LOS ANGELES -- The Motion Picture Association of America, responding to heavy criticism over its X movie rating category, scrapped the X Wednesday in favor of a 'NC-17' designation for non-pornographic adult-oriented films.
Films rated NC-17 will be off limits to children under 17.
The change, which had been widely anticipated in some form, is designed to differentiate adult-oriented films from hard-core porn. Sex films have become synomous with the X rating under the MPAA's 22-year- old voluntary rating system.
'We believe that changing the name to 'NC-17 -- No Children Under 17 Admitted' will restore this category to its original design,' said Jack Valenti, president of the trade group.
To receive the NC-17 rating, a movie would have to be copyrighted by the MPAA, as are films given the G, PG or R rating. Despite the change, producers of hard-core porn films can continue to use the X rating for their non-copyrighted movies.
In two lawsuits this year and an ongoing debate, film producers had challenged the MPAA's X rating of such recent films as 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' and 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.'
Many theater chains refuse to book X-rated films, while many newspapers and television stations won't accept advertising for such movies.
'I think that the hard-core producers will hold on to the X rating -- they've already made that their eminent domain,' producer Jack Haley Jr. said in an interview. 'But some major films (rated NC-17) will have a good shot at being advertised and played in theaters that would not accept an X movie.'
Major studios have not released an X-rated film in more than a decade.
Filmmakers say that, because of the X rating, they have been put in the position of either editing their movies to achieve an R rating -- meaning restricted and requiring that children under 17 be accompanied by an adult -- or hoping that the film would generate interest through word-of-mouth and attract audiences despite getting an X rating.
Earlier this year, independent studio Miramax sued the MPAA after it was unsuccessful in its appeal to overturn an X rating for 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' A federal judge in New York upheld the rating, but blasted the system as 'an effective form of censorship.'
Valenti made the announcement in New York along with officials of the National Association of Theater Owners.
'We have concluded that over the years some people have come to endow the X film rating with a meaning it does not have, never has had, and was not intended by founders of the rating program,' Valenti said.
'It is our objective that this 'No Children Under 17 Admitted' category return (the X rating) to its original intent, which simply meant that this was a film which most parents would choose to have off limits to their youngsters under 17 years of age.'
Shortly after the announcement, Universal Pictures said that it plans to release Philip Kaufman's 'Henry & June' on Oct. 5 as the first film to carry the NC-17 rating.
The film, which is about author Henry Miller's relationship with his wife June and their affairs with writer Anais Nin had received an X rating from the MPAA and was due for a showdown Oct. 3 before the group's appeal board.
'I am happy that 'Henry & June' has served as a catalyst for this particular change to the rating system,' said Tom Pollock, chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group. 'Henry Miller stood for freedom of expression and waged a life-long battle against literary censorship.'
Valenti also announced that the MPAA will begin to release brief explanations as to why a film received an R rating.
The Writers Guild of America West issued a statement endorsing the new rating and the expanded action on R-rated films, saying that the announcement 'addresses and enhances the primary purpose of the system which is to effectively guide parents.'
Chuck Warn, spokesman for the Directors Guild of America, said the group endorsed the change. 'We can only wait and see how it works as a way of extending creative freedom of directors.'
The announcement also officially brushes aside a proposal from a blue-ribbon group of directors, who had asked this summer that a new rating, such as 'A' for adults only, be created specifically for non- pornographic films.
'It's nice that they've gotten rid of the X, but it will only be a matter of time before some hard-core pornographic film gets an NC-17,' said Mark Lipsky, president of Silverlight Entertainment, which distributed the film 'Life is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper is Expensive.' The movie also received an X rating from the MPAA this year.