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‘Striptease’ Bumps and Grinds Its Way to Profitability

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a story about the global economy, Hollywood, the American psyche and strippers.

Specifically, the movie “Striptease.” When the Demi Moore- as- a- single- mother- turned- stripper film opened in the United States in June, critics thrashed it and audiences stayed away in droves. When the domestic box office was counted, only $32.6 million was taken in on a movie that cost more than $40 million to make (including $12.5 million for Moore) and $24 million to market. By anyone’s count--even Hollywood accounting--it was a bomb.

“In America they don’t say the word ‘Striptease’ without saying ‘box-office bomb “Striptease,” ’ " said Martin Shafer, president of Castle Rock Pictures, which made the movie.

But now the lesson in global economics begins. “Striptease” has grossed $70 million outside the United States--in only 10 weeks. It opened internationally first in Mexico, where an estimated 2 million people went to see it. In some countries, such as Italy and Germany, it rose to the top of the box-office heap. “Striptease” opened in Brazil last week in first place and in Japan in second place, just behind the worldwide hit “The Rock.”

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“We got our redemption,” producer Mike Lobell said. “Thank God for the rest of the world!”

The picture, which has opened in more than 30 countries and still has about a dozen more to go, is expected to gross at least $80 million overseas, said Massimo Graziosi, president of London-based Castle Rock International. It is also expected to do quite well in ancillary markets like video rental and sales, and cable television, Shafer said. All of that has led Castle Rock executives to project they will turn a profit--albeit a modest one--of up to about $10 million on the film.

“There are movies that seem like flops, but aren’t,” Shafer said. “That’s what ‘Striptease’ is. In the new world of worldwide communications, you have to look at everything. You can’t just look at domestic box office. Domestic box office is about 25% of the overall revenue of the money that comes in on a film.”

Why would a film that failed to draw audiences in the U.S. be packing them in in foreign markets?

The discrepancy may be because of several factors: a backlash associated with the skyrocketing of actors’ salaries, a feeling that Moore has been overexposed, and the audience’s association of this movie--based on a best-selling novel by Carl Hiaasen--with the widely reviled skin flick “Showgirls.”

“There was so much negative press about the movie before it even opened that it was hard to overcome that in America,” Shafer said. “Even Sen. [Bob] Dole made comments, and he hadn’t even seen it. [Moore’s] salary was a big topic. There were many erroneous reports of bad screenings that frankly never happened. People thought we were ripping off ‘Showgirls’ even though we were developing the film three years before ‘Showgirls’ even existed. . . . It was a movie that people were out to get before it happened.”

Not so in Europe.

“Overseas, there wasn’t anywhere near that kind of negative press,” Shafer said. “There wasn’t the negativity going into the film about her salary or why she did the movie. It was not a factor overseas.”

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In fact, Graziosi said, Moore is extremely popular internationally: “I wish we had her in some other pictures.”

Also, in many foreign countries there is a more relaxed attitude toward nudity, box-office observers point out.

“It could be that sex sells better in a lot of Europe than it sells here,” said Phil Garfinkel, senior vice president at Entertainment Data Inc.

Producer Lobell is convinced that an American prudishness was largely responsible for the movie’s poor performance in this country.

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“There are too many people in this country that just the sight of a woman’s breasts sends them running for the hills,” Lobell said. “We previewed this movie several times and people were laughing all through it. But people didn’t want to say they liked this movie because of the nudity and the language.”

The movie was also hampered by a confusing marketing campaign that shifted in midstream, Lobell said.

Initially marketed as “a sexy thriller,” “Striptease” was later repackaged in trailers and commercials as a comedy.

“We were all very frustrated by the inability to capture what the movie was,” Lobell said. “Castle Rock felt more strongly than we did that we had to sell the picture as a comedy. I always felt, as did Demi, that we really should have sold it in a bolder way. The poster [of a naked Moore with arms and legs carefully positioned] was something that Demi and [director] Andy Bergman and I wanted. But the poster doesn’t sell tickets.”

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Overseas, the comedic aspect was all but ignored.

“In every foreign country it was sold as a sexy movie, not as a comedy,” Lobell said. “I think by selling it as a comedy knowing that Demi was stripping probably turned off a lot of hard-core people that would have seen it and liked it. And it brought in too many people who thought they were going to see an out-and-out comedy. I wish we could do it all over again. . . . We just didn’t get the right crowd.”

Despite a sense of vindication, Lobell said he still feels that many people will dismiss the movie’s apparent success to mere titillation.

“Now people here are going to say, ‘Oh well, sure it made money overseas. They just went to see T and A,’ ” Lobell said. “But nobody in this country is going to say, ‘We didn’t look at this picture carefully.’ I don’t think we’ll ever get the credit, but it doesn’t matter. The picture was successful. We’re happy because there are people all over the world who liked the movie.”

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