'Showgirls' May Help Give NC-17 Releases a Leg Up : Movies: The film is no blockbuster, but its relative success is taking the tarnish off the controversial rating, observers say.


While audience response to "Showgirls" may have fallen short of its studio's hopes, its opening-weekend box-office success likely will pave the way for more NC-17 films, industry watchers say.

"I think that big studios are going to be much more open to it," said John Burnham, senior vice-president and co-head of the motion picture department at William Morris Agency. "Studios will be interested in anything that has that kind of ability to open so successfully. . . . The NC-17 rating is no longer tainted, now that it's confirmed that it can succeed in the intended market of release."

Universal released "Henry and June" with an NC-17 from the Motion Picture Assn. of America in 1990, but major Hollywood studios have historically taken great pains to avoid the rating. They usually require directors by contract to deliver films that will qualify for nothing more restrictive than an R, ensuring they will reach the largest possible audience.

Indeed, when "Showgirls" was being shopped around, Universal told the filmmakers it would make the film for $30 million if it could be made as an R-rated picture or if it could be made as an NC-17 on a shoestring budget of $12 million. The filmmakers declined and a deal was ultimately struck with Chargeurs, a French production company, which made the film, and MGM/UA, which distributed it.

The glitzy, nudity-filled "Showgirls' "--at $40 million the most expensive NC-17 movie ever made--brought in $8 million in 1,300 theaters its opening weekend, even with some of the most excoriating reviews in recent years. (To date, the film has made $17.8 million).

Observers said audiences were not put off by the rating, their interest fueled by the controversy surrounding it and an advertising campaign with a classy erotic image as its centerpiece. Even the film's dramatic 50% drop in box office since opening Sept. 22 appears to have more to do with negative word-of-mouth than the restrictive rating.

"I believe ultimately movies are sold by word of mouth and, in this case, the word of mouth was clearly unfavorable," said Steve Tisch, who produced "Forrest Gump" and "Risky Business."

"If you turn that theory around, if there was a very good NC-17 movie, I think people would be talking about that and telling their friends to see it. I don't think an NC-17 rating is the kiss of death. Nor do I think that, in the hands of the right filmmakers, studios have a preconceived notion to pass on NC-17 material."

"If an NC-17 film were a great movie, there would certainly be an audience," agreed Marc Platt, president of TriStar Pictures. "There are still substantial hurdles with NC-17 films that one must overcome in bringing the film to the marketplace. I don't believe those hurdles will necessarily disappear, but I do believe that if an audience finds a film satisfying, then they will go to that film, regardless of its ratings."

The biggest hurdles involve advertising and video distribution, and to a lesser extent theater owners who refuse to show the movie. An NC-17 film is limited in its television advertising (being confined to post-prime-time hours) and also by video stores that refuse to rent or sell NC-17 films. Blockbuster Video, the largest national video chain, which controls more than 20% of the market, refuses to carry NC-17 movies.

Still, some filmmakers and industry officials predict an increase in NC-17 releases.

"It's not going to be a rush," said veteran film industry publicist Howard Bragman. " 'Showgirls' wasn't enough of a financial success to make people rush out to do it, but I still think if they believe in it, studios will do it."

Bragman added that he still considers NC-17 pictures more likely to be independent productions than big studio projects. Indeed, the next NC-17 film due out is Fine Line Features' "Delta of Venus," which will open Friday, followed by October Films' "When Night Is Falling" a Canadian-made film due next month.

"So far there have been two big studios that have released NC-17 movies; the minute you have two there's obviously going to be a third," said Roger Avary, the Oscar-winning co-writer of "Pulp Fiction" and director of the 1993 independent release "Killing Zoe," which he fought unsuccessfully to put out as an NC-17 film.

"And the minute there's three, there's going to be four. Just give it time. I would offer up my soul that there will be more and more and more NC-17 movies done. Eventually there will be so many that the NC-17 rating will become meaningless."

The rating will never be meaningless, countered Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the MPAA, as long as parents are concerned about what their children are watching.

"The rating system is absolutely working the way it ought to work," Valenti said. "There's nothing pejorative about the rating, it just means there are some movies that are not appropriate for children. . . . I've talked to a number of exhibitors who say, 'We don't mind playing an NC-17 movie, but it depends on the movie.' "

Joe Eszterhas, who wrote "Showgirls," said he thinks studios will always shy away from making NC-17 pictures. And while he thinks his movie may have cracked the door a bit, it could have opened much wider had audiences flocked to "Showgirls."

"There's always been a reluctance, and the reluctance is absolutely understandable: You are cutting out a part of the audience," Eszterhas said. "But if a director comes in and says the only way he can do it is NC-17 and it's commercial and if he puts up a strong and cogent argument, the studios might be tempted to do it. It would have to be an A-list director."

But some major studios say they have no plans to make NC-17 films, citing both philosophical and financial concerns.

"We have no plans to change our policy on NC-17," said Rob Friedman, Warner Bros. president of worldwide advertising and publicity. "We don't make them. We don't distribute them."

"There's no law that says NC-17 movies can't work--I think they can," said MCA vice-chairman Tom Pollock, whose studio made "Henry and June." "But the primary business of Universal Pictures and all the studios is mass entertainment, not pushing the boundaries of sex and violence. It doesn't have to do with moral reasons. It has to do with monetary reasons."

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