Hollywood Uplink – November 2007: The Ratings History of “NC-17” vs. “X”

by Dick Rolfe – CEO, The Dove Foundation

Ever wonder why we don’t hear much about NC-17 movies anymore?  Ever wonder what NC-17 movies are all about and what NC-17 means?  This rating can best be defined by the title of the new ABC television series, “Dirty Sexy Money.”

In 1991, when Dove was born, one of the first tasks the three co-founders took on was to get to the bottom of this new movie ratings phenomenon. Brad Curl, Dar Vander Ark and I set out on a mission, which began with Brad meeting with then-President of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti. Jack invented the movie ratings system in 1968 and added NC-17 in 1990.

During the meeting with Mr. Valenti, Brad asked what the motivation was to create a new rating.  Jack replied that filmmakers were interested in releasing “edgy,” “sophisticated” movies that were stronger in content than the current R-rating would permit. That prompted the next question, “Wouldn’t those movies be rated ‘X’?”  “Yes,” replied Jack. “And, since ‘X’ is equated with pornography, it would be impossible to distribute them through mainstream theater circuits.”

The real problem was that the MPAA couldn’t trademark “X” since it had already been adopted by the pornography industry.  So NC-17 was created to legitimize movies that heretofore would never have darkened the doors of our neighborhood theaters. NC-17 stands for “No one 17 or under admitted.” Most NC-17 movies are so sexually explicit that they fall under the “harmful to minors act” in most states; meaning that anyone who permits access to a minor can be prosecuted.

Although Jack tried to distinguish between X and NC-17, he was unable to make the case when he admitted that the first NC-17 film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Loverwould have been rated X before the new brand was created.

Almost immediately after Brad’s MPAA visit, we called on Blockbuster Home Entertainment during a time when they were being pressured by the MPAA to consider carrying NC-17 movies. Since its inception, Blockbuster has consistently refused to carry any X-rated videos. The MPAA tried to make the same case to Blockbuster execs that Jack tried making with Brad.  However, we were able to break the code by relaying Brad’s conversation with Jack Valenti which virtually made X and NC-17 interchangeable. That made the decision easy for Blockbuster, and they applied their do-not-carry policy from X to NC-17.

Since the Blockbuster decision in 1991, theater owners have been increasingly reluctant to open their doors to the explicit films rated NC-17. That moniker has spelled financial disaster for nearly all the titles that carried the ill-fated rating.  Only 48 movies in sixteen years have been rated NC-17. All except one (“The Evil Dead”) received that rating due to portrayals of graphic, explicit sex.  Most of the 48 titles were released by small independent companies hoping to shock their way into mainstream theaters, where they had previously been relegated to the dark alleys of the porn shops.

NC-17 movies are still being made, although I’m not sure what respectable theater owner will show them. There’s a 2007 release called, “Marie and Jack: a Hardcore Love Story.” It’s billed as a “documentary about a married couple who also happen to make porn films for a living.”  Hmmm!  So let’s see… what we have is an NC-17 movie about a couple that makes XXX-rated movies. This is another striking example of the MPAA’s attempt to have it both ways.

There’s a new term for us to understand and assimilate. “Hard R” is not an official rating, but it is being touted as the latest attempt by Hollywood to give the appearance of cleaning up NC-17 movies.  This cat-and-mouse game would be funny, if it wasn’t so serious a problem. The ratings board has allowed its criteria to slip to where they permit crude and surly content to be classified as “Hard R” that would formerly warrant an NC-17.

By their own admission, the MPAA ratings criteria have relaxed over the years. Jack Valenti told me personally that the ratings “reflect the changing mores of society.” The current head of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), Joan Graves made the following declaration during an interview we both participated in. “The [ratings] system is designed to adapt to change.  For example, language is rated much less harshly today than it was in the past, because there is so much of it in the culture and it’s accepted.”

“Good Luck, Chuck,” “Feast of Love,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Eastern Promises,” and “Captivity,” are recent examples of so-called “Hard R” movies that would have been rated NC-17 in the early 90’s – some for sex and nudity and others for violence.

We live in a wonderful time of prosperity.  But we seem to be surrounded by ever-increasing pressures from the Dark Side. These pressures are mostly directed at our younger generation, encouraging them to abandon all conventions and take a slide down an inviting, but dangerous slippery slope into the land of NC-17.

By devoting more time and energy to watching wholesome movies with messages of goodness, kindness and self-sacrifice we can lift our society up to a better place. Two good examples of such movies are Amazing Grace, coming out on DVD November 13th and August Rush, opening in theaters this Thanksgiving.

Read Dove’s Review of “Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce

Coming Soon: Dove’s Review of “August Rush”