Front-paging NC-17

Reel Blog   

The L.A Times takes a front-page look into Lust, Caution’s attempt to remove the perceived stigma and misconceptions of the NC-17 rating. Reporter Lorenza Muñoz goes deep into the weeds with studio executives and uncovers some new misconceptions perpetuated by the executives themselves.

In addition, the lingering association between NC-17 and X-rated fare can take a toll at the box office. Films labeled as NC-17 sell as many as 25% fewer tickets, studio executives said. The highest-grossing NC-17 film was “Showgirls,” a 1995 film that brought in $20.4 million.

It is difficult to conceive on what basis anyone can make such a comparison. There will need to be more than a dozen or so NC-17 rated films before there is enough data to make a such an assertion. If one can make an assertion, the available evidence points in the opposite direction:


NC-17 rated films take in, on average, $2.1 million more than unrated films – the preferred form for releasing films that might otherwise be rated NC-17. In other words, one might make the reckless assertion that the stigmatic NC-17 increases box office take by more than 100 percent.

Focus Features head and Lust, Caution co-writer James Schamus has made it his personal mission to gain acceptance for the NC-17 rating through this film.

“Very few films have accepted the rating because they assume people will be turned off,” said Schamus, Lee’s longtime collaborator. “That is the assumption we are questioning. I am not saying this will be a slam-dunk, commercial movie, but we may well have made the film that changes NC-17 in the culture. I think the time has come.”


Focus is lobbying chains to reconsider the policy and has found an ally in (John) Fithian, who has been trying to mobilize the members of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners to support the movie. He brought up the issue at the group’s annual gathering in Chicago last week.

“We are strongly encouraging our members to give due consideration to this picture and what it means, which is that if you take a good filmmaker and take a good film and make it NC-17 it can be commercially viable,” Fithian said this week in an interview.

As part of Focus’ lobbying campaign, Schamus has compiled a list of images and descriptions of films that have played without controversy in theaters of the few exhibitors reluctant to show Lust, Caution.

Muñoz uncovers a few more misconceptions about the NC-17 among distribution execs.

Studio executives contend that the NC-17 rating is too broad, lumping movies such as “Orgazmo” and “Whore” with films from such noted directors as Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg.

“It is hard for audiences to distinguish what the rating means,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. He noted that Almodovar’s 2004 film “Bad Education” suffered in part because of its NC-17 rating and was not among his highest-grossing films. “People perceive they might get an unpleasant surprise and so they stay away. That’s a problem.”

Talk about bad education: it is difficult to imagine a ratings category being too broad that only contains a dozen or so films. Further, if any rating suffers from over-broadness it is the R. Two instances of the “f-word” will get your film in the same rating category as a film with prolonged scenes of torture or explicit sexuality, and the reason for that is the unwillingness of distributors to accept an appropriate NC-17 rating for their more adult films.

Further, an honest look at the type of films that receive an NC-17…


…shows that the commercial appeal of the films, their subject matter, their directors and stars were probably more determinative of their commercial success than any rating they received.

The NC-17 rating is, more than anything else, a marketing problem – a marketing problem that would be far easier to solve if distributors themselves did not contribute to it by perpetuating myths and using the NC-17 rating as a whipping boy.

For extra bonus points, to satisfy major home video retailers who stock unrated DVDs but refuse to carry films with an NC-17, Focus has prepared an R- rated version. A marketing pitch comes immediately to mind: “See the film the way nobody intended it – Lust, Caution: The Hypocrisy Edition. Only on DVD”.