Still, the following situation exists: Good films with mature subject matter are not getting made in the U.S. because the NC-17 rating is the kiss of death.
But who is at fault here?
When I worked in the development department of New Line Cinema, there was a script going around that we all loved. It was witty, fearless, provocative--and definitely NC-17 material. The script was so good we thought it was a lock that New Line would pick it up and make it. But then the script was reviewed by the distribution department, whose chief said, in my presence, "New Line will never release an NC-17 film."
Why? Because the numbers didn't make sense. New Line, one of the most frugal studios in existence, would have loved to distribute a controversial, free-publicity-generating NC-17 film. But theater owners across the nation (except in a few markets) refuse to book NC-17 films, just like they refuse to book X-rated films. Why? Because newspapers and TV stations around the nation (except in a few markets) refuse to run ads for NC-17 films. Why? This is where my personal knowledge runs out, but I assume it's because they're scared that their audiences will protest.
I don't blame exhibitors for not programming a movie that they can't advertise. And I don't blame studios for not producing films that exhibitors won't show. And I don't blame the MPAA ratings board for providing descriptive ratings for parents who want them.
When MPAA head Jack Valenti was being pressured to create the NC-17 rating, he said, We already have this rating--it's called X. But that rating had become associated with porn (it was the one rating that anyone could self-apply, without submitting to the ratings board for review). So people demanded a new rating that would be for films that aren't porn but also aren't for kids. But NC-17 will just come to mean the same thing as X, said Jack. Valenti has been laughably wrong in the past (he predicted that the VCR would destroy the movie industry), but this was one of the few times in his life that he was right. Name the last NC-17 film you saw in a theater. (Truth be told, the story is more complicated than my summary.)