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September 08, 2005

Epstein on Sex at the Movies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Slate's Edward Jay Epstein writes about the economics and the business arrangements that explain why sex and nudity are in such rare supply in American studio movies today.

Some facts from Epstein's enlightening piece:

  • In 2004, none of the six major studios' top 25 grossing films contained any sexually-oriented nudity.

  • No studio has released an NC-17 film since 1995's "Showgirls." "As one Paramount executive suggested, because of their sexually-related nudity, movies such as Louis Malle's 'Pretty Baby,' Bernardo Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris,' and Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' would not even be considered by a major studio today."

  • "If a film receives an R rating, many television stations and cable networks, particularly teenage-oriented ones, are not allowed to accept TV ads for the movies."

  • How about those tie-ins? "An R rating—especially for sexual content—will preclude any of the fast-food chains, beverage companies, or toy manufacturers that act as the studios' merchandise tie-in partners from backing the movie with tens of millions of dollars in free advertising."

  • And then there's the Wal-Mart factor. Wal-Mart (and its Sam's Club stores) accounted for over 1/4 of all DVD sales in 2004. No surprise to learn that Wal-Mart avoids offending mommies. Epstein: "It guards against this risk with a 'decency policy' that consigns DVDs containing sexually related nudity to 'adult sections' of the store, which greatly reduces their sales ... These guidelines, in turn, put studios under tremendous pressure to sanitize their films of sexual content."

A bitter/rueful note here: The kinds of movies that the studios wouldn't consider making these days are the very kinds of movies that interested me in movies in the first place.



posted by Michael at September 8, 2005


I thought Kubrick just made his films regardless of who might or might not release them, and if so, than "Clockwork Orange" would still be out there. And consider that "9 songs" would not have been possible in the past. Yes, "Caligula" was made, but the stars didn't do any of the porn.

So, I argue the DVD market has actually opened up the possibilities for movies rather than restricted them.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 9, 2005 9:44 AM

Sheesh---they won't tie into a movie but they'll advertise on "Desperate Housewives"?? Or that wierd show about plastic surgery that I heard was oft-core porn essentially---"Cutting" or whatever its called? As films get cleaner, TV has gotten dirtier and dirtier, and is much more generally accessible to kids. And advertisers pay to associate with them. I mean you can't turn on the TV with some ED drug being suggestively thrown at you. Usually right after a Wal Mart ad.

What's up with that?

Posted by: annette on September 9, 2005 10:23 AM

DVD distribution is rapidly changing, so I wouldn't worry too much about the Walmart effect. Maybe the decline of sexually related nudity is related to the widespread existence of Internet porn; nudity is just not special anymore (and that's good, right?)

I once attended a video production workship by a veteran director who was selling DVDs out of his suitcase. Ok, I understand why Walmart or your local vid store wouldn't stock his video, but what about Netflix/Greencine? There's a real market need for a Netflix-type operation that specializes in independent low-budget films (and also an opportunity).

Marketing & promotion hasn't taken off on the Net yet either. Most of MSM marketing is geared towards producing good first week numbers anyway.

The XXX rated industry hasn't done too much, although it hasn't exactly produced much of quality.

On a loony tangent. While a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania I ended up watching a lot of Italian TV with my host family. In Italy there was a show that was some kind of newlywed "Strip Poker game show where couples removed an item of clothing if they answered a question incorrectly. At some point one couple would stand onstage completely nude (with their lower front part cloaked by some fuzzy camera trick). This wasn't like HBO; this was a mainstream family-oriented show recorded before a live studio audience and broadcast Sunday at 7:00 PM. The family I stayed with were traditional though open-minded Muslims (with two younger children), and yet they enjoyed this particular show tremendously.

It really made me rethink America's standards. Viagra commercials, suggestive humor, and all sorts of shows about sexual predators and Jerry Springer love triangles, and yet we are scandalized by a grown female breast.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on September 9, 2005 11:30 AM


The sexual logic seems quite simple in this case. ED drugs (and even "Desperate Housewives") are for the demographics who are doing the moralizing, not for the (sons and?) daughters whose introduction to sexual activity they naively think they can stop.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 9, 2005 2:31 PM

Sex or nudity, yes. Sex AND nudity, no. I've long felt the two should be kept separate in films. Sexual tension in Hays Code films is much greater than in post-1964 ones precisely because they kept their clothes on. Innocent nudity-- skinnydipping, baths, doctor's office, etc.-- often adds a nice touch.

Film is the marriage of the canvas and the stage. Nudity is appropriate in the first and ridiculous in the second, so you'd expect the issue to be somewhat muddy in film.

I saw "Last Tango in Paris" at the theater at 17. Even then I thought it one of the worst movies I'd ever seen, or would see. (A classmate took my ticket. He was also 17, but due to slow development, looked and sounded about 12, and must have given other customers the creeps. He ended up siring more kids than anyone else in the class.)

The National Lampoon Radio parody, combining it with "Gigi", was devastating:

"Something about dog vomit..."
"Pig vomit, I recall,
that I said I would eat."
"Oh, Gi..."
"Oh, Paul..."

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on September 9, 2005 2:40 PM

Annette -
That show about the plastic surgeons is "Nip/Tuck," which airs on the FX cable network. To call it "raunchy" is a huge understatement. Most of the episodes involve various forms of kinky sexual situations and use just about every vulgar word in the dictionary except for f***. Even so, the heavy hand of TV censorship is not wholly absent, as they do not show any nudity except for the occasional bare psoterior.

Posted by: Peter on September 9, 2005 3:14 PM

Has anyone else noticed that TV and movies have flip-flopped?

TV used to be guided by the philosophy of Least Objectionable Programming, or LOP. Before remote controls, you could expect your audience to sit there and watch one channel all night - unless that channel should drive them away with something edgy or strident or offensive. Thus networks chose the blandest possible fare to avoid offending their audience.

Then remotes came along. Audiences would now change channels as a matter of routine. The only way to keep their attention on yuor network was to give them something interesting. Result? TV got more gripping, more narrowcasted, in a word, better. (It also got more vulgar, more rambuncitous, more deliberately controversial - not so good, that bit.)

But now, for some reason, the LOPpers are all in the film biz. Everyone's walking on eggshells, committees reign supreme, and the glory of Hollywood is extinguished forever.

Or is it? The LOP philosophy was driven from television by the remote control. I wonder what will chase it out of Hollywood?

For that matter, I wonder when/why/how it took over Hollywood in the first place?

Any ideas?

Posted by: Brian on September 11, 2005 6:26 AM

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