You may have heard NC-17 called the “rating of death” for the way it kills a movie’s commercial success. Is this true?
As a producer of one of the handful of NC-17 films ever made, Lucky Bastard, I can tell you it’s like the guys on Jackass finding out what happens when you get kicked in the nuts: Yes, it hurts like hell. Does the spectacle itself attract attention? Maybe—but you’ve still been kicked in the nuts.
Lucky Bastard is a thriller about an adult website that pairs average Joes with porn stars (there really are such sites). When one troubled young man fails to perform, he is driven by shame and humiliation to enact bloody revenge on the porn crew. For us, this was a great micro-budget premise that let us comment upon America’s obsessions with sex, violence and “humiliation entertainment.”For artistic reasons, we wanted the movie to be as raunchy and disturbing as possible. Mission accomplished! But when it came time to find a distributor, everybody balked. Although there’s no actual sex in the movie, we were told no sales agent would represent the movie, no distributor would buy the movie, no theater would show the movie — no, no, no.
“How come?” we asked one sales agent.
“Because this is pornography,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” we said. “There’s nothing here you wouldn’t see on Cinemax at 11PM. And we’ve got a great plan to market it through churches.”
End of meeting.
So we had a bright (read: not bright) idea to get it rated before getting a distributor. This is easy to do: you submit it to the MPAA and pay a fee on a sliding scale of the film’s budget. For us, it was $3,000. We figured if we got an R, problem solved. And if we got an NC-17, we’d be honest: the movie is not for kids, and we would be responsible for carrying a label.
The MPAA gave us NC-17 for explicit sexual content.
They offered an opportunity to speak to a “rating consultant.” I was dubious but gave it a shot. She warned me that re-cutting to obtain an R would likely take multiple attempts. I took her notes on the first five minutes of the film, then realized an R version of Lucky Bastard would hardly be comprehensible, let alone worthwhile, so we didn’t change a frame.
We had the option to reject the rating and go out unrated. (You just mail back your rating certificate with a letter saying so.) But I grew personally attached the rating. It seemed to make the movie even more subversive— and really was the right thing to do. Money comes and goes, but your integrity you can’t get back. Thus I am the moron who made an NC-17 movie with gifted actors and crew, but no movie stars or celebrity producers. Here’s what happens when you try to do this.
We were shut out. We were too much of an exploitation film for “regular” programming, but not a true horror film for “midnight movie” showings. More importantly, porn is the third rail of subject matter. Festivals have constituencies, sponsors and local relationships to manage. We got the impression that nobody wanted to risk being seen as offensive to women.
Amusingly, the one festival that programmed us (via a personal connection) was the Monaco Charity Film Festival. The screening was shut down after five minutes after an audience member complained, and our director was nearly thrown in jail. There is no first amendment in Monaco.
Some of the large theater chains will take an NC-17 movie, others will not. Lucky Bastard was never going to be a wide release so I didn’t take notes. The art house theaters don’t care—in fact, they prefer films to be unrated so they don’t have to deal with MPAA rules and check IDs.
The problem is that it’s hard enough to get an indie into a movie theater as a booking (as opposed to a “four-wall” rental)—doing so as an NC-17 is virtually impossible. The NC-17 Blue Is the Warmest Color—which prestigiously won Cannes—was distributed by IFC, who own their own theaters; so too with the unrated Nymphomaniac films and Magnolia/Landmark.
Having now been through the process…the theaters aren’t wrong. Think of the major demographics left for theatrical moviegoing: kids, seniors and people on dates. Why do movies get the NC-17 rating? Sometimes gruesome violence, usually explicit sex. So goodbye kids, seniors and dates. Lucky Bastard in theory appeals to young men who are familiar with Internet porn—but men don’t watch porn with each other. So forget about “bro dates,” too. Who is left? We had a limited run in New York and Los Angeles via CAVU Pictures (a terrific indie distributor) and the folks who showed up were cineastes, hip couples and friends/family/supporters. Which is to say, it was like a lot of indie releases. You get depressed that there are only four people watching your 4:15 matinee, until you realize that, Captain America aside, every screen in the joint is lucky to have four people.
Theatrical distribution is for reviews and awareness—it’s a loss leader. It would have been nice to have had a fair shake at a profitable theatrical run, but because the NC-17 kept us out of festivals, we never built a constituency amongst indie tastemakers. They discovered the film as it was released; many liked it, some thumbed their noses.
Video on Demand is rapidly becoming the primary source of revenue for an indie film. Here the NC-17 is deadly in two ways.
