HOLLYWOOD -- Responding to complaints of undue censorship from filmmakers and film critics, the Motion Picture Association of America abolished its X movie rating yesterday and replaced it with a new adults-only classification.
The MPAA, in a joint announcement with the powerful National Association of Theater Owners, said that the X rating would be replaced immediately with a designation of NC-17, which indicates that no children under 17 can be admitted.
The groups also said that they would add explanations to R ratings, telling parents whether films contain violence, explicit language or sex. Only adults or children accompanied by adults can see R-rated movies.
The new rating category is expected to clear the way for strong adult-theme films to be released without the taint of pornography now associated with an X rating.
"We are going back to the original intent of the rating system," said MPAA President Jack Valenti. "We have an adults-only category, and anybody who wants to go see [an NC-17-rated] film can go see it, period. It takes us back to the days, hopefully, of 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'Clockwork Orange.' "
Those films were among the few major studio movies released with X ratings after Mr. Valenti installed the modern rating system in 1968. For the last 15 years, few distributors -- or mainstream filmmakers -- have attempted to buck the public perception of the X as pornography.
The Charles Theater is one of the few theaters in Baltimore that has been willing to show art films that were X-rated. Pat Moran, its director of programming and publicity, said yesterday that the NC-17 rating was long overdue.
"The MPAA was trying to keep to a mold that was once very useful but in the 90s is out of date," she said.
Thomas Kiefaber, an owner of the Senator Theater in Baltimore, said that renaming the X category doesn't answer the complaints of patrons who wanted a rating between R and X.
"They have not responded to the call for an interim category," he said.
But, he added, the NC-17 category "would be more apt to get a showing [at the Senator] than an X film" if it doesn't take on the same stigma. The Senator has never shown an X-rated film, but it considers each film on its own merit, Mr. Kiefaber said. "I guess I'd have to see how this shakes down," he said.
The new rating was met with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm from people in the film industry.
"It was a change that was obviously necessary," said Oscar-winning Director Barry Levinson ("Rain Man"), who was one of 31 leading directors who signed a petition urging the MPAA to adopt an A adults-only rating. "The name doesn't matter as long as it accommodates the adult films. It makes perfect sense, whatever you want to call it."
"It's better to have a category that can work with honor, to replace the X which had a stigma attached to it," said Tom Pollock, chairman of the movie division of MCA-Universal. Universal figures to be the first beneficiary of the new rating: "Henry & June," a soon-to-released erotic film based on the sexual relationships between writer Anais Nin and novelist Henry Miller and his wife in Paris in 1931, had been rated X, but Mr. Pollock said yesterday that he will resubmit the film for an NC-17 rather than proceed with the appeal against the X rating.
"Henry & June" was seen as a key element in the battle to overturn the X rating.
Pornographic filmmakers co-opted the MPAA's non-copyrighted X in the early 1970s. Many newspapers and television stations have refused advertising for X-rated films, and many theater chains have refused to book them. The new NC-17 rating is copyrighted.
Mr. Valenti had long resisted changing the adults-only rating. But, he said, changes in the pornography business have taken most hard-core films out of theaters. "Pornography's a video business now, it's extinct as far as we're concerned," he said.
His original rating system included four designations: G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance, R for films restricted to adults and children under 17 accompanied by adults, and X for adults only. In 1984, a storm of protest over the violence in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" prompted the adoption of a fifth rating -- PG-13 -- which cautions parents that the films may not be suitable for children under age 13.
Mr. Valenti said that the MPAA will reclassify any X-rated films in current release with the NC-17 if the distributors request it.
Miramax Films, a New York-based distributor that sued the MPAA and lost over the X-rating given the Spanish-language film "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," said that it is too late for a new rating to help its movie.
"The issue of what needs to be cut to get an R rating will still need to be addressed," said Russell Schwartz, executive vice president of Miramax. "But I'm happy there is now a legitimate category for adult movies . . . that the stigma of pornography has been removed."
Others were less enthusiastic about the ratings change.
"It's certainly an improvement, but [Mr. Valenti] really hasn't resolved the issue," said Mark Lipsky, a New York distributor who initiated the directors' petition after his film, "Life is cheap . . . but toilet paper is expensive," received an X this summer. "What we were hoping for was a rating in between an R and an X that would signify adult."