There is No Such Thing as the “NC-17 Stigma”

November 2, 2011 — 10 Comments

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:

  1. Showgirls, 1995 – $20,350,754
  2. Henry & June, 1990 – $11,567,449
  3. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover, 1990 – $7,724,701
  4. Bad Education, 2004 – $5,211,842
  5. Lust, Caution, 2007 – $4,604,982
  6. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990 – $4,087,361
  7. The Dreamers, 2004 – $2,532,228
  8. Crash, 1996 – $2,038,450
  9. Bad Lieutenant, 1992 – $2,000,022
  10. 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)


10 responses to There is No Such Thing as the “NC-17 Stigma”


    The one thing you miss out on are all the films that have been edited down to an R as a result of the alleged “NC-17 Stigma.” That is having a real effect on the nature of cinema and the willingness to engage with artistic freedom. It doesn’t matter whether or not getting an NC-17 rating really dooms a film or not if the idea that it dooms it leads people to censor themselves.


      Yeah, but that doesn’t mean there is a stigma in the moviegoing public. It’s just fear for the sake of fear on the part of studios and distributors. How many parents do you think actually took their kids to see Team America in its theatrical R-rated form? I’m betting that number is very low and the movie could have made just as much with an NC-17. But for some reason there is this manufactured idea of a stigma that doesn’t allow big studios to even attempt an NC-17 release. It idiotic.


    So far in my movie-going experience, I’ve seen two films that were rated NC-17. The Dreamers and Lust, Caution. I was glad to see those 2 films. For me, NC-17, depending on the film and director, is a guaranteed way for me to put my ass in the seat!

    Hell, as I’m trying to finish one script at the moment. One of the projects that I’m currently writing is likely to have a NC-17 rating. Bottom line is this. I like having nudity in films. Male or female. I don’t care. I want to see penises. I want to see tits. I want to see vaginas. I want to see all of that as long as it’s not performed by body doubles or in digital form (like The Change-Up). I want to see if actors are actually having sex to make it seem real.

    That’s more reason for me to see Shame. And that whole thing with Blue Valentine getting the rating at first was a load of baloney. There wasn’t anything explicit about it. For me, it’s a chance to see what a director will do and how far it will push something like sex in a narrative. That’s what I want to do as well if I ever become a filmmaker.


    Interesting post. You make a great point about those NC-17 films – I really hadn’t thought much, consciously at least, that they already belong to a sort of rarefied group, and it’s a weird assumption to think the rating would suddenly cut off a big chunk of the potential audience.

    Have you seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated and if so, what do you think of it? It’s mostly a description/critique, I suppose, of the whole MPAA system, but it does, definitely, touch on the so-called stigma of NC-17. The filmmakers interviewed did seem to think that the NC-17 would limit their audience; do you disagree? That their sort of films are already in a group that will be limited to certain audience anyway and so the rating doesn’t matter in terms of who will and won’t see the film?


      I have seen This Film is Not Yet Rated. It’s very good. But I do disagree with the premise that the NC-17 as a rating is capable of doing a film in. The fact of the matter is, the second you make a film with the level of violence or sexual content required for an NC-17 you are limiting the appeal of your film. Now, obviously if you’re one to do that you’re also likely to be interested in making something artistically unique, which only further limits the appeal. It’s that combination which poses a barrier for these films financially, not the rating itself.

      I think This Film is Not Yet Rated does do an excellent job of explaining why the MPAA is essentially a corrupt organization from top to bottom, and how their pervasive influence is negatively affecting the creative concerns regarding intensity of content, much like Bondo says.

      I strongly advocate reforming the American film industry’s self-censorship mechanism. One good method is to make a third party body with a government mandate, much like the FCC, only with less power. That’s what Ontario has, for example.

      But I think this fixation upon the so-called stigma of the NC-17 as seen by the public is not warranted. The public doesn’t pay attention to the films anyway. It’s THAT that needs to be changed, not the rating itself. They already change it from X. Changing what you call it won’t change anything because other than the issues with the MPAA’s corruption there’s nothing really broken.


        All excellent points – and thanks for your reply. Good to hear you like TFINYR so much – it was mostly new information to me when I saw it, so I didn’t have other info with which to compare it. It’s clear the MPAA is a corrupt system for rating films – but I think, as you say, it’s not really something the public thinks about much. I doubt most have any idea where those ratings come from (I didn’t really until relatively recently); they just accept them.


    America has a fixation on sex?


    Nick was sitring head down, bare chest, with hiis arms handcuffed behind
    him at the end of the driveway on the edge
    of the lawn. You don’t need to memorize lines or variations;
    you just need to be acquainted with most openings and
    their basic ideas. Their prodigious mental abilities no doubt lead the chess masters down some
    unconventional paths, often resulting in eccentricity.

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