NC-17 and the MPAA

            NC-17 is a rating given to films by the Motion Picture Association of America that typically show graphic violence, language, and nudity, but the key to understanding this rating is not so cut and dried.  The Motion Picture Association of America or “MPAA,” is a non-profit business and trade association designed to advance the interests of movie studios.  The MPAA administers the well known movie ratings system that rates a film’s thematic material, and content suitability for a certain audience.

            During the 1950’s, taste in film in terms of what was appropriate or inappropriate had changed.  The MPAA used to rate films with a “certificate of approval,” which the vast majority of films received.  Although it was the standard rating of the time, films that did not receive a certificate of approval were still allowed to be shown in theatres.  Once films began pushing the boundaries of approval, the MPAA came up with a new rating system in 1966.  Films that failed to abide by these new guidelines were labeled “suggested for mature audiences.”  Then, backing down from this policy, the MPAA companies created a rating system coded by letter: G(general: recommended for all ages), M(mature: recommended for viewers over 16), R(restricted: viewers under sixteen to be accompanied by parent or guardian), and X(no one under sixteen admitted) (Thompson, and Bordwell 476).  This rating system essentially allowed filmmakers to present sex, violence, or unorthodox ideas more freely.

            The MPAA would later change the M rating to PG; parental guidance suggested.  The reason for this change is because parents were not sure if M-rated films or R-rated films had more intense content.  

            In 1984, explicit violence and gore in certain films such as Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, prompted criticism of the PG rating from parents.  Their complaints led Hollywood figure Steven Spielberg, director of Temple of Doom and producer of Gremlins, to suggest a new rating to MPAA president Jack Valenti. Spielberg's suggestion was for an intermediate rating of PG-13 or PG-14 (  In July 1984, Jack Valenti and the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating indicating that some material in the film may be inappropriate for children under 13.  The first film to be released with a PG-13 rating was Red Dawn in 1984, however, the first film given the rating was The Flamingo Kid, but it sat on the shelves for several months and Red Dawn was released first.

            Films that were rated X were understood to be un-pornographic in its content and subject matter, however films were allowed to rate themselves X when not rated by the MPAA.  So pornographic films, if rated at all, were allowed to use the X-rating because it was not copyrighted.  Soon, the X rating became synonymous with pornographic films.  On September 27, 1990, the MPAA introduced the rating NC-17(No children Under 17 admitted) as its rating for adult oriented films that carried the MPAA seal.

            In addition to rating films, the MPAA also rates movie trailers seen before films in Cineplex’s.  There are three current ratings for trailers, Green Band: approved for all audiences; can be shown before any movie with any rating, Yellow Band: approved for age appropriate audiences; internet trailers only, and Red Band: approved for adult audiences; can be shown before R, NC-17, or unrated films.


            Over the years, the MPAA has caught much criticism over some of its rating decisions as well as some perceived inconsistencies.  It is speculated that films might receive a harsher rating based on the number of times a certain curse word is said or how many acts of violence rather than the overall theme/feel of the film.  One criticism argued by Roger Ebert and echoed by others argues that the system places too much emphasis on sex while allowing graphic and gruesome violence.  MPAA chairman Dan Glickman has denied these claims saying that more films are initially rated NC-17 for violence than for sex but they are then edited by the studios to receive an R raing.  However, the film This Film is Not Yet Ratedpoints out that four times as many films received an NC-17 rating for sex rather as they did for violence according to the MPAA’s own website.  Many critics also believe that the standards used by the MPAA to rate films should be made public because the MPAA has never revealed them.  The MPAA has revealed criteria it uses such as violence, sex, nudity, language, drug use, to rate the films but have not revealed the qualitative or quantitative impact these categories carry.  The NC-17 rating has changed since its creation in 1990.  In 1995, the MPAA re-defined the rating from “No children under 17 admitted,” to “No one 17 and under admitted.”


NC-17 Through the Years

            The first film to receive a NC-17 rating was Henry and June, in 1990, but probably the most significant film to receive the rating was Showgirls in 1995.  Showgirls was the first and only film rated NC-17 that received a wide release.  It was received very poorly by critics (currently holds a 14% “fresh” consensus rating gathered from many critics on rotten tomatoes).  It was also a box office failure and essentially labeled the NC-17 rating “unprofitable” for studios.  For a while, businesses that would not advertise X-rated films would also not advertise NC-17 films.  Large video distribution businesses like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video would not stock NC-17 rated films.  This policy has somewhat changed as some video stores would stock NC-17 movies and actually led to huge profits for Showgirls.  While it only made a little over twenty million at the box office, Showgirls has made over one hundred million in video rentals and DVD sales and is on MGM’s top twenty all-time best-sellers list.


