‘Showgirls’ and NC-17: Grin and Bare It : Movies: MGM/UA uses the controversial rating to its marketing advantage with free videos, provocative billboards and other promotional teases.


Hollywood marketing puzzler of the week: How do you sell a $40-million movie that’s so sexually explicit TV networks and some theater owners will barely touch it?

You start by teasing consumers with provocative billboards and freebie promotional videos. Then you have the sexy star hop on David Letterman’s lap for a hint of late-night bumping and grinding. And, you infuriate one of the industry’s most powerful figures so that he is driven to declare that your outspoken screenwriter “needs medical attention.” Welcome to the hype circus that is MGM/UA’s “Showgirls.”

The film, which explores the world of Las Vegas erotic dancers, received an NC-17 rating for nudity and raw sexuality. The film will be released Friday on 1,215 screens nationwide, the largest number ever for an NC-17 movie, but one that might have been considerably higher if two large theater chains in the South--Carmike Cinemas and Cinemark USA--hadn’t deemed the picture too filthy to screen.



When the controversial rating--which bars anyone under 17--is conferred upon a film it traditionally limits the options available for advertising. Such has been the case for the 13 pictures given that rating since it was established in 1990, said Phil Garfinkel, executive vice president of Entertainment Data Inc., which tracks box-office performance.

Television networks’ policy of running commercials for NC-17 films confines them to late-night hours, severely hampering the media blitz frequently seen just prior to the opening of a film. Additionally, newspapers can refuse to run ads for NC-17 films.

“When you’re given an NC-17 rating the amount of venues that you’re allowed to use as advertising sources are in fact diminished,” said a studio marketing executive. “So you have to, within the positioning of the film, grab any sort of gusto you can get.”

Going for the gusto is precisely the philosophy of the studio executives behind “Showgirls.”

Despite “Showgirls” television commercials being ghettoized after 10 p.m. and one newspaper in Oklahoma City refusing to run its ads, officials at MGM/UA do not appear to be troubled by lack of access to all the cogs in the Hollywood marketing machine.

Nor has advertising for “Showgirls” been confined to the usual newspaper ads, bus stop benches and billboards. The film’s distinctive billboard, plastered across 14 big cities including building sides in Times Square and Venice Beach, borrows from a similar provocative image used on a 1992 book jacket by photographer Tono Sano. That image and others are also contained in a glossy “book,” which features sexually explicit photo outtakes from the movie.


MGM/UA marketing whizzes have also come up with an unorthodox method of baiting moviegoers: providing adults free rental of an expanded “sneak preview” videotape of “Showgirls,” featuring 8 minutes of some of the film’s most explicit footage, complete with a warning to “leave your inhibitions at the door.” Some 250,000 copies of the tape hit video stores this week.

“There was such an extensive curiosity factor among moviegoers as to what ‘Showgirls’ was about,” said Gerry Rich, MGM/UA’s executive vice president of worldwide marketing. “So we decided to create a memorable expanded, provocative sneak preview, which would show footage that we’re prohibited from showing on television because of the nature and content of it.”

An executive from a rival studio called it “a brilliant move. Whether the consumer picks up the tape or not, it has the veneer of something special. It has the veneer of something that just might be a little bit nasty.”

The film has also gotten more than its share of publicity from the sniping and attention-getting behavior of some of the principals associated with it.

“Showgirls” star Elizabeth Berkley offered to demonstrate the art of lap dancing while sitting astride David Letterman during his late-night show Wednesday.

And at a press junket for the film last week, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas made statements that seemed guaranteed to rankle parents and community organizations, urging under-age teens to “do whatever you have to do to see” the sexually graphic film, encouraging them to “use your fake IDs” to gain entry into theaters. (Jack Valenti, who heads the MPAA, fired back in USA Today, calling Eszterhas “desperately ill.”)


“ ‘Showgirls’ is a morality tale,” Eszterhas said. “It is about a young woman who refused to be corrupted at the deepest part of her being. Tempted by a world of drugs, glitter and loveless sex, she turns physically and psychologically against the forces trying to corrupt her. Not to allow teen-agers under 17 to hear this very moral message because it is set against the world of nude Vegas dancing is pious nonsense. . . .”

Eszterhas has also criticized the studio’s marketing decision to target men. “It’s a chauvinistic position to [advertise] this on the sports pages, because of its more sensational aspects,” he said in a phone interview. “I want young women to see this movie because young women will respond to this movie in the same way that they responded to [the Eszterhas-scripted] ‘Flashdance.’ ”

The film was bankrolled by the French company Chargeurs, which undoubtedly is banking on director Paul Verhoeven’s immense popularity overseas to boost the film’s box-office take. It opens next month in Italy, Taiwan and Australia.

Since it was announced by the MPAA in July, the rating itself has been a marketing tool, a recent trend for pictures that receive or are threatened with an NC-17 rating. However, the public may be wising up, say industry insiders.

“I think the consumer is getting infinitely suspicious of and savvy about identifying marketing publicity ploys to get them into the theater,” said a marketing executive at a rival studio.

Ultimately, industry executives say, the movie will rise or fall on its merits. “I really hope the movie is good, because if the movie is good it’ll do for NC-17 what ‘Midnight Cowboy’ did for X, and hopefully encourage other studios to go out with that rating,” said Russell Schwartz, president of Gramercy Pictures. “If it is not good, and the whole thing seems like a publicity stunt, it won’t go very far toward changing anybody’s perception.”