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May 07, 2001 03:16am
More Indies Avoid Film Ratings
Source: AP
by: Anthony Breznican

(LOS ANGELES, CA) -- No rating at all may be better than the box-office poison of an NC-17 rating, say a growing number of filmmakers and independent distributors.

Many are deciding to shirk the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board altogether rather than edit out material to win the safer R rating.

``I knew when I started this film that I didn't want to deal with the ratings board,'' director Wayne Wang said of his new ``The Center of the World'' ``I wanted to make an honest movie without being bothered by people telling me what I couldn't do.''

After relative success releasing the unrated ``Requiem for a Dream'' last year, Artisan Entertainment (news - external web site) is doing it again with ``The Center of the World.'' Wang's film, about destructive emotions that arise between a prostitute and an Internet tycoon during a weekend of sex in Las Vegas, features numerous scenes of disturbing and sometimes violent sex.

Releasing a film without a rating isn't an option for the major studios, which, as signatories of the MPAA, are required to submit films for a rating. But independents have the option.

Many theaters won't screen NC-17 films, and most TV stations and newspapers won't accept ads for them. Although it's also difficult to find theaters that will show unrated films, it's easier to market them, said Amorette Jones, head of marketing at Artisan.

To determine ratings, the MPAA commissions a panel of anonymous parents to screen movies. Filmmakers unhappy with the outcome can appeal, or edit the movie.

The association came up with the NC-17 rating in 1990 to replace the X rating, which pornographers had long ago co-opted as a marketing gimmick. But ever since the T&A spectacular ``Showgirls'' boasted the NC-17 rating to titillate, filmmakers complain that accepting the NC-17 label links their work to porn in the public mind.

``You immediately think of something that would play at the Pussycat Theater,'' remarked Jones. ``There's no good rating for a serious movie about adult issues.''

Many in the film industry object to the very idea of the rating, which restricts people under 17 from attending a film regardless of whether they're accompanied by an adult.

``It's no longer a guideline for parents but a restriction on filmmakers and the First Amendment,'' Jones said.

MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor said the organization surveys parents and is satisfied with response to the rating. ``There is no hue and cry from parents saying, 'Let my child see this NC-17 movie,''' he said.

``The Center of the World,'' which stars Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker, stops short of the graphic shots associated with porn.

``The movie deals with issues of love and power, sex and money,'' Wang said. ``I don't want people to think this is just a bunch of naked women and sex.''

``Requiem for a Dream,'' a bleak look at four self-destructive junkies, earned critical raves last year and an Oscar nomination for star Ellen Burstyn. It could have had an R rating, Jones said, if director Darren Aronofsky had cut a brutal sex scene. Instead, Artisan opted to disregard the MPAA's rating and release the film uncut.

``That moment in the story was necessary,'' Jones said. ``It was the symbolic death of a character.''

``Requiem'' played in fewer than 100 theaters, yet earned $3.6 million in the United States. With a budget of $4.5 million, it is certain to turn a profit from home video and overseas release.

Big studios, with more money at stake, are also more eager to avoid NC-17 designations.

The late Stanley Kubrick's final film, ``Eyes Wide Shut,'' nearly garnered an NC-17 rating until Warner Bros. agreed to obscure a racy sex scene by digitally inserting shadowy figures over the nudity.

Independent companies, meanwhile, can attract edgier filmmakers with the promise that their artistic integrity is worth more than the MPAA's stamp of approval.

``We feel very strongly that films, even though they feature adult themes, have a right to be shown,'' Jones said.

In response, the MPAA's Taylor quotes a saying around his office: ``If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, no rating will help you. If you make a movie few people want to see, no rating will help you.''

Another independent distributor, The Shooting Gallery, rarely has its movies rated. Some have dark themes that would attract unfavorable ratings, but others, such as the recent Iranian feminist picture ``The Day I Became a Woman'' have no sex, violence or objectionable language.

The Shooting Gallery is able to release its films in 14 cities because it has forged relationships with art houses that do not restrict movies based on ratings. Some argue that since edgier films won't appeal to broad audiences anyway, losing space in a multiplex won't hurt.

Dennis O'Connor, a former marketing head at Trimark Pictures, said the distributor had modest success releasing the sexually explicit French drama ``Romance'' without a rating.

The film, which grossed about $1.3 million in the United States, is about a woman shunned by her boyfriend who decides to punish herself with promiscuous and dangerous sex.

``I really felt it was an art house film,'' O'Connor said. ``If you have a film with any crossover potential or intend to buy television ads, though, it's close to impossible to release it unrated and still draw large audiences.''

And many filmmakers aren't willing to sacrifice the chance at a larger audience. Mark Lipski, who shares ownership of the new Lot 47 Films with his brothers, said they released their first film last year, ``The War Zone'' with no rating because they objected to ``arbitrary'' MPAA rulings.

``The ratings board is a group of parents who have no formal training in the nuances of film or sensitivity to context,'' he said. ``There is no rating to represent adult material that's not associated with pornography or prohibited by most theaters.''

Lipski conceded that director Tim Roth's ``The War Zone,'' a disturbing drama about incest, would have done better business if it had been cut to get an R rating. The movie played in a handful of theaters and grossed less than $300,000.

``I think it definitely hurt us to release it unrated,'' Lipski said. ``We were a brand new company, just getting started, and thought it would be a good idea. But this is a business, and we want people to see the movies.''

Distributors have appealed NC-17 ratings with mixed results.

Writer-director Kevin Smith's ``Clerks'' was originally rated NC-17 for sex jokes and profanity, but Miramax successfully argued it should have an R rating because there was no sex on screen. Miramax lost a different appeal, however, to get an R rating for the courtroom thriller ``The Advocate'' in 1994 until it agreed to cut 12 seconds from a raunchy love scene.

Wang said he is satisfied with ``The Center of the World'' even if its risque nature prevents most people from seeing it.

``As an artist, there is sort of a rebellious feel to all this,'' he said. ``But I'm just hoping that those who do want to see a serious movie can go without being embarrassed or thinking it's dirty.''

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