The movie ratings system stands on a shaky foundation of dubious assumptions: that it does a good job protecting minors from seeing inappropriate content; that it protects filmmakers from censorship; and that America's movie distributors and theater owners are working hand-in-glove to enforce the ratings that protect both children and artists. All these assumptions have been put to the test recently by the release of Blue Is the Warmest Color.
It's a three-hour art film from France that won the top prize, the Palme D'Or, at Cannes this year, but it also contains a few minutes of fairly explicit lesbian sex scenes. Those shots were enough to earn the movie an NC-17 rating. But that rating is creating controversy in two very different American cities: Boise and New York. In the Idaho capital, the local art-house theater, The Flicks, announced it wouldn't book the film because of an Idaho law that prohibits sexually explicit entertainment at an establishment with a liquor license. (Which makes one wonder: does Flicks also avoid R-rated movies with heterosexual sex scenes? And are all the strip clubs in Boise dry?)
In New York, however, not only did the IFC Film Center book the movie, but it also announced it would only selectively enforce the NC-17 rating. After all, rating enforcement isn't a legal issue, only a voluntary agreement among cinemas that belong to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). Most movie houses are NATO members, but the IFC Film Center is not. And its management decided that the lesbian romance was neither pornographic nor unsuitable for older high schoolers. Therefore, it announced that it would allow older teens to see Blue.
In a third city, Evanston, Illinois, the Cinemark Century 12 announced it would make an exception to the parent chain's across-the-board ban of NC-17 films and would book Blue. Cinemark marketing chief Frank Gonzales told the Evanston Patch that the 300-theater chain had been thinking for some time about testing the waters and allowing an NC-17 movie to screen in one of its cinemas. "It just happens to be the right movie at the right time," he said of Blue.
These shifts suggest that there is considerable confusion and disagreement, even among theater owners who've been enforcing the NC-17 rating for 23 years, over what the rating actually means. All it means is that kids under 17 are not to be admitted. Its purpose was to distinguish grown-up art-film fare (such as extreme sexual or violent content) from X-worthy pornography, but Flicks and Cinemark, perhaps erring on the side of caution, have assumed it always means porn. So have many other theater owners, newspaper advertising departments and rental chains, which is why Hollywood has considered NC-17 commercial suicide and usually forces filmmakers to trim their work to receive no worse than an R.
Indeed, even the makers of the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the kinky and explicit best-seller, are planning to release the film with an R rating, though they may also make an NC-17 version. Even for a movie whose target audience expects to see explicit sex, the NC-17 is still an iffy commercial prospect, at best.
The ratings are handed out by a board of California parents selected by the Classfication and Ratings Administration (CARA), which is part of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the lobbying arm of the major Hollywood studios. The parents' decisions are supposed to reflect the decisions parents nationwide would make on whether or not a film is suitable for their children, but it's clear from the Boise and New York cases that parents in different cities may not agree on whether certain topics, like lesbian love, are suitable for their kids. A movie like Blue would make more sense as an R – no one under 17 allowed unless accompanied by a parent or guardian – a rating that takes different parental standards into account.
The IFC Center's decision not to enforce the rating brought forth predictable outrage from the moral scolds at the Parents Television Council, but it also seemed to raise some hackles at CARA and at NATO, the National Association of Theater Owners, both of whom suggested that the whole system depends on theater owners enforcing the ratings. Regarding the IFC Center's actions, Patrick Corcoran, NATO's Vice President and Chief Communications Officer, told L.A. Biz, "We encourage theater owners to enforce the age restrictions in the ratings as applied as part of our partnership with parents to provide information on the content of films and consistent enforcement of admissions policies across the industry." Kate Bedingfield, the MPAA's Vice President of Corporate Communications, said something similar to Rolling Stone when asked about the IFC Center, saying, "The vast majority of theaters in this country voluntarily enforce the ratings because they have an interest in keeping government regulation out of the theater and an interest in making sure parents are aware of the content of films before they decide to take their kids."
Of course, NC-17 doesn't really help parents make decisions about appropriate content for their kids; in fact, it specifically takes that decision out of their hands, telling them their kids can't see a particular movie, not even if accompanied by a parent or guardian. That is, unless the theater, like the IFC Center, decides not to enforce the rating. Either way, NC-17 takes the decision away from parents and gives it to the theater management.
The IFC Center isn't the only theater that may be letting kids watch mature content. A recent Federal Trade Commission study found that one in four kids under 17 who tried to buy an R-rated ticket at a movie theater were able to do so. Bedingfield cited this study to Rolling Stone as proof that most theaters are indeed enforcing ratings, but a more informal survey at KidsPickFlicks found that an additional 18 percent of kids have successfully snuck into an R-rated screening (not hard to do in an understaffed multiplex). Because the system is voluntary, without any punishment for non-enforcement coming from the law – or, apparently, from NATO or CARA – there are no real repercussions for theaters who fail to enforce the ratings and keep kids out of R or NC-17 movies.
It's unclear how much of Blue's box office has come from underage ticket buyers, but the film has done reasonably well since it opened five weeks ago – reasonably well, at least for a movie that opened in just four theaters, not to mention one that's three hours long (and can therefore have fewer screenings per day) and is in a foreign language. It debuted on October 25 with about $101,000 in sales, for a per-screen average of $25,250, the highest of any movie playing that weekend. After five weeks, the film has earned about $1.5 million and is playing at 138 venues, the sixth widest distribution pattern of any NC-17 film ever released. Even so, the film's earnings to date suggest that only under exceptional conditions is the NC-17 not an automatic guarantee of commercial failure.
The ratings system has been a success, over the last 45 years, at keeping local censorship boards from determining the content of mainstream commercial movies. (Though perhaps there's still some work to be done on that front in Idaho.) But its ratings have come to mean the opposite of their stated meaning. As a result, it seems clear that, not only are kids not being protected, but films are still not reaching their intended audiences. Now that there's growing evidence of that at the box office, you'd think Hollywood might take notice.