When a film gets branded with an NC-17 rating, most studios do one of four things. They re-cut it hoping to get an R-rating, release it unrated, doom it direct-to-DVD or suck it up and go for it.
That last option is a rarity because embracing the NC-17 rating means fighting an unfair, almost pornographic, connotation. The MPAA website itself explicitly states “NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience.” But that doesn’t stop major theater chains from not playing the movies, major video distributors from not stocking the movies or TV channels from not advertising the movies. It’s a huge mountain to climb.
Fox Searchlight’s new film Shame, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, is so filled with sex and nudity, it’s all but guaranteed to receive an NC-17. And that’s okay. Not only will Fox Searchlight embrace this, they’re going to push the film for awards. They’re making a stand against the negative stigma. Read more about their marketing strategy after the jump.
The MPAA defines an NC-17 movie as follows:
An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be 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.
So, basically, while kids can get into an R-rated movie with any adult accompanying them, everyone who goes to see an NC-17 movie must be 17. No exceptions.
For a movie like Shame, that’s fine. It’s not meant for anyone under 17. It’s an intimate profile of a sex addict. Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley told The Hollywood Reporter that the movie had such a strong effect on her, she knew wanted to distribute it despite the challenges its graphic sex and nudity presented. Her colleague Steve Gilula agreed:
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. 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.
So how will they change the game? By playing it simple. First they’ll focus on the fact that it’s a good movie and has gotten stellar reviews out of all the festivals its played. All buzz and advertising will focus on that. Second, the opening will be small and focused. Shame opens in NY and LA on December 2 so they don’t have to waste a bunch of money buying ads where people won’t see the movie. Plus, the trailer will only play in front of R-rated films. And third, they’re going to give Shame a strong awards push in all categories. If the film hits even in one or two of them, it’s almost guaranteed to get a box office boost.
Most movies with the NC-17 rating don’t even break into the double digit millions in terms of box office but Fox Searchlight is an Oscar-producing machine with a resume of hits like Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, Black Swan, The Wrestler and more. None of those were as graphic as Shame, but they’re hoping a good movie won’t be judged on the amount of explicit sex or male nudity it shows.