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Putting Sex to the Test

Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures

A movie with nudity, three-ways, hints of incest and … lots of acclaim. The controversial and shocking "Shame" has it all as Fox Searchlight reveals its uphill battle to de-stigmatize NC-17 -- and sell Oscar on a rating it never much liked.

When Nancy Utley emerged from a screening of Shame at the recent Telluride Film Festival, she didn't stop shaking for 10 minutes. The president of Fox Searchlight was that affected by British director Steve McQueen's raw portrayal of a sex addict, played by Michael Fassbender.

"I thought that we have to be a part of this and make sure this movie gets seen," recalls Utley.

Steve Gilula, Searchlight's other president, saw Shame soon after and agreed. Several days later, Searchlight announced it was acquiring U.S. rights to the movie, sending shock waves through the film industry.

Shame is guaranteed to receive an NC-17 rating for its graphic sexual content when it is submitted to the Classification and Rating Administration. And while Searchlight might have one of the best records in the industry in terms of marketing expertise and box-office standing -- last year, the company turned Black Swan into an unlikely commercial hit and awards winner -- it will have to overcome the incredible stigma that still surrounds the NC-17 rating as it sells the film to awards voters and moviegoers.

Set in New York City, Shame chronicles the harrowing desperation of a sex addict. When his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, moves in with him, emotions run even higher because she has sex problems of her own. The movie has frontal nudity, group sex and gay sex, not to mention plenty of straight sex. There are also hints of previous incest between the siblings and a grisly suicide attempt.

Hollywood is in agreement that Shame, also starring James Badge Dale, represents the most important moment in years for the ghettoized NC-17 rating. Translated, the rating means "patently adult. No children allowed," according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which runs the ratings program with the National Association of Theatre Owners. Technically speaking, the rating means no children under 17 allowed, period.

Shame is destined to push the boundaries of what's acceptable in the eyes of American moviegoers, as well as the willingness of theater owners to carry such fare and advertisers to carry promos for the movie.

"I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner," says Gilula. "The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It's not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It's a game changer."

Distributors are notoriously closemouthed when it comes to revealing their marketing strategies, but Gilula and Utley were willing to disclose certain aspects of their campaign for Shame with THR.

The early push for Shame will rely heavily on glowing reviews and the publicity surrounding its successful festival tour -- including a win at Venice for best actor and buzz-filled stops at San Sebastian, Telluride, Toronto, New York and, most recently, the London Film Festival.

"We don't need a mass-media tool to get the word out on the film, at least not initially," says Utley.

And because Shame will expand slowly after opening in only a few theaters on Dec. 2, most likely in New York and Los Angeles, Searchlight won't have to rely on major newspaper ad buys outside of those cities.

Advertising an NC-17 title on television can be another hurdle, depending on the policy of a particular station. Even if the content of an ad is appropriate for a range of audiences, a station probably won't play it until later in the evening.

In terms of trailers, Searchlight plans to play a Shame trailer rated for all audiences before R-rated films. U.K.-based distributor Momentum released the international trailer for the film Oct. 14, and it highlights Shame's more erotic moments.

Searchlight is also banking on awards-season attention to boost Shame's standing. The company is planning an ambitious campaign for best picture, director, actor, supporting actress, cinematography and original screenplay. But selling the film to Academy, Golden Globe and guild voters could prove tricky.

One veteran awards consultant says keeping older voters in their seats will be a challenge.

"Shame is thought-provoking and incredibly well-acted. It's also littered with the rawest sex you've ever seen in a non-pornographic movie," says the consultant. "But the sex isn't gratuitous and is designed to show the disintegration of the character."

As Focus Features CEO James Schamus puts it: "It gets really bad, and then it starts all over again. I loved it, and a good movie should be able to have these images."

That's exactly the sort of discussion on which Gilula and Utley are counting.

"I know the race is uncertain right now, and a lot of the films haven't been seen, but we certainly think the movie and its performances deserve attention," says Utley. "We hope we build up enough noise about the movie so that people feel it's part of their job to watch it."

Adds Gilula: "I think Shame's profile will pique people's curiosity. I'm optimistic this will be a significant film and change the attitude of people toward this kind of subject matter."

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When they shopped Shame to U.S. buyers, producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman made it clear that they wouldn't allow McQueen's film to be edited to secure an R rating in the U.S. Together, the men run the London- and Sydney-based See-Saw Films, which produced last year's Oscar-winning The King's Speech. They and Speech director Tom Hooper were unhappy when Harvey Weinstein, who was distributing the film in the U.S., insisted on editing out several uses of the F-word after the R-rated film won the Oscar for best picture in order to secure a PG-13 rating. Weinstein hoped to lure families, a ploy that failed to attract significant extra box-office dollars.

Sherman and Canning, who partnered with the U.K.'s Film4 to finance Shame, knew from the start that McQueen's second feature -- his first was the prison drama Hunger, which also starred Fassbender -- would venture into rather adult territory.

Before he began filming, McQueen had the cast watch Bernardo Bertolucci's sexually charged Last Tango in Paris, the famous X-rated film starring Marlon Brando and French actress Maria Schneider. (A little-known fact: McQueen was so swept up by Last Tango that he named Fassbender's character Brandon, a variation on Brando.)

Released in January 1973, Last Tango belongs to a tiny class of titles released before the X rating -- the forerunner of today's NC-17 -- was co-opted by the porn industry.

