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

12:06 PM PST 10/20/2011 by Pamela McClintock
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Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

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."

NC-17 TOP 10 DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE

  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
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