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The NC-17 rated "Shame" poses an intriguing test for the much-lamented rating and stands a chance of being one of the most notable adults-only releases since "Last Tango in Paris" or "Midnight Cowboy."
When Steve McQueen's film about a sex addict (Michael Fassbender) arrives in theaters Dec. 2, it will have already found enthusiastic debate at film festivals, largely laudatory reviews and a significant presence in the Oscar race, where Fassbender is considered a top contender for a best actor nomination.
Though most films tagged by the Motion Pictures Association of America with an NC-17 rating either protest the decision or edit down to an R-rating, Fox Searchlight (which acquired "Shame" at the Toronto Film Festival) has accepted the NC-17 as fair.
"We're releasing it not because of (the rating), but perhaps in spite of it," says Stephen Gilula, co-president of Fox Searchlight. "We just think it's a film that deserves to be seen."
An NC-17 rating still poses challenges for "Shame" and Fox Searchlight, but some believe the stigma of the rating may be fading.
The rating, which restricts anyone under the age of 18 from attending a movie, was created in 1990 after the "X" rating (which the MPAA had failed to trademark) was co-opted by the pornography industry. Since then, the most successful NC-17 film at the box office has been 1995's "Showgirls," which earned $20.4 million and a great deal of scorn from critics.
On the whole, the rating has been taken by smaller, art-house films. Recent NC-17 releases have included Bernando Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" (2004, Fox Searchlight), Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" (2007, Focus Features) and Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" (2004, Sony Pictures Classics).
Many more movies have received the rating and avoided it by recutting, reportedly including "Pulp Fiction," "Boys Don't Cry," "American Pie" and "Basic Instinct." Last year's "Blue Valentine" had its rating overturned after an appeal. Some films simply choose to instead go "unrated" rather than accept the NC-17.
"('Shame') is potentially an important step in the legitimate use of the NC-17," says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "There just aren't very many movies released in the NC-17 rating anymore. We get maybe one or two a year. Filmmakers and movie studios are inappropriately afraid of the rating."
Fithian says his association hopes to "eradicate the stigma" of NC-17, which he disputes. In surveying 100 theaters, the theater owners' group found that 97 would play a NC-17 film. He calls the assertion that NC-17 films are limited in their advertising a myth.
Advertising a NC-17 film on television is limited to certain hours. Most newspapers will accept ads for a NC-17 film as long as they're tasteful.
"What we currently have is a system that's slightly flawed in the reluctance of filmmakers and distributors to use the NC-17," Fithian says. "What they'll do is cut and trim and try to cram a movie into the R rating category so that it escapes the NC-17, and that's not a legitimate use of the system. We end up with a very broad R category."
Joan Graves, head of the movie ratings system for the MPAA, says the MPAA applies the NC-17 rating "much more often than it's accepted."
"I've always considered it a shame that for some reason some people consider it (a death sentence), and I blame the media in a way because they always act like it's gotten the kiss of death," says Graves. "But there isn't one of our ratings that means a film is good or bad."
Yet the media holds little sway over film producers who cut films to an R, or the movie theater chain Cinemark, one of the country's largest, which refuses to screen NC-17 rated films. Important retail stores such as Wal-Mart, too, don't stock NC-17 rated DVDs.
"There's a reason that studios and filmmakers do everything they can not to get an NC-17 rating," says Kirby Dick, whose 2006 documentary about the MPAA rating system "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" was ironically slapped with an NC-17 rating. "It's definitely an anchor. I don't think it's a death sentence, but I definitely think it does impact the marketability of a film -- not only because there are certain restrictions as to where it can be advertised and which theaters will take it, but also because the perception around the film then is purely as a sensational film."
Dick would like to see the MPAA and theater owners' association build a strong ad campaign around the NC-17 rating to improve its image, and until then, he's dubious of any stated intentions to change it. Graves says she's "open to suggestions."
For "Shame," Fox Searchlight is planning to open in five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco and Chicago), then expand to five more cities on Dec. 9 and ten more on Dec. 16.
"This is a film that's opening on a limited release basis to try to establish its reputation, get reviews and build on word-of-mouth," says Gilula. He anticipates it will play across the country, wherever there is a demand to see it.
Gilula acknowledges the rating will, by rule, reduce the size of the potential audience and may result in "some limitation" in DVD sales in retail chains, but that the film "will find its audience and vice versa."
Online advertising, which isn't subject to the same restrictions as other media, will play a big part. "Shame" is being prepped with a robust Internet and social media campaigns. Its trailers have been received enthusiastically online, where they've populated film blogs. (Amazon.com, too, will help "Shame" later in DVD sales.)
Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com, expects "Shame" to be "a big conversation piece" that will see high per-screen averages on release. Though he believes NC-17 is "a very limited and limiting rating," he believes it could have some upside.
"R-rated movies are a dime a dozen," says Dergarabedian. "If Fox Searchlight can harness the power of the NC-17, they can turn it into a plus."
Perhaps a stauncher challenge will lie with academy voters. "Midnight Cowboy," which won best picture as well as best director and adapted screenplay, is the only X-rated or NC-17 film to win an Oscar. That was in 1970, just months after then MPAA president Jack Valenti created the current ratings system, thereby overriding the restrictive Hays Code and replacing it with a guide for parents.
Even if it were an R-rated film, "Shame" wouldn't have an easy road to Oscar nominations, given the always crowded field. But NC-17 films have generally been avoided entirely by the academy.
"There's this thought that the academy is going to be too old-fashioned to embrace this picture," says Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight's other president. "But Steve and I are both academy members, we're both over 50 and we both really have a strong appreciation for the movie. I have faith that the academy is more progressive than people give it credit for."
The ironic thing is that "Shame," for all its graphic nudity, isn't a sexy or titillating film. It's a film ultimately about a damaged and lonely man, punishing himself in sex-obsessed contemporary times.
"It's like a reality which is being thrown at you through the screen, and that screen becomes a mirror," says McQueen. "That's what I've always wanted to do with cinema: Make the screen a mirror. Often is the case with films and movies is you're seeing a movie reality rather than an actual reality. What I wanted to project on to the screen is an actual reality and I think that's why people are talking about it, not necessarily because of the sex."