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Nudity, Three-Ways, Hints of Incest: A Studio's Plan to Sell 'Shame' to Oscar

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Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight's controversial and shocking film, directed by Steve McQueen.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

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.

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"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.

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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.

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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."

VIDEO: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan Seduce in 'Shame' Trailer

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.

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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.

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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."