Sex--gay or otherwise--doesn't sell to U.S. movie audiences
March 24 2005 1:00 AM ET
You can laugh about it. Fantasize about it. Be punished or killed for it. But what you can't do is take sex seriously at the movies. Look at the numbers on sexy movies. The list of box-office casualties is long. Both versions of Lolita died at the box office, along with Striptease, Showgirls, Henry and June, Crash, The Brown Bunny, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Crimes of Passion, Wonderland, and Original Sin. Boosted by raves, the 1998 porn-world flick Boogie Nights topped out at $26 million. Even when Warner Bros. Pictures sold Eyes Wide Shut as a groundbreaking sex event movie starring Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman, audiences blinked. "People get itchy about straightforward sexuality," Universal Pictures publicity executive Michael Moses says.
The old adage "sex sells" no longer applies to the movies. "Sex will not make something that is otherwise not entertaining sell," producer Tom Pollock says. "Movies work because they make you laugh, cry, or [be] scared. Audiences won't go to a movie because of sex." Most recently, even with a substantial boost from a studio marketing campaign, gay directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's NC-17-rated documentary Inside Deep Throat, which entertainingly tells the back story of the notorious 1972 porn film, failed to break out of the documentary ghetto. Its gross to date is just $500,000. One reason for audiences' lack of curiosity about the famous blue movie: Porn, from soft to hard, is readily available in every home, hotel, and video store.
Compare the performance of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, which scored $36 million in North America three decades ago, with the filmmaker's recent The Dreamers. Less well reviewed than Tango, Dreamers' portrait of a youthful romantic triangle in 1960s Paris boasted the first NC-17 rating in six years. And it scraped up just $2.5 million. But not even great reviews and a robust Oscar campaign helped Closer. Even with such marquee names as director Mike Nichols and Julia Roberts, the sexy R-rated relationship movie grossed just $36 million.
Kinsey also grabbed great reviews and should have titillated audiences with its R-rated depiction of the notorious sex researcher and his team's experiments with group sex, but it underperformed despite the best efforts of Fox Searchlight, which rarely misses the marketing mark. "There's a lot of joking about sex," says openly gay writer-director Bill Condon, "but the actual idea of talking about sex makes a lot of people nervous, no question."
As any theater owner will eagerly tell you, American audiences like their movies PG and PG-13, not R, and certainly not NC-17. At the recent ShoWest convention, National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian urged Hollywood to give theater owners more PG-rated hits and a lot fewer R-rated losers. Last year, five of the top-10-grossing movies were PG. Of the top 25, only four were rated R. "Increasingly, if a movie is rated R," says producer John Goldwyn, "audiences won't go." Outside the sophisticated urban art-house milieu, most American moviegoers just don't want much sex in their movies. According to studio marketers, it tends to make them (especially men) uncomfortable. "If you spell sex in marketing materials, it doesn't sell," producer Peter Guber says. "If you spell fun, it sells. Sex inside a comedy candy-coats sex and allows the audience to feel comfortable. Laughter covers up insecurity. Sex sells, but not serious sex. Films can be sexy, but they can't portray the sexual intimacy most people crave. In the movies, you have to have safe sex palatable to a younger audience. The portrayal has to be violent or funny."
Which is why vulgar, dumb, funny sex plays in such movies as There's Something About Mary, American Pie, and Road Trip. "When they're flinging around in a wet T-shirt contest in Old School, it's fine," DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press says, "because no emotion is attached to it." Sex also plays well within the thriller genre. For whatever reason, director Adrian Lyne repeatedly has scored in this arena, with Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful. So did Ellen Barkin and Al Pacino in Sea of Love, Barkin and Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential, and William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.
But they're not making movies like that anymore. Why? These days, sex is in the home. In the privacy of your own room, you can see all the racy material you want in Sex and the City, The L Word, Queer as Folk, Deadwood, and Desperate Housewives. "Today's audiences aren't comfortable being seen in a mass-audience public place like a cinema complex seeing something that is inevitably notorious because of its sex," producer Bill Horberg writes in an e-mail. "If you go to a complex, you might run into your kids, much less neighbors, coworkers."
Besides, the studios are no longer in the business of making movies for adults. It's easier to sell movies to the sweet 13-28 demo who pour into theaters on opening weekends. Make a movie that's rated R, and teens under 17 can't get in alone, so it means a smaller potential audience. Filmmakers are routinely asked to trim their sexier material to avoid the dreaded R. In order to get a PG-13 for XXX, for example, Rob Cohen took out the sexier elements, which he then restored in the upcoming DVD release. "If the sex is really hot, you get an R rating," DreamWorks' Press says. "It's a harder road." In the '70s, American movies were full of sexual encounters: Don't Look Now, The Graduate, Klute, Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge. It's hard to imagine even a studio subsidiary green-lighting those movies now. We're not far away from a time when movie lovers who want to see dramas dealing with relationships between consenting adults will order sexy classics like Women in Love or new direct-to-DVD dramas for grown-ups from Netflix, Movielink, or their cable company. "We are a Puritan society," Press says. "We'd rather watch it at home." (Anne Thompson, via Reuters)