Responding to complaints of undue censorship from movie makers and film critics, the Motion Picture Assn. of America abolished its X movie rating on Wednesday and replaced it with a new adults-only classification.
The MPAA, in a joint announcement with the powerful National Assn. of Theater Owners, said the X rating would be replaced immediately with a designation of NC-17, which indicates that no children under 17 can be admitted.
The groups also said they would add explanations to R ratings, telling parents whether films contain violence, explicit language or sex. Only adults or children accompanied by adults are permitted at R-rated movies.
The new rating category is expected to clear the way for strong adult-theme films to be released and marketed in theaters without the taint of pornography now associated with an X rating.
The Writers Guild of America West and the Directors Guild of America, which had sought dialogue between their members and the MPAA on the ratings, issued a joint statement supporting the new category and the expanded explanation of the R rating.
"We are going back to the original intent of the rating system," said MPAA President Jack Valenti. "We have an adults-only category and anybody who wants to go see (an NC-17-rated) film can go see it, period. It takes us back to the days, hopefully, of 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'A Clockwork Orange.' "
Those films were among the few major studio releases with X ratings after Valenti installed the modern system in 1968. For the last 15 years, few distributors--or mainstream movie makers--have attempted to buck the public perception of the X as pornography.
The new rating was met with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm from people in the industry.
"It was a change that was obviously necessary," said Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson ("Rain Man"), one of 31 leading directors who petitioned the MPAA to adopt an A adults-only rating. "The name doesn't matter as long as it accommodates the adult films. It makes perfect sense, whatever you want to call it."
"It's better to have a category that can work with honor, to replace the X which had a stigma attached to it," said Tom Pollock, chairman of the movie division of MCA-Universal. Universal may be the first beneficiary of the new rating. "Henry & June," a soon-to-be released erotic film based on the sexual relationships involving writer Anais Nin and novelist Henry Miller and his wife in 1931 Paris, had been rated X, but Pollock said Wednesday he will submit the film for an NC-17 rather than proceed with appealing the X rating.
"Henry & June" was seen as a key element in the battle to overturn the X rating. It was one of the first major studio productions to be unwillingly strapped with that designation.
Pornographic filmmakers co-opted the MPAA's non-copyrighted "X" in the early '70s, and as a result many newspapers and television stations have refused advertising for X-rated films and many theater chains have refused to book them. The new NC-17 rating is copyrighted.
Valenti had long resisted changing the adults-only rating. But, he said, changes in the pornography business have taken most hard-core films out of theaters. "Pornography's a video business now, it's extinct as far as we're concerned," he said.
Valenti's original rating system included four designations: G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance, R for films restricted to adults and children accompanied by adults and X for adults only. In 1984, protests over the violence in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" prompted the adoption of a fifth rating--PG-13--which cautions parents that the films may not be suitable for children under age 13.
Valenti said that the MPAA will reclassify any X-rated films in current release with the NC-17 if the distributors request it.
Miramax Films, a New York-based distributor that sued the MPAA and lost over the X rating given the Spanish-language film "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," said it is too late to help the film.
Miramax alleges the X limited its ability to market the movie. The company will ask for the NC-17 rating for the videocassette of the film and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," which was rated X earlier this year.
"The issue of what needs to be cut to get an R rating will still need to be addressed," said Russell Schwartz, executive vice president of Miramax. "But I'm happy there is now a legitimate category for adult movies . . . that the stigma of pornography has been removed."
Others were less enthusiastic.
"It's certainly an improvement, but (Valenti) really hasn't resolved the issue," said Mark Lipsky, a New York distributor who initiated the directors' petition after his film, "Life is Cheap . . . but toilet paper is expensive," received an X this summer. "What we were hoping for was a rating in between an R and X that would signify adult."