The least surprising news story of the last couple weeks, after the Kardashian divorce, was the announcement that the MPAA had given Shame an NC-17 rating. Ever since the Michael Fassbender drama premiered, to great acclaim, at the Venice Film Festival in September, it's been assumed that it would earn the strictest combination of letters and numbers that the ratings board has to offer. It's about a sex addict, for crying out loud. A sex addict! Who has sex! Nakedly! With sex!
What's noteworthy about the NC-17 rating is the way Fox Searchlight is handling it. The distributor bought the U.S. rights to the film knowing it would get that rating, and writer/director Steve McQueen is not the kind of artiste who lets studios censor his work. Sure enough, rather than trim some of the naughty parts to get an R rating, Fox Searchlight is releasing it as is -- and proudly.
"I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter," studio president Steve Gilula told The Hollywood Reporter. "We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner."
Fox Searchlight is totally being a honey badger about this, and that's cool. Gilula is right: it is about time the NC-17 stigma went away. If they succeed, and with all the glowing reviews and the right promotional push, Shame could become the first NC-17 film to be nominated for Best Picture.
Has a prudish anti-NC-17 sentiment prevented such a thing from happening already? Yes, but not entirely in the way you might think. Since the NC-17 was implemented in 1990, only 25 films have actually been released with it. Dozens more have gotten that classification from the MPAA initially, only to appeal or re-edit and secure an R rating. In other cases, after being slapped with an NC-17, distributors have surrendered the rating entirely and released their movies unrated -- a strategy that works because some theaters have policies against showing NC-17 films but not unrated ones, and because "unrated" doesn't sound as dirty to moviegoers as "NC-17" does. So it's no wonder nothing rated NC-17 has been nominated for Best Picture. There have only been 25 to choose from!
The reason for that, of course, is the stigma. Some theaters won't show them, and some newspapers and TV stations won't run ads for them. Because of those limitations, studios figure they won't be able to make much money on an NC-17 film, so they tend to do everything they can to avoid it. And because of that, on the rare occasion that an NC-17 film does get released, audiences are afraid of it. It's a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and probably a few other things: moviegoers view NC-17 films as exotic and unusual, so the studios don't release many of them; the scarcity makes them seem taboo, which makes moviegoers shy away from them.
The way to break the cycle is to release more NC-17 movies. The more common the rating is, the less people will be put off by it. If Shame does well financially and with the people who give awards to things, it might embolden other studios to take a chance, too.
Now, when I say we need to have more NC-17 movies, I'm not saying we need more dirty movies full of sex and nudity. Indeed, the fact that "NC-17" equals "dirty" in so many people's minds -- including yours! Admit it! -- is part of the problem. The rating was created because the X had come to signify nothing but sleaze, leaving no place for legitimate works of entertainment and art that simply aren't suitable for minors. But so far, the NC-17 has carried over the same stigma the X had. And it's the MPAA's own fault: most of the NC-17 decisions they give are for sexual content, not violence. Looking at the list of those 25 NC-17 releases -- Showgirls, Bad Education, Lust, Caution, Whore -- you'd get the impression that, yep, "NC-17" equals "sex."
What we need is for more movies that are currently getting away with an R rating to get the NC-17 they deserve, and for the studios to suck it up and release them that way. We can all name R-rated films that should have been NC-17, either because they were patently adult or because they were just as explicit as movies that have actually been NC-17. (If a 12-year-old isn't allowed to see Showgirls no matter what, he shouldn't be allowed to see The Hangover just because he has a parent or guardian with him.)
Obviously, the studios are going to keep avoiding the NC-17 rating as long as the NC-17 rating keeps spelling box-office poison. I'm not suggesting Universal Pictures release its new $50 million American Pie film on 3,000 screens with an NC-17 rating, as hilarious as that would be. But Fox Searchlight has the right idea with Shame, which will only need to make a few million dollars to be profitable and can be driven to a strong art-house run by positive reviews and word-of-mouth. More studios need to try that with their prestigious, low-budget, grown-up movies. At first, yes, the movies will make less money than they would if they were rated R. There will have to be some sacrifices. But it will pay off in the long run, as the NC-17 loses its stigma and starts being useful as a real rating. As long as it keeps being considered a bullet to be dodged, it's going to remain ineffectual and useless, like a Kardashian.