A look at what MPAA ratings mean for movies - Is an NC-17 rating the kiss of death for movies like ''Young Adam''?

In the 14 years since The Motion Picture Association of America created the NC-17 rating, only a handful of releases have been branded with it. But three more have popped up in the last three months. Has NC-17 finally come of age?

British producer Jeremy Thomas, for one, isn’t breaking out the bubbly. Responsible for two of the three — Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and Young Adam, starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton — he thinks the rating is bad news. ”NC-17 gives the film a smutty image,” he says, adding that the MPAA objected to a sex scene in which McGregor and Swinton are clothed. (Rather than editing the content like many filmmakers do, Thomas and Sony Pictures Classics appealed. They lost.)

Okay, so the no-children-allowed rating hasn’t had the greatest track record. Created in 1990 to replace the porn-tainted X, NC-17 came to be seen as box office poison, thanks to bombs like the campily erotic Showgirls. (The fact that some theaters refuse NC-17’s and Blockbuster doesn’t carry them hardly helps.) But even a warm, fuzzy G couldn’t have saved Paul Verhoeven’s pole dance. ”The first NC-17’s did not perform well, but not because of the rating,” says National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian. ”They just weren’t appealing to audiences.” The same might be said of the panned Dreamers, which has eked out $2.4 million since February. One insider even argues that the rating helped Bertolucci’s film by generating the sort of titillation no marketing budget can buy.

And Adam? Like Dreamers, it’s an indie bound to benefit from the NC-17-based publicity — especially when that press mentions the shot of Obi-Wan’s penis (yep, Ewan bares his lightsaber again, though SPC claims that wasn’t the offending moment; the MPAA doesn’t comment on ratings decisions). With a third NC-17 scheduled for early ’05 (Lions Gate’s thriller High Tension), Fithian’s optimistic that NC-17 will shed its image as R’s depraved older sibling. ”The myths that surround NC-17 are just that — myths. Releasing more NC-17’s and having them work: That’s how it gets remedied.”

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