[Cross-posted at Reason.org]
One of the more critically praised films this year has been Shame, which has been in limited release around the country since December. Although it’s an independent production, the film is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, a major studio, and stars Michael Fassbender, an actor who appears to be in the middle of his breakout moment.
The film is also rated NC-17.
Until recently, the Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating, which restricts admission to theatergoers 18 and older, was the box office kiss of death. Not only did NC-17 carry the notoriety of its predecessor, the X rating, it seriously hampered a film’s marketing. Boys Don’t Cry, The Cooler and Clerks are among the well-known examples of acclaimed films that were cut to win the more commercially acceptable R rating, in spite of protest from their filmmakers and actors that the cuts diminished the power and the point of the scenes in question.
But most newspapers and local TV stations won’t carry ads for NC-17 movies. Some theater chains, such as Cinemark, won’t exhibit them. Major retailers like Wal-Mart nor video rental chains like Blockbuster won’t stock NC-17-rated DVDs.
In Hollywood, art and commerce have always been in tense balance. That balance may shifting as the Web becomes a larger factor in advertising. For example, a newspaper’s policy against advertising NC-17 movies is meaningless if a theater chain no longer uses newspaper advertising at all. AMC, the second biggest chain in the country, has been cutting back on print advertising since 2009. Last June, the company documented its shift from print to Web in a quarterly filing with the SEC. Regal Entertainment Group, another chain, reportedly is following suit.
Meanwhile, consumers are buying and renting fewer DVDs from brick-and-mortar outfits, choosing to buy or rent online or simply watch on demand. Netflix, for example, makes Lust, Caution, a 2007 NC-17 feature directed by Academy Award winner Ang Lee, available both by mail and streaming.
Film promotion and advertising is a great example of the way the Web has become a significant marketing vehicle. Shame, albeit a grim, downbeat story of a sex addict and his troubled sister, not only opened to favorable reviews, it had one of the most impressive box office debuts for an NC-17 movie, averaging $36,118 per screen in a tight release in ten theaters in six cities the weekend of Dec. 2-4. By comparison, that weekend’s box office leader, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, averaged just $4,087 per screen. The Muppets, second place in total gross, averaged $3,222.
Now in wider release, Shame has made $2 million as of Jan. 3, and currently ranks eighth among the 26 NC-17 films released since 1990.
As for Web-based marketing, Shame has its own site at FoxSearchlight.com. Shame has a fan page on Facebook. “Shame” delivers several movie-related links on the first page of a Google search, pretty impressive when you consider the title is a fairly common keyword (somewhere John Bradshaw’s eating his heart out).
You can find trailers for Shame at iTunes and Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), both mainstream sites for film previews. You don’t have to look too hard to find the “red band” trailer, which is played in theaters only in front of R-rated movies. Studios and exhibitors also can reach audiences through sites like Yahoo and Flixster, as well as through social networking, email and Twitter. These alternatives counter the limitations of advertising policies of old media.
They also decrease the clout of the MPAA Ratings Board, which has been accused of ratings bias against smaller, independent features aimed at adult audiences. Probably the best evidence of this is presented in the documentary This Film is Not Been Rated. Well aware that an NC-17 rating can kill a film at the box office, the ratings board has not been adverse to using it as a club to tone down films which its members subjectively find either morally or tastefully questionable.
While the shortcomings of the MPAA’s rating system have been discussed at length in many forums, I’ve always thought the most unfortunate aspect was that the MPAA never tried to counter the stigma of NC-17 as meaning “dirty movie.” Unlike the
Electronic Entertainment Software Association, which devised the MA AO rating for video games while successfully communicating that the market can—and should—accommodate products designed exclusively for adults, the MPAA never tried to engage the media outlets, retailers and video rental companies that openly equated NC-17 with porn.
That Web-based marketing can chip away at this perception will prove much better for audiences and filmmakers. Most NC-17 movies are not aimed at mainstream moviegoers anyway. If Shame continues to find its audience—and draws more attention in the form of several Academy Award nominations, which many critics believe it will—studios may be less inclined to make compromising cuts on the MPAA’s whim out of fear of losing box office revenues. And this means a little more weight on the “art” side of art-commerce balance.