To fans of Brandon Cronenberg, a director of grisly horror movies, an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association is cause for excitement: What new forms of mutilation does this provocateur have in store?
But to a filmmaker looking for a wide theatrical release — as Cronenberg was for “Infinity Pool,” opening on Friday — the rating is akin to the kiss of death.
By definition, NC-17 simply means no children 17 or younger can be admitted, but in practice, there are more restrictions. Only a limited number of theaters in the United States will show the film, and buying advertising becomes a challenge.
Last year, the kiss was bestowed on “Infinity Pool,” a Sundance premiere starring Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth that deals liberally in sex and gore. Cronenberg had four options: Accept the NC-17 rating (for “some graphic violence and sexual content”); opt out of the ratings system entirely, risking some of the same consequences; formally appeal the decision; or edit the movie down to an R, as many directors have done in the past.
He first decided to go back to the editing room, setting up a familiar Hollywood dance between artistic independence and a desire for commercial success.
“It’s always fixable because you can always cut things,” Cronenberg said in a video call. “Whether it’s fixable in a way that you’re happy with is another question.”
What followed was months of trimming, swapping, obscuring and negotiating, all in the hopes that an edited version would strike the Motion Picture Association’s board of raters as less, well, disgusting. To improve its chances, the film’s distributor, Neon, brought on a consultant, Ethan Noble, who specializes in helping films escape unwanted ratings and in guiding them through the formal appeal process.
In the end, the quirks of the American ratings system have set up an odd reality in which the film that premiered at Sundance this week — receiving praise from critics and generating social media chatter — is not the exact same film that will play on 1,800 screens in North America this weekend.
Sundance attendees who were at least 18 saw the original edit, including a close-up shot of Skarsgard’s character ejaculating. But moviegoers at the neighborhood theater will see a different version: the cut that ultimately scored an R from the Classification and Rating Administration, the section of the M.P.A. that reviews movies and advertising.
“The total time off of the movie is probably like five seconds,” Noble said. “It’s not a very big difference at all.”
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But the absence of the explicit sexual image is probably enough for fans to notice.
To Cronenberg and Tom Quinn, Neon’s chief executive, the battle for the R rating on “Infinity Pool” exemplifies a system that can be a prolonged headache for filmmakers who employ graphic imagery but don’t want to sacrifice a wide theatrical release.
The entertainment landscape is also starkly different from the one in 1990, when NC-17 replaced the X rating. Streaming services have ended up with more freedom to choose whether to work within the bureaucracy of the M.P.A.’s system or bypass it, said Quinn, whose company distributed “Parasite” and “Triangle of Sadness,” among other films.
Many movies available on services like HBO Max or Netflix have an M.P.A. rating, but the companies can also operate under the separate TV Parental Guidelines system, where titles are self-rated — a more permissive structure, despite the fact that it’s easier for a teenager to pick up a remote than buy a ticket for an adult movie at the theater.
“Frankly, anything at home is more readily available,” Quinn said. “There’s a complete disconnect here, and the M.P.A. should be in a position of being far more progressive, far more advanced, than any at-home rating system.”
IT’S POSSIBLE THAT CHANGE is coming.
Noble, a former Miramax executive who started his ratings consulting firm in 2007, said that Kelly McMahon, the chair of the ratings administration, had told him last year that the group was continuing to explore the possibility of adding a rating between R and NC-17. The new rating would, in theory, allow films to include more mature content while avoiding the taboo of the NC-17, said Noble, who also consults with Netflix and MGM.
The Motion Picture Association declined to comment on the concept of a new rating, as well as on the ratings process behind “Infinity Pool,” citing restrictions on discussing specific films.
Established in 1968 by Jack Valenti, who had been an adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson, the Motion Picture Association’s rating system has long been positioned as a better alternative to government censorship or a complete lack of parental guidance.
The trade group, which has buy-in from six major Hollywood studios, employs a board of parents who are tasked with rating movies “the way a majority of American parents from across the country would rate it,” as the longtime chair of the system has explained it.
Criticism of the board is far from new, especially by independent filmmakers who operate outside the system. Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” focused on the organization’s often opaque system of anonymous raters, accusing it of assessing sexual situations more harshly than violent ones, and dealing more severe ratings to movies that show female pleasure or gay sex.
