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Weeks after its premiere at the Cannes film festival, art-house drama Shortbus, featuring scenes in which actors engage in actual sex, has landed a deal for commercial release in North America. Independent studio ThinkFilm plans to give the $2 million film a platform launch in the fall, eventually bringing it to specialty theaters across the country.
But several sexually explicit moments in the unrated picture present a marketing challenge for the distributor. The largely improvised movie explores the lives of seven straight and gay New Yorkers seeking an emotional connection with one another. The sex is presented as one part of the characters' complex lives, which intersect at the Bohemian salon Shortbus.
The film was written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who made his feature directorial debut on the cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a transgender punk rocker from East Berlin on tour in the United States. The depiction of actual sex in Shortbus drew much attention last month at Cannes, where the film debuted out of competition.
"TV sales are out, and it probably can't be sold at Blockbuster or several other chains," said one competing distributor, whose company was a final contender in the negotiations to acquire the film. That distributor, who declined to be named, bowed out when, he said, the filmmakers sought a $500,000 price tag for North American rights.
Nevertheless, a number of indies expressed interest in the finished movie, for which filmmakers spent more than a year raising financing. "We had 11 other offers on the table, including video companies who would allow us to use the advance for a service deal and a pay-cable network we're continuing to talk with, who may talk to ThinkFilm about licensing TV rights," Mitchell said. "Then we were getting calls from studio specialty divisions wondering why they were out of the running."
While Mitchell said those distributors eventually got cold feet over the content, executives from two of those companies said they had the go-ahead from their corporate parents to pursue the movie but that the economics of the deal didn't make sense given the high price tag and limited revenue streams. According to sources close to the production, ThinkFilm, Magnolia, IFC Films, and Roadside Attractions in conjunction with Netflix were the final contenders.
"ThinkFilm just kept coming at us and had the best offer," said Mitchell, though the filmmakers declined to specify how much the company offered. According to Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's theatrical division: "We all saw it together and were unanimous about it. It's quite groundbreaking, and we were all impressed with how natural and normal and comedic the extreme sex became without being offensive."
Urman doesn't appear daunted by the marketing challenges. "Maybe we won't take TV ads," he said cheekily. "I'll save money." He plans to release the film as soon as possible. "There'll be enormous pre-awareness, and once you let the cat out of the bag, that cat should be allowed to prowl," he said.
Mitchell pointed to several alternative marketing strategies, including a "virtual salon" Web site where people can upload their films, music, art, and literature; a competition for "best performers"; and Shortbus-themed salons and concerts at colleges around the country. The film has been sold to more than 20 international territories, which producer Howard Gertler said will cover the film's budget. (Gregg Goldstein, Reuters)