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New ratings system removes scarlet letter from non-porn films

Alphabet soup, or a critic's Q & A on the MPAA's new NC-17 rating:

Q. What does NC-17 mean and what does it do?

A. The letters are an abbreviation for "no children under 17," and what it does, according to movie ratings czar Jack Valenti, is replace the old X rating. Theater owners will voluntarily bar admission to anyone under 17.

Q. What happens to old X-rated movies?

A. Any movie ever rated X can be resubmitted and will automatically be reclassified as NC-17.

Q. Is that what the Motion Picture Association of America hopes will happen?

A. Not exactly. The old X rating had to be replaced because X-rated movies were no longer respectable. The rating had become identified in the public mind only with hard-core pornography. The MPAA and its Hollywood studio members hope NC-17 will stand for "no children," but will not be automatically associated with pornography.

Q. In other words, the MPAA would be happy if the hard-core porno producers ignored the NC-17 rating?

A. Unofficially, yes. In its press release announcing the new NC-17 rating, the MPAA made it clear that filmmakers would be free to self-classify their films any way they wanted to - just so long as the copyrighted G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings were not used.

Q. Does that mean the X rating will still be used for hard-core?

A. Quite possibly. The X rating has become a selling tool for porno, which in recent years has deserted theatrical films for home video, and is now entirely outside the celluloid mainstream. Few porno theaters are even in existence anymore. In the porno genre, X and the sensational XXX convey a clear message, one that is not conveyed by NC-17. In the words of Valenti, "It's hard to imagine the raincoat brigade lining up to see an NC-17 movie."

Q. For the last three years, you've been campaigning for an A rating. What do you think about NC-17 as an alternative title?

A. As a title, I think it's brilliant. As a category, I think it may not have entirely solved the problem. The title "NC-17" is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. Perhaps A would also have developed seamy associations. NC-17 is low profile, and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. "Nothing more, nothing less," Valenti said.

Q. But there may be a problem?

A. Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you'd have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content, but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. Valenti vehemently opposed such an in-between rating, saying he didn't want his ratings board to have to decide between A-rated sex and X-rated sex.

Q. Would that have been a problem?

A. Not in my opinion. The movie ratings board exists to make distinctions. It is able to split hairs so finely it can tell the difference between PG and PG-13. Besides, the decisions Valenti talks about would rarely have to be made because few if any X-style hard-core movies are even photographed on film anymore. They're shot on video, and not shown in movie theaters and would not even be submitted to the MPAA.

Q. What if NC-17 does eventually develop scandalous associations, like the X?

A. Then the campaign for an in-between rating will be renewed. The point is to allow filmmakers the leeway to realize their vision without having to cram everything into the R rating, which was never intended to be the last station on the line.

Q. One reason the X rating was dumped was because many major advertisers would not accept ads for such movies. Will they take NC-17?

A. So far, so good. The first movie rated NC-17, Universal's "Henry & June," had its ads accepted in many places where the X was unwelcome, including the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. The MPAA is making a backstage lobbying effort with TV and print outlets to get them behind the NC-17 rating.

Q. Many movie chains refused to play X-rated movies, and some of them were forbidden to because of clauses in their leases. What about NC-17?

A. Some major chains, such as the giant Cineplex Odeon, have said NC-17 films will be welcome, assuming they match the chain's other criteria. A few chains have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. The fact is that no major chain is going to show a hard-core movie no matter what it is rated, and so only "acceptable" NC-17 movies will be at issue. From the point of view of the average suburban shopping mall, NC-17 might paradoxically be a rating that's good for business, drawing more adults to balance the largely adolescent crowds in many multiplexes.

Q. Some big video rental chains, such as Blockbuster, refuse to handle X-rated films. Some producing organizations have covenants with their banks prohibiting them from making X-rated films. Will the NC-17 also be a problem?

A. "That's why they really should have created an in-between A rating, and left the X where it was," Bob Shaye, president of New Line Cinema, a leading independent, told me. "Then we could have said, hey, it isn't an X. By simply renaming the X, have they left us with the same problems?"

Q. Many directors are asked by studios to sign contracts promising to deliver a film that will qualify for an R rating. Will studios still insist on such contracts? Will many directors have the freedom to make an NC-17 movie?

A. It will be a matter of clout. Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. In recent years several important directors - Stanley Kubrick and Brian de Palma among them - have talked of their ambitions to make serious erotic films. NC-17 is their opportunity.

Q. What about the MPAA's proposal to give the reasons why movies are rated R?

A. It's probably a good idea, because it provides more information for parents. A similar approach is used in Canada, where moving ratings include an indication of whether language, violence, nudity or other content is the reason for a rating.

Q. Won't studios and theaters rush to get sexy NC-17 movies because theycan make lots of money at the box office?

A. Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today's audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

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