Revamped Film Rating System: Why It Changed, How It Works

Makers of explicit art films wanted out from under X's stigma. FILM

LAST week the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) revamped its rating system, sinking some teeth into the R rating and lopping off the X rating altogether. Replacing the X was a new rating, ``NC-17'' - meaning ``no-children under 17 admitted.'' The industry hailed the revision as a necessary change in an outdated system. The R rating (``Restricted'' - children must be escorted by an adult) will now be accompanied by a brief explanation of why the film was so rated - whether for profanity or violence or sexually explicit material. The idea is to provide parents with more data to help them decide what their children should or should not see.

The big news, of course, is the discarding of the infamous X, which had become synonymous with pornography. Many filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors felt the stigma of the X rating should not taint films with serious artistic content - no matter how explicitly sexual or violent they may be.

The decision on the new system was reached with the approval of the National Alliance of Theater Owners, since it is the theaters that will be responsible for enforcement.

``The original meaning of the X rating was ``for adults only,'' said a spokesman for the MPAA, when president Jack Valenti could not be reached for comment. ``The NC-17 restores that meaning to the system.''

Films like ``Midnight Cowboy,'' ``A Clockwork Orange,'' and ``Last Tango in Paris'' received X ratings soon after the code was introduced. But pornographers seized the X for their own purposes, though their films were not submitted to the MPAA for rating. Because of the pornography stigma, many newspapers and other media won't accept advertising for X-rated films. Many theaters won't show them.

An escalation in the past year of films with artistic pretensions and with enough explicitness to fall into the X category (11 in all, compared to only five from 1985 to 1989) stirred up the controversy. Pedro Almodovar's ``Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down,'' Peter Greenaway's ``The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,'' Wayne Wang's ``Life is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive,'' and John McNaughton's ``Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'' were all stamped ``X'' before their makers decided to release them unrated, since an X rating would have spelled economic suicide for most nonpornographic productions. Miramax Films Corporation even sued the MPAA over the Almodovar film but lost the case.

The big studios cannot afford to release films without a rating because their audience must be assured. So when Philip Kaufman's ``Henry and June,'' a Universal release, received an X and Kaufman refused to cut the offending (explicitly sexual) sequences, Universal's president, Tom Pollack, stood behind him and forced the MPAA's already wavering hand. ``A lot of people thought the change was inevitable,'' said Mr. Kaufman when reached by phone, ``but we forced the issue.'' ``Henry and June'' became the first NC-17 film.

Director Kaufman supports the MPAA decision to put films with adult content out of the reach of children by using the NC-17 rating. ``People must understand that the subject matter is strictly for adults and was not meant to attract children,'' he says.

One big question, however, is whether NC-17 really will keep adult-content films out of the reach of children. The US Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued a joint statement denouncing the new rating on the grounds that the MPAA ``has caved in to the commercial interests of those who are attempting to get sexually exploitative material into general theatrical release.''

James Wall, editor of Christian Century magazine, raises a related concern: ``I strongly believe in the rating system. It is essential to a free society to allow filmmakers their freedom. The rating system then says, `This is what the filmmakers are doing with it.' The problem is: The rating system hinges on enforcement. It is common knowledge that the R rating has not been enforced. ...The NC-17 films will show up in the local malls and in time will become as porous as the R has been.''

David Swanson, marketing director of Landmark Theatres, a string of art houses across the United States, applauds the cosmetic changes the NC-17 rating offers. Landmark has always enforced the no-children-under-17 policy at the door in the case of unrated films, he says. But the vast majority of Landmark films - foreign and American art films - cater to the informed adult viewer anyway.

At the typical multiplex, adolescents have had little difficulty buying PG-13 tickets and then walking into R movies under the noses of underage ticket takers. Bud Levy, president of Trans-Lux Theatres and a longtime member of the appeals committee for the ratings board, says parental use of the rating system is at an all-time high and that NC-17 will require more attention by the theater owners. ``I think we're going to have to stay on top of this. It is our duty to really police these theaters,'' he says.

Bruce Corwin of Metropolitan Theatres in Los Angeles agrees. ``I think it will be very important for exhibitors to enforce this,'' he says, ``and if that means asking for an ID at the door, we'll have to do that.''

Bill Kartozian, president of the National Alliance of Theater Owners (NATO), adds, ``Theater owners are responsive to their communities. Some markets are more sophisticated, some more traditional about what they allow children to see. But with the NC-17 we're going to have to be more diligent. One of the great motivating factors as to why theater owners will comply [with the NC-17 rating] is to keep the government out of censorship.''

There is no force of law behind the rating system - it is a completely voluntary system. ``It is incumbent upon theaters to enforce the code,'' Mr. Kartozian explains, ``but I hope people will realize that occasionally mistakes will be made; teenagers will sneak in. With this change it becomes a more sensitive issue.''

The threat of external censorship may be a real one. While many theaters have always responsibly administered the system, many more have not. Parent and church groups that have protested the laxity of those theaters in regard to the R-rated films have met with little success. Mr. Levy suggests church groups help out by monitoring those theaters which do not comply with the code. Mr. Wall suggests that such monitoring would infuriate theater owners, but that NC-17 may require such measures.

Mr. Wall and others agree that the NC-17 rating is one measure of a sharp escalation in violence and sexually explicit subject matter over the past few years.

Dr. Roderick Gorney of the Psycho-Social Adaptation Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, takes issue with the age cutoff at 17. ``In no way is a person of 17 considered an adult in this society,'' he says. ``They can't drink or vote or even join the army without parental consent. Yet we subject 17-year-olds to what we have good reason to believe may be deleterious to them, and it does something deleterious to our society. We profess one thing and do another. We profess we want to protect minors, and then we don't. This fraudulance itself is harmful to the society.''

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