Last Tango came in the wake of Midnight Cowboy, which opened in May 1969, only six months after then-MPAA president Jack Valenti established the current ratings system. Cowboy remains the only X-rated or NC-17 movie to score at the Oscars, walking away with trophies for best picture, director and adapted screenplay.

The X rating was intended to signal adult content, but the MPAA didn't copyright the rating -- a fact Valenti would come to regret as pornographic films began using the X, then triple X, as a come-on. With the rating tarnished, Hollywood studios and the larger independent distributors began avoiding it at all costs. And if a film did receive an X for sex or violence, distributors made whatever edits were needed to get an R out of fear that theater owners and the public would steer clear of their product.

In 1990, Valenti moved to establish a new adults-only rating by retiring the X and replacing it with NC-17. Two weeks later, Universal's Henry & June opened in theaters with the new classification. But despite great reviews and an eventual Oscar nomination for best cinematography, the film topped out at $11.6 million domestically as the stigma associated with the X rating quickly transferred to NC-17.

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Since then, nearly all the big studios have stayed away from NC-17. Just as before, they force filmmakers to make cuts to ensure an R. The one exception was Showgirls, which MGM released in 1995. Although Showgirls is the top-grossing NC-17 rated film of all time at the domestic box office, it earned only $20.4 million.

However, some of the studio specialty divisions have sporadically tried to release an NC-17 film. Searchlight tried it with Bertolucci's The Dreamers, Sony Pictures Classics with Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education and Focus more recently with Ang Lee's 2007 Chinese-language film Lust, Caution. All three received the restrictive rating for their sexual content. Bad Education fared the best, grossing $5.2 million domestically, while Dreamers turned up an even-softer $2.5 million.

Utley says the Internet, still in its infancy when Dreamers was released in the U.S. in February 2004, should make a difference this time. "It will be pretty easy for us to create noise about Shame by releasing materials online," she says. "The communities that would support this type of movie are much more organized than when we released Dreamers."

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Getting attention is one thing; getting exhibitors to play an NC-17 title is another. When Lust, Caution was released in 2007, AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment both booked it, but Cinemark -- the third-largest circuit in the U.S. behind AMC and Regal -- refused to play it in any of its theaters.

"I didn't feel bold and daring about it, but we did face a very large marketing headwind," recalls Schamus, who is Lee's longtime collaborator and wrote the screenplay for Lust, Caution.

"Lust, Caution was a Chinese-language movie, so it wasn't really for American audiences, but it was a massive hit in Asia," he adds. "To a large extent, the NC-17 rating is untested. It would be nice if the rating meant, 'Hey, there's a certain amount of sexual material, but it's a movie, so go see it if you want.' "

The fact remains that sex -- or at least, a movie with overt sexuality -- plays better abroad than in the U.S. Lust, Caution earned $62.5 million internationally, including $17.1 million in China and $13.1 million in South Korea. It also did relatively well in Europe.

"In the U.K., we don't have the same issues as in the U.S.," says Xavier Marchand, managing director at Momentum, which has a first-look deal with See-Saw and boarded Shame early on.

"Shame will get an 18 rating in the U.K. [no one under 18 allowed], but there's no stigma attached," he adds, noting that Momentum is planning a major BAFTA push. "I'm not sure why Americans are like this. There's nothing mysterious about sex. I think it's great Searchlight is taking on the challenge. From what I hear, certain cinemas won't play a movie in the U.S. because of its sexual nature."

Not true, though, says NATO president John Fithian.

"The myth that we won't play them is wrong. We've surveyed 100 of our leading members, and 97 percent say they will play an NC-17 film if the movie has commercial appeal," he says. "The second myth is that you can't advertise in newspapers. Again, that's not true on a widespread basis, though I think one newspaper in Utah doesn't."

Gilula backs up Fithian, saying Searchlight was able to book all the theaters it needed for Dreamers.

And Fithian in turn applauds Searchlight's acquisition of a title the distributor knows will get an NC-17 rating.

"For the vitality of the ratings system, we want movies to be released as an NC-17," he says. "The other option, which happens all the time, is that companies trim and try to squeeze their film into the R category."

Last year, Weinstein -- in another of his ratings battles --fought the NC-17 rating bestowed on awards contender Blue Valentine for a scene depicting oral sex between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams' characters. Weinstein won, in this case without having to make cuts.

Edits or not, there's no going down the same road for Searchlight. "We accepted the fact we would release Shame as is. The truth is, NC-17 is a legitimate rating that tells people it's not a movie for kids under 18. We're fine with that," says Gilula. "The subject matter of Shame is sexual addiction, and it can only be told in this way."

Adds Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos: "This is a brilliant work by a gifted director with extraordinary and brave acting performances. The rating is both appropriate and necessary given the content."

Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Murray Close/United Artists/Getty Images
Fox Searchlight Pictures

NC-17 TOP 10 DOMESTIC BOXOFFICE

  1. Showgirls (1995) $20.4 million
  2. Henry & June (1990) $11.6 million
  3. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife her Lover (1990) $7.7 million
  4. Bad Education (2004) $5.2 million
  5. Lust, Caution (2007) $4.6 million
  6. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) $4.1 million
  7. The Dreamers (2004) $2.5 million
  8. Crash (1997) $2.1 million
  9. Bad Lieutenant (1992) $2 million
  10. Wide Sargasso Sea (1993) $1.6 million