Several platforms will not carry NC-17 movies: Google Play (including YouTube) completely abstains. Vudu (owned by Wal-Mart) carries the NC-17 Shame but nothing else. Most importantly, iTunes (a huge percentage of the market) will only take an NC-17 film (or equivalent unrated film) if, like Shame, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac, it has become so culturally accepted that their hand is forced. They rejected Lucky Bastard (after some deliberation) as a matter of “editorial discretion.” This is profoundly unfair, but an argument for another time.
Amazon, Xbox and Sony Playstation don’t care about the rating. Nor does Vimeo—but you will make more money recycling empty soda cans than selling your movie on Vimeo. Lucky Bastard has just appeared at Hulu where it seems to be—hooray!—a hit. We have yet to pitch Netflix. Most cable and satellite providers took Lucky Bastard—which is logical given how much actual porn they sell—where it performed reasonably well. But if a movie is offered on a platform, but said platform is terrified to promote it in any way, will anybody find it? It’s a tree falling in a forest without a sound.
They will promote—via your efforts. But it’s a sliver of what it could be. We had several platforms enthusiastic about pushing the movie (in mailings, menus and the like) until they got cold feet. They looked at the rating, thought about porn and said no thanks.
Incidentally, the number of customer complaints that reached our distributor Gravitas Ventures?
We partnered with Revolver Entertainment for our DVD. We were grateful Revolver took physical rights, even though digital was already committed to Gravitas. Remember in Star Trek when planet Vulcan is sucked into the black hole? That’s the DVD market.
There are two significant revenue sources left for DVD. One is Redbox, who will categorically not take an NC-17 film. (They are pressured in some localities not even to carry R movies, given that their vending machines are in public places.) I am not sure if they will take an unrated movie, but they will not take an unrated movie that had formerly been rated NC-17—unless it is re-rated as an R. So forget that.
The other is Wal-Mart. Their website says NC-17 films are “not available at Wal-Mart or Walmart.com”—but you can buy Shame; Blue Is the Warmest Color; Lust, Caution and a bunch of others at their site. I don’t have the energy to find out the story behind this.
For obvious reasons, the only home for an NC-17 film might be pay cable, where Shame has played in recent years. The jury is still out on whether we can get a TV sale.
I thought Lucky Bastard would be a smash in kinky European countries that don’t have hang-ups about sex—and would enjoy seeing Americans depicted as violent, porn-obsessed madmen. But it’s been slow-going. The countries that are cool about sex have taboos about violence and vice versa—and with scenes of sexual assault, we have both. So clearly the local rating boards are a problem, and the jury is still out here, too.
Why Should You Care?
All of this is to demonstrate that the revenue streams for Lucky Bastard—a reasonably well-reviewed NC-17 thriller without “names”—are severely compromised compared to an equivalent R.
Is this a sob story? Not at all. The movie was so inexpensive to make we’ll be fine, and making it with complete creative control was a priceless experience. Overwhelmingly satisfying, in fact. Are we the victims of censorship? Not strictly defined. There is no government rule against making a racy or violent movie.
But it is absolutely “soft censorship.” Filmmakers are incentivized either to exit the rating system (defeating the purpose), or change their movie’s ideology to get an R (which is what editing does). We’re convinced that our look behind-the-scenes of porn was so uncompromising and authentic, we would never get an R. We tried to keep our artistic integrity and be responsible filmmakers (I’m a parent myself)—and we got kicked in the nuts. I doubt the situation will change, given how few of these movies are ever attempted. They are difficult to make: watching a narrative is completely different from watching erotica. They tend to cancel each other out, thus we made Lucky Bastard as un-erotic as possible.
But keep in mind this preposterous scenario: porn is a multi-billion dollar industry distributed by the world’s largest telecom and Internet companies—yet if you make a movie about porn, one that challenges the cultural orthodoxy, and label it adults-only, you’re marginalized. Corporate hypocrisy? Shocking!
Lukas Kendall is the founder and publisher of Film Score Monthly, a magazine, website and CD label devoted to movie music, which he created as a high school student on Martha’s Vineyard. Since 1996, he has produced and released more than 250 CDs of classic film and television music. He co-wrote and co-executive produced Lucky Bastard, his first feature film. Lucky Bastard is distributed theatrically by CAVU Pictures, on VOD by Gravitas Ventures and on DVD by Revolver Entertainment. Visit the film’s official site, the Facebook page, and keep up with us on Twitter.