John Waters's A Dirty Shame takes on the challenge of the NC-17 rating

Out director John Waters's new film A Dirty Shame on Friday became the latest movie to open with the NC-17 adult rating, long considered financial death by Hollywood studios but applied to several films recently. NC-17 bars anyone 17 years old or younger from seeing a film in the United States. When introduced in 1990, it was equated to an X rating, conjured notions of pornography, and caused some theaters and video stores to ban the films. Since 1990, few movies have appeared on the market with the NC-17, but there have been two so far this year. Fox Searchlight rolled out Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, and Sony Pictures Classics released Young Adam. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, told Reuters it was wrong to think most theater owners would not show NC-17 films and newspapers would not advertise them--a problem that hurt films in the past. "There are no blanket bans against NC-17," Fithian said, "But there's been such a scarcity of NC-17 it's been difficult to reveal [that is a] myth."

However, major video and DVD retailers Blockbuster Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores remain steadfast in their refusal to sell or rent the movies. Representatives of both Wal-Mart's online DVD service and Blockbuster told Reuters their policy of not showing NC-17 films remains intact. That irks Waters and others because videos and DVDs make up the lion's share of a film's profits. "If we are going to rehabilitate NC-17, well, then, help me make it so it's not economically censored," Waters said. His film is issued by Blue Line Cinema, which is owned by Time Warner. Waters, Bertolucci, and Young Adam director David Mackenzie have argued that there is nothing pornographic about their films and that the frank depictions of sex are central to telling their stories. In the case of The Dreamers, the movie depicted a sexual coming-of-age for three youths, and Young Adam dealt with marital infidelity. In Dirty Shame, Waters spotlights sexual taboos in a bid to challenge how society thinks about sex.

None of the films' distributors said they encountered problems marketing or promoting the movies, but one reason is the films were aimed at art house fans who are generally considered more accepting of their content. The Dreamers racked up $2.5 million at domestic box offices, and Young Adam, slightly over $767,000--both respectable amounts for the films and their markets. Over the weekend, A Dirty Shame pulled in an estimated $450,000 on 133 screens, for a healthy $3,383 per-screen average. (By comparison, the only films in the weekend's Top 10 with higher per-screen numbers were chart-topper The Forgotten and limited-release hit Shaun of the Dead.)

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