Does the NC-17 Rating Equal an X?

Blockbuster Video says yes, and won't stock the films, while a family group claims victory. MOVIES: CENSORSHIP

THE saga continues. Since the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced its new rating for adults-only films last fall, NC-17 (no children under 17 admitted) has kindled controversy.

Does it take the stigma off the ``adults only'' rating, thereby liberating ``serious'' filmmakers from the fear of ``censorship?''

Or does it merely sanitize questionable movies for the local multiplex cinema where children might eventually be exposed to those influences?

A new wrinkle developed two weeks ago when Blockbuster Video, the largest video-store chain in the United States, pulled all NC-17 rated films from its shelves.

Wally Knief, spokesperson for Blockbuster said ``We've always had a policy of `No X-rated films' sold or rented from our stores.... That policy is consistent with wanting to maintain a family image. We were content to give NC-17 a chance. Out of all the films that have been rated NC-17, we had a couple of films that were unrated at the time [we first stocked them]. They were subsequently rated NC-17.''

Blockbuster executives became convinced that the MPAA was applying the same criteria to NC-17 that they had to X, Mr. Knief said, and decided to drop the NC-17, reaffirming their policy about X-rated movies.

The move sparked controversy again about whether or not NC-17 is any more respectable than the infamous X.

At the center of that controversy is the American Family Association's Rev. Donald Wildmon who had launched a campaign against Blockbuster - threatening a massive boycott - if management did not remove NC-17 films from the shelves.

A spokesperson for the MPAA affirmed that NC-17 was intended as a replacement for the X and that the same criteria used to confer an X was used to confer NC-17.

``All X was ever meant to mean was that the material was unsuitable for children,'' she said. Films with adult subject matter released after 1968 received an X rating. But the MPAA had not copyrighted the X rating, so pornographers self-applied it as advertizing. X eventually became synonymous with pornography.

Several films over the last year made by serious filmmakers have been released unrated rather than accept the dreaded X.

The first film released as NC-17 to theaters around the country was Philip Kaufman's ``Henry and June.'' Soon Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's ``1900'' will be rereleased in its uncut NC-17 version.

But hard-core films submitted for a rating would receive an NC-17 now as well. And many have been submitted, not for theatrical release but for use on the cable and home video market.

Since the MPAA adopted NC-17, 23 films have received the rating. The vast majority of those are the so-called ``adult'' home-entertainment variety.

``If the NC-17 replaces the X, it is equivalent to it,'' says Mr. Wildmon. ``As the MPAA well said, the NC-17 is an attempt to take the stigma off of X.'' Wildmon and his organization, he says, are not trying to censor the making of NC-17 films. They are trying to keep children from seeing them. He points out that nearly any unsupervised child can sneak into an R-rated movie in most theaters around the country.

When NC-17 films start appearing in these same spaces, children will be able to sneak in to see those, too. The home-video market is a whole other can of worms.

Wildmon's approach to the problem is the market place. The American Family Association's magazine enters more than 425,000 homes.

``Our philosophy is, let the market decide. You can rent those films, but if you do you have offended me as a customer.'' Wildmon believes the campaign he organized to encourage Blockbuster to drop NC-17 films spurred the company's decision.

Blockbuster's Knief says: ``First of all, we don't respond to pressure. We didn't feel any impact from the boycott. Our decision came from a progression where we saw how NC-17 was going to be implemented.''

Knief says that Blockbuster could make more money with NC-17 rated films, judging by industry statistics.

``The company has certain standards. If we'd chosen to carry X-rated films, we could make much more money. But we decided to forego that.''

Does the public now see NC-17 as more respectable than X? It is too early to tell. The MPAA spends a lot of time just educating the public in how the ratings system works.

Yet some newspapers take advertising for NC-17 when they would not take advertising for X. Others adopted the same policy toward NC-17 that they did toward X. Some theaters that would never show X will exhibit films labeled NC-17.

William Kartozian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, says ``Theater owners book a film on the basis of content, not rating. The film must be acceptable to the community. And most theater owners are sensitive to community standards.

``I don't think there will be a lot of NC-17 films made because [the studios] would be cutting off a large part of their projected audience. It doesn't make good business sense especially in a time when people are trying to make as big a return as possible on films,'' Mr. Kartozian says.

There is a general reluctance on the part of the studios to discuss NC-17 films.

Universal did not return calls at all, and a spokesperson for Warner Brothers refused to speculate on whether NC-17 films will be made, saying the MPAA speaks for the industry.

The MPAA will not speculate how many NC-17 films might be made.

As for the video market, Wildmon believes other chains tend to follow the leader, and that Blockbuster's example will widely influence the policy of other family-oriented chains.

Blockbuster owns nearly 1800 stores, representing 11 percent of the total number of video outlets in the country.

The video market, Kartozian acknowledges, has become an important factor to film producers who must take into account the salability of any film in video format.

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