Ratings rehab

NC-17 may no longer be Hollywood's scarlet letter. Why the new acceptance?

British star Ewan McGregor releases his latest film, "Young Adam," this week but millions of young fans who know the actor as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the "Star Wars" franchise won't be eligible to see it. The movie carries the adult rating of NC-17: no one under 17 admitted - no exceptions.

McGregor's film is one of three this year that will berth in US theaters under the NC-17 banner, a rating whose social stigma has a reputation for scuppering a movie's chances at the box office. After all, this is the rating the soft-porn "Showgirls," now a camp classic, carried to its early demise in 1995. Since then, studios and directors have snipped objectionable bits from their films to ward off the dreaded NC-17.

But this year is different. While Sony Classics reportedly appealed the rating for "Young Adam," the director opted not to fight the adults-only stamp. Moreover, "The Dreamers," rated NC-17 for extreme sexuality, was released in February, and the violence of "High Tension," a French thriller, will also have theaters carding patrons this summer.

So, why is the adult rating coming of age now?

The answer, say observers, is that an industry whose economic lifeblood depends on nudging boundaries is taking advantage of a period in which eroticism has gone mainstream and violence pervades the daily news. More important, the growing cultural backlash against extreme permissiveness has created a receptivity among both social conservatives and religious fundamentalists for more accurate labeling of entertainment content.

"There is this overload on the cultural power circuit right now," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University, pointing to the brouhaha over Janet Jackson's over-exposure, concerns about anti-Semitism in Mel Gibson's "The Passion," and a current debate over The New York Times's decision to run photos of victims' corpses hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq. "What this tells us is there has always been, and is, this angst in the entertainment industry over where the edge of the envelope is and where society will draw the line in the sand and yank the cord."

The reappearance of the NC-17 rating in the midst of this roiling culture debate is another indication of a desire to define those lines and stick to them, he adds.

It also confirms that content formerly considered hard core has achieved wider acceptance. "This is a true indicator that pornography has gone mainstream," says Nancy Snow, author and a public diplomacy expert at the University of Southern California. "Whereas the industry itself was shunned not so many years ago, [now] look at everything from the way young girls dress to the fact that porn films on a [performer's] résumé are not considered a big deal any more."

There are deeper implications to this permissiveness, Ms. Snow adds. "This is what really [raises] the ire of many cultures that attack us for being so secular."

The Motion Picture Association of America introduced the NC-17 rating in 1990 to replace the X rating, which had been co-opted by the porn industry. "We never copyrighted that X rating," says MPAA's Phuong Yokitis. "So, when the porn industry began using it, families got confused. We had to do something to distinguish the nonporn films for viewers."

Studios and directors were leery of NC-17, worried that theaters wouldn't run such films, moviegoers wouldn't come, and newspapers wouldn't print the ads.

But ads for Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" ran in many metropolitan dailies, and a random sampling of reactions from theater owners and theatergoers shows this particular line in the sand is welcome.

"This absolutely helps us," says Lois Blackburn of the Utah-based Westates Theaters - a 25-screen chain with another 10-screen multiplex on the way - in Las Vegas for the annual theater owners' confab known as ShoWest. Despite the conservative Christian and Mormon neighborhood of her theaters, she says she'd have no problem carrying a film rated NC-17.

She cites the fact that the boundaries of R-rated content have shifted over the past decade. "So many of the films already are NC-17 [in content], we might as well just let people know that's what they are," she says. The unambiguous category also helps the theaters help parents, she adds. "With the R rating, we're always having problems with who's a guardian; who's entitled to bring in someone under 17," she says. "This way, if you're not 17, you're not coming in. Period. That's easier and faster for us."

Moviegoers seem to regard the NC-17 tag as a nonissue rather than a deterrent. "I'm looking at what the movie is about," says Scott Taylor, a writer and carpenter in Los Angeles. "If the rating helps me with that, then I'll pay attention to it. Otherwise, I don't care. It certainly wouldn't keep me away."

From the industry's perspective, media buzz about greater acceptance of the over-17 rating is a bonus. Some critics suggest that, far from hurting "The Dreamers," the controversial rating helped a so-so film avoid flopping financially (even so, it has taken in less than $3 million to date).

Of course, once an NC-17 movie moves to DVD, it will be nothing but honey to bees, says Snow. "The verboten factor is huge," she says. "All the kids will want to see is the stuff the rating is supposed to shield them from."

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