anyway. Critics who review it will duly mention the rating and the movie's sexual frankness -- stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan will be praised as "brave," with "brave" being the euphemism critics use to describe a serious actor who does full-frontal nudity -- before dividing into two camps: those who think 'Shame' lives up to its buzz and those who find it overhyped or too disturbing and off-putting. Oscar voters will do the same, perhaps even offering nominations to Fassbender and Mulligan, without rewarding the film as a whole. A handful of art-house moviegoers will see it in a handful of venues. It'll gross under $10 million, which other studios will see as proof that the NC-17 is still box office poison. And it'll be business as usual.
And that would be... well, a shame. Not just because an artful drama like 'Shame' should be made widely available to interested adults, but because there needs to be a space for grown-up movies. What's really rare about a movie like 'Shame' isn't the sexual content but the fact that it's a serious drama, with no action heroics, comic-book characters, or Roman numerals in the title. It's not for kids -- even mature ones who might come with their parents if the film were rated R -- because it's an adult film about adult lives and adult problems that would make kids' eyes glaze over. Sex or no sex, such movies used to be the studios' meat and potatoes, especially at Oscar time; today, the studios would rather chase teenage dollars by offering blockbuster action spectacles, broad comedies, and cheap horror flicks. Sure, adults see those movies too, but largely because there's nothing else out there.
The studios complain that adults have stopped going to the movies and would rather watch them at home, but what are they offering to entice grown-ups back into theaters? In a handful of American theaters now, you can get gourmet meals and even alcoholic drinks. That's a good start, but who wants to top off a steak and a glass of wine with Adam Sandler's 'Jack and Jill'?
What we need, then, is an adult rating, one that signifies more than mainstream actors gettin' nekkid. We need one that tells viewers: Not only is this movie not suitable for kids, but they won't find it of interest. This one's strictly for grown-ups. You can see this without fear of being bothered by blubbering babies, texting teens, or traumatized toddlers dragged along by parents who have no clue what's inappropriate for their kids. You won't have to worry about stepping on gum because no one who snaps gum will see this movie anyway. And you won't have to pay extra for 3D glasses because this movie doesn't need such juvenile gimmickry.* (*Unless this movie is Werner Herzog's 3D documentary 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams.')
Until then, we'll have to make do with NC-17 and pray that Fox Searchlight and NATO are right, that movies meant strictly for grown-ups can be commercial enough to become commonplace. As film editor Steven Santos put it in a Tweet, "Is there a way more adult movies than 'Shame' could be rated NC-17? It will guarantee no annoying teenagers in the theater."
[Photos: Fox Searchlight]
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