Oh no! Shame got saddled with the awful NC-17 rating! The film will now never be seen by a living soul! All memory of its existence will be wiped from history! Or maybe, just maybe, Fox Searchlight will charge the brigades and lead the offensive against the unjust stigma the NC-17 rating carries. That stigma which has ruined chances of so many brilliant films. Woe is Hollywood, the sad institution hampered by the creativity-destroying NC-17. Such a terrible world we live in when the NC-17 is stigmatized.
Fuck all that shit.
People, please, let’s be honest about this. There is no “NC-17 stigma.” It doesn’t exist and it never has. Yes, the X rating gained a stigma, due entirely to the re-appropriation of the letter X by the porn industry. The stigmatized a whole LETTER! “NC-17” is a weird combination of symbols that most people haven’t even heard of let alone understand. Sure, film fans know what it means, but nobody else does. R is the highest rating anybody knows or cares about. It’s as simple as that. There have been so few NC-17 movies widely released that it’s fucking a non-entity.
So where does this idea that there is a stigma come from? I think it’s down three things. The first is that it took over from the X rating, and has been primarily applied to films with high intense sexual content. The second is that because many networks and print venues don’t want to be seen as inadvertently advertising explicit films to kids who are not allowed to see them. The third is that the rating is so rarely applied that it just feels special, like the MPAA is calling out a particular film as being something requiring an effective ban.
The truth is, that stigma is entirely in the heads of cinephiles who hate the MPAA and who hate the American fixation on sex while being incredibly permissive of extreme violence. You know what? I hate the MPAA as well. They are a terrible organization intent on protecting only the rights of the big studios (because it’s run by the big studios) and only concerned with the image of the ratings they hand out. They are woefully inconsistent to the point of sheer irresponsibility. They have an absolutely unhealthy idea of conservative values as related to children. They have an even more unhealthy attitude toward sex, and their attitude toward violence is the height of ignorance and hypocrisy.
Fuck the MPAA. They should be disbanded by a federal governmental act and replaced by a true third party organization dedicated to understanding the psychological effects of media on the development of children and making decisions based on that study. Unfortunately, the MPAA isn’t going away, so let’s not conflate the NC-17 rating with the stupidity of the organization that hands it out.
The fact is, the NC-17 is a very reasonable rating to have. There are some films that really do deserve the NC-17 rating. They are films that should not be publicly exhibited to teenagers. Shame is one of those films. I’ve seen Shame and it “deserves” the rating it got. It’s a film about adults dealing with very adult situations and themes and it should really only be seen by adults. That’s the very definition of an NC-17 film. More importantly, there’s no reason the film can’t be successful.
As I’ve said. There is no stigma. It doesn’t exist. Yes, having an NC-17 can be an uphill battle in terms of advertising, but you know what, there are laws about what time of night you’re allowed to advertise alcohol, and the last time I checked alcohol still sells pretty well. And the issue of theatre chains not wanting to play NC-17 films? Yeah, that’s only an issue of money. Even the most conservative theatre owners will play Shame if they know it’ll play to a full house. The problem is that NC-17 rated films don’t usually play to full houses, and this has absolutely nothing to do with a stigma or a lack of advertising ability. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the tip grossing films released with an NC-17 rating:
- Showgirls, 1995 – $20,350,754
- Henry & June, 1990 – $11,567,449
- The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover, 1990 – $7,724,701
- Bad Education, 2004 – $5,211,842
- Lust, Caution, 2007 – $4,604,982
- Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990 – $4,087,361
- The Dreamers, 2004 – $2,532,228
- Crash, 1996 – $2,038,450
- Bad Lieutenant, 1992 – $2,000,022
- Wide Sargasso Sea, 1993 – $1,614,784
Do you notice anything about that list, besides the generally low grosses? Look that list over. Three of the films are foreign language films. One film is Canadian. Another is Australian. None of the films are even remotely mainstream in nature. The fact is, even if those films had been rated R, they’d be making about the same amount of money. Maybe slightly more, but I doubt it. The big anomaly is Showgirls, which was not mainstream, but managed to cross over on the back of its sheer audacity. People just HAD to see it. And even then, it’s not like that many people really felt that way.
It’s really quite simple, the kinds of films that require an NC-17 rating are usually the kinds of films that only a select group of cinephiles cares to go see anyway. Fox Searchlight is hoping Shame will see financial success by taking a page out of early-90s Mirimax and actually wearing the adult rating as a badge of honour. Good on them. Controversy helps. It gets the film into the zeitgeist. They’ll also pimp out the film for awards consideration, and they are likely to get a few nominations. Shame is a very well made film with some fantastic acting. Market the controversy and the awards and combine it with solid word of mouth in a limited rollout and you’re likely to see the film make a reasonable amount of money, gets reasonable play in theatres that don’t regularly show NC-17 films, and it might even surpass the Showgirls record.
The important thing to understand in all of this is that the idea that there is an “NC-17 stigma” is patently bullshit. These are films that most people wouldn’t want to see one way or the other, and theatres don’t usually want to play them for exactly that reason. So people, please, chill the fuck out about the NC-17. It really isn’t a big deal. Yes, it’s fucking annoying when the MPAA chooses to saddle a film with a rating it doesn’t deserve, but some films really do deserve the ratings they get, and there is no reason to think that if a film has potential it can’t be a reasonable success, rating be damned.
(This post has been rated R for repeated use of the F-word in a non-sexual context)