When the NC-17 rating was introduced it was heralded as a major step forward. No longer would serious films be slapped with the X rating, a stigma usually associated with porn movies. Unfortunately this was not the way it worked out, very few NC-17 movies have been released, and several have chosen to go unrated rather than be given an NC-17. This leaves the R rating as the only refuge for a filmmaker who wants to make a film for adults. It also dilutes the R rating, how can one rating apply to Clerks, Natural Born Killers, and Basic Instinct?
This was not always the case. In the 1970s several movies were released with the X rating that achieved critical and commercial success, most notably Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy, which won Best Picture in 1970. It later turned out that the MPAA had not trademarked the letter X for rating movies, they thought anyone not submitting his or her film for rating could self-apply the X and then not have to worry about whether it was appropriate for children. This, combined with the explosion of pornography on videocassette, led to the demise of the X rating. Pornographers could just slap the sticker “Rated X”, or even “XXX” on their videos without having to show them to the MPAA. Because of this the X rating became synonymous with porn in the mind of the public. The NC-17 rating was introduced in the hopes that it would replace the X and only be applied to “serious” adult movies.
The real reason that NC-17 is so scorned is because it is almost impossible for a film with that rating to get a wide release. Many newspapers and television stations outright refuse to carry ads for NC-17 films. Many theatres refuse to even show NC-17 movies, especially ones located in shopping malls and residential areas. They strangely do not have this prohibition on unrated films. Most major video stores will not carry NC-17 movies, or if they do they will edit them
No advertising + No theatres + No video revenue = No movie
For once a problem with the American film industry is not the fault of the MPAA!
There are two ways of trying to remedy this issue. One solution, proposed by Roger Ebert is to start over and introduce a completely new rating, he calls it the “A” rating. This new rating should be introduced with a massive marketing campaign intending to show the public that “adult” does not necessarily mean “porn.” It certainly didn’t help NC-17 that the first major film released with that rating was Showgirls. Jack Valenti is a rabid defender of the current system and refuses to add a new rating. The other idea is that the NC-17 rating can still be salvaged. The studios would have to start releasing artistic movies that earn the NC-17 legitimately. And when the films get this rating the studio should not recut it to get an R or release it unrated. Preferably these films would be of high artistic merit and could garner some Oscar nominations. The studios had their chance with both Eyes Wide Shut and Requiem for a Dream, but chose not to take it.
Unfortunately both of these plans require changing long-standing public perceptions involving adult films. The fact that it also involves pornography, a notoriously touchy subject in the United States, makes it even harder.
I realize that Showgirls was not the first film to be released with an NC-17, but it was the first that made any splash in terms of the general public. Public perception of what the rating means is the key issue here
Thanks to tregoweth for pointing out why X was never trademarked.