Analysis: End of an 'R' era?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  March 25, 2005 at 2:20 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 25 (UPI) -- A recent item in The Hollywood Reporter stated flatly that the adage "sex sells" no longer applies to the movies, but that analysis is probably too simplistic and is certainly debatable.

As evidence, The Reporter offers a list of R-rated movies -- rated that way because of their sexual content, not necessarily violence -- that flamed out at the box office. The list included pictures as old as Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version of "Lolita" and as recent as 2004's "The Brown Bunny" -- an independent project of filmmaker-provocateur Vincent Gallo that included explicit sex and didn't even bother to get a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board.

The paper also singled out such box-office flops as "Striptease," "Showgirls," "Henry and June," "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Wonderland" and "Original Sin" -- to support the contention that, box-office-wise, a certain kind of let-it-all-hang-out sexuality is pretty much a dead issue. It observed that even a big event such as Kubrick's last movie "Eyes Wide Shut" -- starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman when they were married -- failed to draw much of a crowd.

"People get itchy about straightforward sexuality," Universal Pictures publicity executive Michael Moses told The Reporter.

That's as may be, and it may help explain the popularity of movies that surround muscle-man Vin Diesel with a bunch of cute kids or cast Will Smith as a guy who can show other guys how to get lucky with women -- even if he has problems of his own in the savoir faire department.

At the same time, with a few exceptions, movies built around frank sexuality are not designed to be mainstream entertainment. It makes little sense to suggest that their days are numbered just because they don't tear up the box office.

Using that logic, Disney's "Treasure Planet" ($38 million, 2002) and DreamWorks' "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" ($26.4 million, 2003) should be killing the animated-feature genre.

Naturally, as they say in Hollywood, nobody intentionally sets out to make a bad movie -- it just happens that way.

It's possible that people stayed away from "Showgirls" and "Striptease" because they heard the movies weren't very good.

Film historian Leonard Maltin said "Striptease" was "unspeakably dreary -- not to mention dreadful," and "Showgirls" was "stupefyingly awful."

Variety's reviewer said "Showgirls" -- an NC-17 release in 1995 -- "wobbles between the risible and the merely unconvincing throughout." The showbiz bible was slightly kinder to "Striptease," concluding that, as a dark comedy, it "doesn't quite come off."

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert eventually came to have some appreciation for "The Brown Bunny," but only after Gallo had re-cut the film from the version he screened at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. That was the version Ebert walked out on, and the one that -- based on virtually universally brutal reviews -- cemented the picture's image among many ticket buyers as a waste of time.

It is tempting to think first of sexually provocative content when discussing R-rated movies. Even The Reporter does that in its analysis of sex at the box office, pointing out that only four of the top 25 box-office hits in 2004 were rated R.

Of course, R is also awarded to films for violent content -- and even coarse language -- so it might not be entirely useful to use an MPAA letter grade to make generalizations about movie sex. Still, producer John Goldwyn ("Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment" and the upcoming "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") told the paper that R movies are falling out of favor overall.

"Increasingly, if a movie is rated R," said Goldwyn, "audiences won't go."

R products have been a tougher marketing challenge for Hollywood ever since Congress strong-armed the entertainment industry in 2000 to stop targeting young people with ads for R movies.

There seems to be little question that American public opinion about entertainment content is shifting. Time magazine recently found in a survey that most people in the United States favor tougher regulation on sex and violence on TV -- although preferences regarding TV content reveal very little about what the public might tolerate in movie theaters.

The same survey found that a larger majority thinks the federal government overreacted to Janet Jackson's infamous breast flash during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

For the entertainment industry, the most troubling finding in the Time poll might be that more than two-thirds of those responding said they thought the industry is out of touch with their moral standards. A majority -- 53 percent -- said they favor stricter government controls on TV content.

Tighter regulation of broadcast indecency will hardly hurt the adult-film industry, which generates annual revenues variously estimated at more than $1 billion in the United States. As long as such material is available on the Internet or on DVD, it will scarcely matter to consumers of adult entertainment that they cannot get it on TV or at the multiplex.

At this year's ShoWest movie industry convention in Las Vegas, The Reporter said that National Association of Theatre Owners President John Fithian urged the studios to give his theater-owner members more PG movies and not so many R pictures.

It's probably a safe bet, though, that -- given the choice between an R movie that's going to gross $370 million ("The Passion of the Christ") and a PG-13 picture that's going to top out at $21 million ("The Flight of the Phoenix") -- most theater operators will take the R every time.


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