NC-17 – Use It or Lose It

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Entertainment Weekly posts a provocative dissection of the movie rating system from its June 22 edition online.

Writer Mark Harris, prompted by the extreme and sexualized violence of Hostel II receiving an R rating, puts his finger firmly on some of the weaknesses of the rating system as it now exists:

The hypocrisies of the ratings system are familiar: Indies have it harder than studio films, naked men are naughtier than naked women, and almost any sex is worse than almost all violence. But the problem runs deeper. The MPAA has never decided whether its job is guidance or rule making. As a result, four ratings – G, PG, PG-13, and R – are merely advisory: The raters tell parents what’s in a movie and let them decide whether to take their kids. But the fifth rating – NC-17 – carries the force of law: It’s the only stage at which raters decide their judgment should overrule yours. It’s a sharp distinction, and Hostel II’s R rating proves that they’re manifestly incompetent to make it.

NATO has repeatedly called for the proper rating of films – particularly films that merit an NC-17. At ShoWest in March, NATO president John Fithian stated

Speaking of the NC-17 rating, we call again for efforts to revitalize that important category through the release of significant movies under the NC-17 rating. Contrary to often-repeated myths, most theatre companies will play NC-17 movies that are appropriate for their markets, and most newspapers will run advertisements for the pictures. NC-17 movies on average make $3.9 million, while unrated films on average make $1.8 million. Serious filmmakers need to take NC-17 seriously. Everyone in the industry should resist any temptation to treat NC-17 as a negative judgment, rather than an integral part of the rating system that contemplates entertainment for both children and adults.

This approach is simple, but it is not easy. NATO General Counsel Kendrick Macdowell’s column in Boxoffice magazine’s May issue makes the point:

We do not pretend that simply saying “NC-17 is not a negative” can suddenly alter entrenched public perceptions. But we know that better educating the public begins with more precise communication. We also know that the vast majority of exhibitors will play NC-17 movies, if otherwise appropriate in content to their communities, and that virtually no exhibitor has a categorical policy against playing NC-17 movies. The same holds true for the vast majority of newspapers and their policies about ads for NC-17 movies.

We further do not pretend that there is no consequence whatever from an NC-17 rating. Yes, there is a consequence. Per above, patrons under 18 need not apply. But if I might paraphrase a Supreme Court ruling on the limitations of government regulation of free expression, we rue the day that all entertainment is reduced to the level of what is suitable for children.

Harris doesn’t put much faith in that solution. He fears, perhaps correctly, that NC-17 will soon become the hobby horse of every interest group that believes there is some otherwise unobjectionable content that children should never be allowed to see, regardless of context or treatment – much as anti-smoking groups have pressed for an automatic R rating for any “non-historical” depiction of smoking.

His solution is to drop the NC-17 rating entirely and to put detailed descriptions of films online – leaving it up to the judgment of parents alone. How much worse, he asks, can they be than the current custodians of the rating system?

This solution, though intellectually consistent, and satisfyingly hypocrisy-free, may open the door to regulation. To ward off government interference in what adults can choose for themselves to see, it is necessary to have a rating that categorically excludes minors. Harris may scoff at the possibility of government intrusion, but it is important to keep in mind that the last local film censorship board didn’t go out of business until 1993.

Government attempts to regulate content in movie theaters will probably fail, but they are expensive to fight in legislatures and litigate in the courts. I don’t know of a way to measure the chilling effect such attempts will have on film makers, but I can’t imagine there will be none.

Hollywood is a sometimes ungainly amalgam of artistic impulse and commercial calculation and the rating system – as any system devised by man must be – is similarly compromised. The question is how compromised can it be and still remain viable.

NATO members have pledged to show NC-17 films that are appropriate for their theaters. NATO has called for serious film makers to take NC-17 seriously and for movie distributors to not undermine perceptions of the rating with marketing campaigns and public statements that liken it to censorship. Fithian again:

The integrity of the system, and the respect it thereby earns from parents and government officials alike, depends on demonstrating, first and foremost, our own respect for the system. Ideally, all movies in every venue would be rated. At an absolute minimum, no movie should ever be marketed on the basis that it flouts the rating system.

It is also past time for the raters themselves to take the NC-17 rating seriously and start applying it – or run the risk that someone else will.