Ang Lee Takes On the NC-17 Rating

About a month ago I sent a letter to Dan Glickman, Chairman of the MPAA, asking what, if any plans the MPAA had to rehabilitate the NC-17 rating. Yesterday I called Mr. Glickman’s office in Washington D.C. and was told that my letter had been forwarded to the Los Angeles Office, to Joan Graves, Chairwoman of CARA, the MPAA’s ratings body.

Today I spent about an hour on the phone today with Ms. Graves. We talked about a lot of things; but my ultimate aim was to find out what future plans the MPAA had for the promotion of their NC-17 rating. I learned a couple of interesting things.

One of the first things she said was, “Have you talked to the theater owners about this?” Then she went on to tell me about her recent conversation with John Fithian, President of the National Association of Theatre Owners. It seems Mr. Fithian is upset about what he perceives as misinformation about his membership’s policies regarding NC-17 movies. Joan says John says (yes, I realize that makes it here-say) that overwhelmingly NATO members support the NC-17 rating, have no policies against showing NC-17 movies, and that he has been actively working to correct the myths and rumors that swirl around the rating in the minds of the press and the public. Ms. Graves gave me contact information for Mr. Fithian and said I should mention her name when I call or write.


Also interesting, last week Ang Lee’s LUST AND CAUTION received an NC-17 rating, and the film’s producers accepted the rating. (That means that like we have to do with MARIE AND JACK the producers of LUST AND CAUTION will have to submit their advertising to the MPAA for approval.)

When I asked her what she thought the reason that the producers of LUST, CAUTION embraced the NC-17 rating, while producers of films like SHORTBUS or 9 SONGS eschewed the rating, her guess was that it had to do with how widely the producers expected to release the film. 9 SONGS and SHORTBUS had very limited theatrical runs, mostly playing art-house theaters that often play unrated films. The producers of LUST, CAUTION are going for a much wider release, and expect to play in many theaters that do not play unrated movies.

This pricked up my ears. The “conventional wisdom” is that NC-17 is the kiss of death for distribution, with movie-makers famously throwing fits and crying censorship when their films receive (the dreaded) NC-17 ratings. Yet here’s the follow up to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN choosing to take the rating and all the advertising hassles and headaches because they think having the NC-17 will help them get into more theaters.

Hmmmm. Interesting…

We also chatted about a dozen other things, including mistake that the MPAA made in not trademarking the X-rating, the collapse of a legitimate space for grown-up movie making, the misadventures that my films have had with other countries’ ratings systems, and other territory that should be familiar to this blog’s readership ;-)

What it all means for our movies, well that I’m not so sure. But it’s more information to add to the pile. Maybe at some point the pile will hit critical mass. In the mean time, after the critical and box office failures of SHOWGIRLS and THE DREAMERS, I’m going to cross my fingers that working in the unrestricted space afforded by the NC-17 rating, Ang Lee has been able to produce something that turns out to be artistically exciting and financially successful!

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One Comment

  1. Zack Weinberg
    Posted September 9, 2007 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    In your conversations with the MPAA and the theater owners, has the question of violent content come up at all? It seems to me that at least part of the image problem NC-17 has is to do with its being used near-exclusively for sexual content. It seems natural enough to have it take over the extreme end of the R-for-violence space as well, and that might go a ways to making it less of an automatic “eew, not going there.” I realize that’s not the sort of movie you make, but…

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