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Defining Deviancy Down

By treating audiences with kid gloves, the MPAA delivers a lethal blow to grown-up fare

The NC-17 rating is approaching its ninth birthday, but some people are calling for a funeral instead. In a recent manifesto published in Variety, South Park cocreator Matt Stone argued for a suppression of the NC-17 in favor of an all-encompassing R rating that gives parents much more specific information about a film's content. Still other critics are calling for an "A" rating, between R and NC-17, that would qualitatively distinguish between adult films and pornography— which was the rationale behind creating NC-17 in the first place. The only consensus is that NC-17 is the kiss of death: last year only five films were rated NC-17 (most prominently, Orgazmo, from Stone's collaborator Trey Parker), as compared to 433 R and 115 PG-13.

Somewhere along the way, NC-17 became the rating that dare not speak its name. Devised in 1990 as a way to distinguish between the X rating (which was never trademarked by the MPAA and could therefore be used by porn films for its cachet value) and artsier fare with mature subject matter, the NC-17 has become in some ways more stigmatized than its predecessor. Unlike the X, which in its heyday at least made some people horny, NC-17 only frightens people, what with its noxious connotations of sex, violence, drug use, and— least sexy of all to Hollywood— smaller profit margins due to the shutout of teen viewers.

Release an NC-17 film, the cautionary tale goes, and your ads won't run in many newspapers or on TV, theaters won't book your film, and video chains won't carry your videos. Faced with this gauntlet of actual and assumed obstacles, most distributors require directors to turn in an R cut before even doing business. "It's an economic boycott, essentially, economic censorship," claims Hooman Majd, head of the production company Palm Pictures, who has fought for the last few months to ward off an NC-17 for the upcoming James Toback film Black and White.

So what happened to the noble dream of an adult cinema that was nonpornographic— well, maybe a little pornographic— but in any case not synonymous with pornography? Theories abound, but Toback offers an especially compelling explanation for the demise of NC-17. "One word: Showgirls," he says, referring to the most famous example of a well-marketed, well- distributed NC-17 film that bombed at the box office. "It was not only a dreadful movie, but it scared off all the exhibitors who had been amenable to the idea [of NC-17]. It poisoned the well."

Only in the surreal saga of NC-17 could Showgirlsemerge as a symbol of fragile hope and dashed expectations. Other industry commentators insist that no single film on its own could have secured a foothold for adult cinema. "There has to be reinforcement, not just one big-budget NC-17 film every five years," insists Dennis O'Connor, senior VP of theatrical marketing at the independent Tri-Mark (which will release Catherine Breillat's highly explicit Romanceunrated next month). "You would need South Parkand American Pieto have accepted an NC-17." Jeff Lipsky, head of U.S. marketing and distribution at Samuel Goldwyn Films, agrees: "There's this mindset in Hollywood that NC-17 can't make money, but in point of fact the only experimentation along those lines was with films like Henry and Juneand Wide Sargasso Sea— films that never had a shot whether they were R or NC-17."

Instead, Hollywood has been more willing to sustain the presumption that NC-17 is box- office death than to challenge it. The distribution of Kidsin 1995 is a case in point. As an MPAA signatory, Disney-owned Miramax was obligated to submit Kidsfor a rating. When the film received an NC-17, Disney flatly refused to release it, requiring instead that Miramax set up an auxiliary distributor (Excalibur Films) for the film. Miramax then released Kidsunrated— an option for independent distributors— rather than with the dreaded NC-17. Miramax, which five years earlier had sued the MPAA in order to establish an NC-17 rating for Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, had turned its back on its own creation.

More recently, film critics and industry insiders have faulted Warner Bros. for not releasing an uncensored NC-17 version of Eyes Wide Shut. Even though Warners could have easily justified the move by pointing to the adult nature of the film (or simply the fact that Eyesmay just be too boring for teenagers to watch) Warners cochairman Terry Semel declaimed that "we're not in the NC-17 business"— once again proving that studios, and not necessarily the public, seem to have a vested interest in conflating NC-17 with pornography. With the hype behind Eyes, industry insiders insist, Warners could have restructured the marketplace in favor of NC-17 by securing it supposedly forbidden advertising and distribution. "I'd like to meet the sales manager of a TV station in Iowa who's going to turn down TV ads for a Tom Cruise movie," says Lipsky.

Suppressing NC-17, in the Hollywood equation, is both financially and politically prudent. Apart from the obvious loss of the lucrative teen market, NC-17 films face an economic boycott posed by most multiplexes and video chains like Blockbuster, which prohibit NC-17 movies. Better to edit NC-17 down to R than imperil the box office performance of a film, or deal with noisy protest groups activated by NC-17's riskier content. "Right now no one wants to test the marketplace," observes MPAA president Jack Valenti. "You don't want to put a $50 million film out there and know that your audience potential is going to be lessened."

Despite the assumptions of studios like Warner Bros., the American public is surely astute enough to distinguish between an NC-17-rated Saving Private Ryanand the gay porn flick Shaving Ryan's Privates. But NC-17, whose demonization hinges on a lovefest between cultural conservatism and profit maximization, is more valuable to Hollywood as a vehicle for eliminating the radical and erotic peripheries of mainstream cinema. Given an MPAA calculus in which one breast equals roughly 43 dead bodies in terms of its potentially traumatic effect on children, NC-17 is effectively a dump site for cinematic depictions of sexuality— a way of sexing-down all movies. (A telling valuation: 1990's Henry and June received an NC-17 while two years later Reservoir Dogsgot an R.)

In defense of the ratings system, Valenti insists that "the audience to whom this ratings system is directed— i.e., the parents of America— like it, and they use it. Movie critics don't use it— most of them don't have children, or at least the ones that have been giving me a bad time." But the virtual extinction of NC-17 has turned the system into de facto parents for all adults, cramming adult themes into R-rated movies that accompanied teenagers can see. The net effect is a second Production Code, whose terms are dictated less by morality than by economies of scale swathed in pseudo-morality. To service consolidated nationwide theater and video chains, Hollywood must produce consolidated movie fare— PG, PG-13, and laxly enforced R— that hooks multiple demographics. In this formula, there's no room for NC-17.

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