by Mark Lipsky
Recent flare-ups in Variety and the L.A. Times over Jack Valenti's censor board at the MPAA have me feeling nostalgic. Roger Ebert is calling for an 'A' rating to replace or supplement 'NC-17' and Variety's Peter Bart vehemently agrees. I'm reminded of a moment in time nearly a decade ago when the entire creative community was demanding and nearly won an 'A' rating to supplement the 'X'. I'm also reminded of the first and only film to date ever released with an 'A' rating.
But first, of course, 'NC-17' is 'X'. It's nothing more than a place-holder, a stand-in. Studios still demand that directors sign contracts prohibiting an 'NC-17' rating; most mainstream media still will not accept advertising for 'NC-17' films; the same fascistic restrictions still limit movie-goers of a certain age; and the de facto censorship that was inherent in the 'X' persists unabated for writers, producers and the few truly independent distributors that remain. Now the story behind Jack Valenti's cheap parlor trick of changing (the name of) 'X' into 'NC-17' began on the lawn of the evil empire's headquarters in Los Angeles in the summer of 1990.
Daily Variety's banner headline on July 25, 1990 read, "Furor Rates Summit With Valenti." No reporter ever stuck it to the MPAA with more precision, persistence or consequence than the late, great Will Tusher, and his first page feature read like Jack's virtual death warrant. It also represented the zenith of my personal battle with the MPAA which developed over several years of fighting the ratings battle shoulder-to-shoulder with Harvey and Bob Weinstein when I headed distribution and marketing at Miramax.
Earlier that year, Miramax had been slapped with an 'X' rating for Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down." Their unprecedented response was to sue in open court to have the rating softened to an 'R'. Meanwhile, my company at the time, Silverlight Entertainment, was in the process of releasing Wayne Wang's "Life Is Cheap...But Toilet Paper is Expensive," a witty, sharp-edged and mildly profane allegory about Hong Kong's imminent takeover by China. Based to some degree on a hilarious shit-eating scene but primarily on the fleeting glimpse of a pregnant woman's vagina -- in a half-open magazine! -- we were also branded with the 'X'.
A quick aside. Even in the recent ratings furor centered around movies like "Eyes Wide Shut" and "American Pie," one thing that nobody bothers to drag out of the MPAA's fetid lair anymore is the issue of just who's wielding the ratings axe. The answer, and it's no secret, is that it's essentially a bunch of southern California housewives and househusbands with at least one child to their names each, and what appears to be a great deal of time on their hands. At least that's as accurate a description as anybody's taken the time to ferret out over the years. Not even Will Tusher managed to crack that scam. The actual identities of these 'parents' are kept strictly confidential for obvious reasons: someone -- or perhaps half of America -- might question their credentials as the guardians of our country's moral center.
Once these anonymous 'parents' have made their pronouncement, you have the opportunity to appeal your rating. This used to be a process only winnable by the studios who had the wherewithal to pay the recurring fees necessary to go before the appeal committee as many times as it took to whittle their film down to exactly where they wanted it to be in the first place. Indies, on the other hand, didn't have the luxury of either time or money. And they weren't consignees of the MPAA, a virtual requirement for the studios -- a consequence of this being the studios essentially pay Uncle Jack's salary. Nowadays, since nearly every 'Indie' is owned by a studio, they too are members of Valenti's extended family. This, for instance, is why "Kids" wasn't (officially) and "Dogma" won't be distributed by Miramax.
So with an airtight case, a heartfelt statement from Wayne and little hope, I flew to L.A. and appealed our 'X'. We lost, but had another strategy in place. Out of a conversation with my brother Jeff (who's distributed some of the most influential independent and foreign language films of the modern era and who remains one of the most creative minds in the business) came the idea to fight our ratings battle from the inside out. Miramax was very publicly bringing the ratings board to task with tremendous outside pressure but nobody had ever rallied and organized the creative community -- those most directly affected by de facto censorship of the 'X'. Jeff and I co-drafted 'An Open Letter to Jack Valenti' (the text of which accompanies this commentary) and two weeks before our appeal date, I set about tracking down every filmmaker of note -- both American and foreign, mainstream and independent -- imploring them to sign the letter. In essence, the letter warned of "a new era of McCarthyism in the arts" and "strongly" suggested "that a new rating of 'A' or 'M' be incorporated into the system to indicate that a film contains strong adult themes or images." The key point was that this be a new rating so that 'X' would remain an icon of pornography leaving the new rating to symbolize 'legitimate' adult fare.