In a 2018 report, the group defended itself, writing that “context, what happens on the screen, and how a theme or scene is depicted, are key.”
The system has been relatively unchanged in recent decades, despite the digital revolution in movie watching.
The most recent reclassification took place in 1990, when the association stopped using the X rating, following a letter from prominent directors calling the system “outdated and unfair.” Because the association did not have a trademark for the rating, pornographers used it as a promotional lure, making it synonymous with that industry to many people.
In its place, the group introduced NC-17.
Of thousands of films released in the subsequent three decades, only 92 have ended up with an NC-17 rating, according to the group’s online database.
Nearly half of those were released in the first five years of the NC-17 rating. Since then, its prominence has faded, with only two NC-17 movies in the past five years. (One of those was Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe film, “Blonde,” which received a limited theatrical release — enough for it to qualify for the Academy Awards.)
“In the world of streaming, an NC-17 can be a marketing hook,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a box office expert.
Over the summer, Noble started mounting an effort to turn “Infinity Pool” into what the board viewed as a R-rated movie, which means that moviegoers under 17 have to be accompanied by an adult. Knowing there was a potential change in the ratings system on the horizon, Noble suggested to the association that “Infinity Pool” could be the first recipient of any new label, he said, but he was told that the plans were not developed enough.
THE SON OF THE HORROR FILM DIRECTOR David Cronenberg, whose movie “Crash” received an NC-17 in 1996, Brandon Cronenberg was already familiar with pushing the boundaries of the ratings system.
The younger Cronenberg hoped that a few simple edits on “Infinity Pool” would appease the board — which, for his film, consisted of eight raters and McMahon.
A commentary on wealth inequality, masculinity and death, “Infinity Pool” follows a thrill-seeking novelist, played by Skarsgard, who falls prey to the hedonism of a group of tourists at a luxury resort. In her Critic’s Pick review for The New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis described the film as transfixing and cited its “cunning artistry.”
One aspect of the board’s initial feedback was clear, Cronenberg said: An R-rated film simply could not show ejaculation. (“Brandon kind of even admitted he knew that might be pushing the envelope,” Noble said.)
So Cronenberg edited the scene between Skarsgard and Goth, an enticing but ultimately deranged hedonist.
“Everything else was essentially tweaks,” Cronenberg said, noting that he edited down the number of stabs in one particularly gruesome encounter. “Trimming the violence here and there and swapping a few shots in the orgy scene.”
Ah yes, the orgy scene. It was never likely to go unnoticed by the board of raters, which typically escalates a movie to an R-rating after the second F-bomb and to NC-17 after what it determines to be “aberrational behavior.”
But Noble argued that this scene was not particularly explicit because of the psychedelic effects layered on top of it: spinning, glitching and obscuring that often make it unclear what, exactly, is really going on.
“Some members thought they saw a penis in that scene, even though we went through very slowly and it wasn’t actually a penis,” Noble said. “It was a finger.”
One battle the filmmakers won was over a shocking and much-discussed scene involving Goth’s exposed breast.
As the filmmakers went back and forth with the ratings board over changes, Cronenberg eventually reached his limit. The filmmakers then took the NC-17 to the appeals stage, which involves a separate board of film-industry professionals and a representative from the National Parent Teacher Association, who are joined by two nonvoting observers from religious groups and one from a nonprofit organization that analyzes gender in media. (In this case, the religious groups represented were Catholic News Service and the National Council of Churches.)
Cronenberg knew it was unlikely that he would prevail. According to data the M.P.A. released in 2018, 1.4 percent of the films it had rated over 50 years had been appealed, and just over a third of those appeals were successful.
He went forward anyway, and in October, at an office building in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cronenberg put his film on trial. He and Noble delivered an argument explaining why they thought the movie should be rated R, comparing its mature material to that of R-rated horror movies like “Spiral” and last year’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Their slide deck included a couple of dozen gruesome photos from films that avoided the NC-17 rating.
McMahon and a senior rater defended their decision.
In a tie vote, the board decision fell short of a victory for Cronenberg. A successful appeal requires two-thirds support.
After the loss, Cronenberg said, he made a few more slight edits — including adding some glitchiness to the orgy scene — resubmitted it and, voilà! Rated R for “graphic violence, disturbing material, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and some language.”
“I think at that point,” the director said, “they felt we had sort of met them on their terms.”