            The box office failure of Showgirls led to studios rarely distributing a film with an NC-17 rating.  When a film is given an NC-17 rating, it is re-edited until it receives an R rating almost every time.  Case-in-point, Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers initially received an NC-17 rating.  Stone then re-edited the film and actually cut out about four minutes of footage and re-submitted it for an R-rating.  In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, a film by Stanley Kubrick, the film received an NC-17 rating initially.  Kubrick passed away before the film was released so he could not appeal the rating or re-edit the film.  Instead, Warner Brothers inserted digital images into certain scenes that blocked some of the graphic nudity and sexuality and the film was later given and R rating before release.


            In some cases a film does not need to be re-cut or edited at all.  In 2008, Kevin Smith’s film Zach and Miri Make a Porno, the film was initially rated NC-17 by the MPAA.  Smith sent it back to the MPAA on an appeal.  The MPAA eventually changed the rating to “R” and there were no edits or cuts.

            Another option to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating is to release the film Unrated.  So was the case with Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for a Dream.  It was given the initial rating due to a graphic sex scene involving two women and a very large sex toy.  Aronofsky said that any edits to that scene would destroy the message of the film.  Aronofsky and Artisan Entertainment appealed the rating which was denied so the film was released Unrated in a limited capacity.  Both the Unrated and an R-rated version of the film were released on home video to maximize sales with the distributors that did not allow the Adults-Only NC-17 rating.

            NC-17-rated films that have experienced some financial success at the box office are usually of the independent or foreign genre.  Bad Education, a foreign film directed by Pedro Almodovar earned over five million dollars domestically which is regarded as a moderate success especially for a foreign-language film.  Almodavar’s film received an R-rating for, amongst other things, sexuality involving molestation and transsexuality (NC-17 Takes… 21).  Lust, Caution, from director Ang Lee received an NC-17 rating in the United States.  The film earned over four million dollars, despite its severely limited release.  The film features unabashedly acrobatic sex, full-frontal nudity and an NC-17 rating, prompting the nation’s third-largest theater chain, Cinemark, to refuse to screen it (Brodesser-Akner 6).  Even facing great adversity, the films’s box office success groups it with Bad Education in the list of top five highest grossing NC-17 rated films of all-time in the U.S.  In 2011, Steve McQueen's NC-17 rated Shame, a film about a mans struggle with sexual addiction, was greatly hailed by critics all over the world. It was also given a limited release in the United States and was a considerable success at the box office.


The Future of the NC-17 Rating

            In conclusion, the NC-17 rating and the MPAA’s rating system in general has undergone many changes throughout the years.  The rating system started as a seal of approval and developed into diverse rating system with a diverse set of criteria appropriated not only by the content of the films but also according to the projected age of the film’s target audience.  This rating has affected the business and profit of many films in a negative way to the vast majority of the films concerned.  The NC-17 rating is widely considered the “Kiss of Death,” referring to its perceived notion of impending box office failure for all films distributed with this rating.  Film studios have pressured the MPAA to retire the NC-17 rating because it can severely decrease their films’ box office revenues.


            Even though NC-17 rated films are widely regarded as unprofitable, it has not stopped movie studios from distributing them.  Often times when a studio is releasing a film that is rated NC-17, there are two general trends.  The films are either foreign or independent in nature, and they are shown in a limited release in theaters.  Many of these theaters showing these films are known as “Art House” theaters where the clientele generally does not regard a films rating as important, rather they value the films themes and subject matter with a higher regard.  Case in point: Buyers at Sundance were intrigued by "Teeth," about a girl with a "toothy" vagina, but steered clear because of the ratings implications. Harvey Weinstein partnered with Lionsgate in buying distribution rights, since Lionsgate isn't a member of the MPAA and can release unrated pics.  Indies have long claimed the MPAA has double standards, allowing major studios to get away with content an Indie cannot. (Their other complaint is that the MPAA is tougher on sex than on violence.) But Indies have one advantage over filmmakers at the majors: If a film gets an NC-17 rating, an Indie (as a non-signatory to the MPAA) has the option of releasing the pic unrated (


            As recently as 2007, MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman has been reported as saying he is trying to create a new rating called “Heavy R” to replace the NC-17 rating.  The biggest complaint is that, with parental permission, children and teens are sometimes allowed to see R-rated films, and parents think the definition of “R” is too ambiguous to guide them.  The primary goal is to find a category for some films that are now informally referred to as "hard R's," i.e., content so graphic that no one under the age of 17 should be allowed to see it at all. The new generation of horror pics, specifically, the "Saw," "Hostel," and other graphic or “torture porn” franchises, are pushing the limits of the so-called"hard R" category.  While most people involved with the MPAA and movie studios agree that there is a need for a change, the big debate is whether to create a new category, or to revive and make respectable, a rating that's been around since "Henry & June" in 1990.  Because of the economic realities of the marketplace, one idea that has been put forth is to create a disclaimer for R-rated films, saying “It isn't appropriate for children, period.”


           As of now, nothing has been changed as the MPAA still manifests an NC-17 rating to certain films it reviews.  It is a shame that some directors are unable to explore some aspects of their Art due to the virtual censorship imposed by the MPAA.  It is an issue that I will pay closer attention to, and am hopeful that a resolution presents itself in the near future.