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Why 'Shame' Could 'Legitimize' the NC-17 Rating

Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Theater owners, MPAA argue that the stigma associated with the classification could be reversed with help from studios and the media.

Fox Searchlight's Shame opens Dec. 2 with a restrictive NC-17 rating, but that may be a good thing for similarly classified films in the future.

National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) president John Fithian tells the Associated Press that the Steve McQueen-directed drama "is potentially an important step in the legitimate use of the NC-17."

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"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 reveals that in a recent survey, 97 of 100 theater owners said they would play an NC-17 movie. He argues that filmmakers and studios should embrace, not fight, the classification, "What we currently have is a system that's slightly flawed in the reluctance of filmmakers and distributors to use the NC-17.

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"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."

Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian thinks Shame can capitalize on its uncommon status. He told AP, "R-rated movies are a dime a dozen. If Fox Searchlight can harness the power of the NC-17, they can turn it into a plus."

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The MPAA said that the drama earned the rating because of “some explicit sexual content," which includes full-frontal nudity, oral sex performed on men and women, and group sex.

Joan Graves, head of the group's ratings system arm, believes the "stigma" of NC-17 is due in part to negative press. She told AP, "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."

"I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner," Searchlight president Steve Gilula told The Hollywood Reporter. "The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It's not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It's a game changer."