What Happened To "X-Rated" Movies?

Christian Sager

February 19, 1973. A young man outside The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, London, where the controversial 'X' rated film, 'Last Tango In Paris' was being shown. (Hulton Archive/Getty).

The story goes that when the original "RoboCop" was submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1987, it was given an X-Rating. Director Paul Verhoeven resubmitted edits multiple times and the movie finally saw a Rated R release. The MPAA assigns these ratings so parents can make informed decisions about what their children watch. Yet even with an R-Rating, when "RoboCop" came out I was ten years old and watched it repeatedly. I don't remember being accompanied by a parent every time either. I suspect many of you saw it under similar, unsupervised circumstances... and look, we all grew up perfect and well-adjusted. Right?

When I first read about the original X-Rating for "RoboCop" I thought two things. First, I always associated the "X" signifier with pornography... so what kind of kinky business were Murphy and Lewis up to in the original version? Second, what ever happened to X-Rated films anyway? I hadn't heard of one in a long time.

Well, that's because in 1990 the MPAA ditched the term "X-Rating" for what we now know as "NC-17." This was to dispel the porno connotation, which I apparently still have lodged in my brain. According to the MPAA, NC-17 does not mean "pornographic" and is "based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children." To understand why they made the shift, it helps to first look at the history of the MPAA. 65 years before anyone even conceived of a film like "RoboCop," the movie studios of 1922 were wary of censorship boards expressing distaste for their content. The MPAA was formed in reaction, to protect studios from the government by supposedly policing themselves.

Originally the MPAA only applied two labels to movies: "moral" and "immoral." The system we're currently familiar with was established in 1968 when Jack Valenti became the organization's chairman. Valenti decided their role wasn't to approve what audiences should see, but rather to inform parents of the content in movies so they could decide for themselves what was appropriate for their family. The rating system is now voluntary and filmmakers can choose to either accept the rating, edit and resubmit or simply ignore the MPAA and attempt unrated distribution. If they really want to, they can even make an appeal that requires two-thirds of a board's vote to change the original rating.

The ratings themselves are applied by a secretive Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) within the MPAA. They never release the names of CARA's board members, justified as protecting them from external lobbyists. All we're told about CARA is that they're parents with children between the ages of 5 and 17 who do not work in the entertainment industry. These individuals watch each submitted film and apply a rating to it based on what they think the majority of American parents would give it. Together, they deliberate and vote on a rating through majority rule. The MPAA's site claims that CARA is "constantly evolving" based on user studies like surveys and focus groups, so they're in tune with the zeitgeist of parental sensitivity. Regardless, there are always complaints against CARA. Most recently these were presented in the 2006 documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" (which CARA gave an NC-17 by the way).

Valenti died a year after the documentary's release, but in 1994 he told "Entertainment Weekly" the following:

We're rating movies for the parents of America who live in hamlets and villages all over this country. Many of them are what I call religious people. They become outraged over language that is considered de rigueur around Beverly Hills. They see things on the screen with teenagers mucking around with sensuality, and it drives them up the wall. It's an affront to their very nature.

Current MPAA Chairman, former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, seems mainly focused on addressing movie piracy. This is likely because industry insiders are less concerned about an adult ratings than they used to. Back when the X-Rating still applied, most media wouldn't run advertising for such films. Similarly, many theaters wouldn't even book an X-Rated film. The rating ultimately meant a loss of revenue because of this distribution stigma. Most audiences simply assumed an X meant the film was porn, rather than a major studio picture with sophisticated adult themes. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott and Sydney Pollack protested against the label, leading the movie industry to subsequently replace "X" with "NC-17." At first it didn't help much, as religious groups boycotted any business associated with the distribution of NC-17 movies. Studios like Disney refused to release NC-17 films, while others contractually obliged directors to meet R-Ratings. Chain video stores like Blockbuster (remember them?) also rejected the films.

Along came a film called "Shame" in 2011, which received positive reviews and earned almost $18 million globally. Despite Michael Fassbender's pantsless running around to fulfill a voracious sexual addiction, 97 of 100 theater owners were willing to show "Shame." In a 2013 interview with "Bloomberg Businessweek," Sundance Select movie studio president Jonathan Sehring said, "An NC-17 rating no longer holds the stigma it once did." So are we actually out of the era where moving ratings make a difference in how well a film's received?

Not quite yet. The remake of "RoboCop" is only PG-13. Star Joel Kinnaman said he was surprised what they could "get away with" in a lower rating, even though he thinks the tone of the remake's violence is different from the original.