For nearly a week, nothing. No one responded. Then one morning I arrived at the office to find the letter faxed back with Barry Levinson's signature at the bottom. With that critical endorsement, I re-faxed the letter to everyone on my list. By noon, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh signed. Then Coppola, John Waters, Ron Howard, John Schlesinger, Sydney Pollack, Carl and Rob Reiner, Ridley Scott, Adrien Lyne, Paul Mazursky. With 31 filmmakers on board (in the end we had over 40,) Silverlight paid to have the letter published on the back cover of Daily Variety. The morning the ad appeared, Wayne and I held a press conference on the lawn of the MPAA headquarters on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks which was attended by every TV and print outlet in L.A. Followed by half a dozen TV cameras, Wayne and I hand-delivered the letter to Bethlyn Hand, Senior V.P. of the western division of the MPAA (Valenti wouldn't meet with us - yet) and the story was prominently featured on the 5,6, 10 and 11 o'clock editions of every local L.A. newscast as well as a couple of network newscasts. The next morning, we were covered in the LA Times, NY Times and USA Today among other dailies around the country.
And that day, July 25, 1990, Will Tusher's front page story lead with the following: "Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, yesterday agreed to a summit with directors who have signed an open letter assailing the rating system as outdated and unfair, as corporate censorship and as an invitation to a return to McCarthyism."
Valenti held his meeting with a select group of the filmmakers who'd signed the letter. As a distributor, I was barred from the meeting. That week, however, Valenti was holding top secret meetings with another distributor, Universal Pictures' Tom Pollack, whom he convinced to release "Henry & June" with something called 'NC-17'. Jack held his own highly publicized press conference to announce this brave and historic modification to his system, pronounced 'NC-17' to be a national panacea and permanently postponed his promised follow-up meeting(s) with the signatories to the letter. The movie-going public made quick work of "Henry & June" despite Pollack's 'NC-17' PR coup. The next, and last, studio film to be released with an 'NC-17' was "Showgirls."
At the press conference, I'd announced that "Life is Cheap" would be released with a self-appointed 'A' rating and, throughout the remainder of that year, we did just that. The rating was accepted by every newspaper in which we placed an ad including most major dailies. This was critical since none of these papers would accept advertising for an 'X'-rated film. Unfortunately, it took an inordinate amount of time for the industry and the trade press to figure out that they'd been duped and by then, the will to mount another assault had waned.
Pollack was Valenti's cavalry. He rode onto the battle field at the eleventh hour and scooped Jack's ass out of the fire. For nearly a decade now, the MPAA's pretty much been given a free ride. It's thrilling to see that Peter Bart is, for the moment, throwing the weight of Variety behind the cause and that he and Roger are once again taking up the battle cry for an 'A' rating. But I say to you what I said in a letter to Peter last week: Don't let this vital first amendment issue drop off the radar for another ten years. Our efforts with "Life is Cheap" proved that Valenti is not invincible. It just takes a little chutzpa and righteous indignation. If you're reading this I know you've got the former and there's plenty of the latter to go around.
[Mark Lipsky is the Director of Consumer Marketing at Bravo and the Independent Film Channel. Previously he served as an entertainment consultant through his company Silverlight Entertainment. He launched and served as Executive Vice-President of Miramax' Prestige Films Division and served as Senior Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for Miramax Films.]
[Read Lipsky's 1990 letter to the MPAA followed by its signatories, at: http://www.indiewire.com/biz/biz_990816_lipsky90letter.html.]