Touchy! Touchy! : Convincing Public 'Boogie Nights' Isn't Porn

There are certain subject matters movie executives know are a tough sell.

One is the porno film business--the backdrop of New Line Cinema's much-talked-about upcoming release, "Boogie Nights," which delves into the sleazy underworld of adult entertainment in the San Fernando Valley during the disco- and drug-crazed late 1970s and early '80s. Not exactly every American ticket buyer's idea of palatable movie fodder.

Recent films like "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Striptease" and "Showgirls," which featured similarly exploitative subjects, didn't exactly do hot business at the U.S. box office.

New Line executives believe their film--which is attracting lots of attention on the film festival circuit and this week received a rave review in Newsweek as "one of those breakthrough movies"--is distinguished from that group. That is why the autonomously run movie company owned by Time Warner presumably took a flier on producing the film--which cost about $24 million--in the first place.

Mitch Goldman, New Line's marketing and distribution chief, says he and his team are attempting to sell the movie to mainstream audiences as something that's "upscale and not salacious."


While New Line executives would like their controversial movie to play to as wide an audience as possible, they know that's not feasible--at least not immediately.

"This picture needs a slow release--a setup as a serious picture--to appeal to a lot of people who aren't attracted by the subject matter or the cast," Goldman says. "We know we can't do it fast, because it's about the porn business."

Written, directed and produced by 27-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson, "Boogie Nights," as Time magazine says in its review this week, is "no porn-biz expose" but, rather, a journey about the rise and fall of a well-endowed busboy from Torrance--played by Mark Wahlberg of Marky Mark fame--who becomes a porno star drawn into a maze of drugs and violence.

The ensemble piece, which also stars William H. Macy ("Fargo") and Julianne Moore ("The Lost World"), is being talked about in Hollywood circles as a possible comeback for Burt Reynolds, who portrays a self-deluded porno film producer who believes he can make quality adult movies.

How do you make such a controversial subject matter appeal to the average American moviegoer?

You sell the film--which runs long at more than 2 1/2 hours--more as a sociological snapshot of Los Angeles from 1977 to 1984 and the turbulence of a subculture whose lives "rise and fall in a misunderstood underworld," as the press materials suggest.

The film's trailer positions the story as "a portrait of two decades in the life of a business . . . nostalgia for an innocent time."

The point New Line wants to get across in its marketing, explains Goldman, is that the movie "has something important to say. It's really about America's mores of the '70s and how they changed in the '80s. It deals with characters in that milieu in California. It's not a bunch of porno footage."

Other than a full frontal shot of Wahlberg's screen character Dirk Diggler at the end of the film, "Boogie Nights" shows little nudity and no graphic sex scenes. Though it seemed destined to receive an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, New Line argued successfully for an R after a "long process of negotiation."

Goldman also says that although the characters portrayed in the film "are a little scuzzy, you actually like them by the end of the movie," which he attributes to the skill of the film's young writer-director, whose only other movie is the limited release "Hard Eight," which received some critical acclaim at last year's Sundance and Cannes film festivals.

New Line is trying to capitalize on the fact that "Boogie Nights" received positive buzz at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month and will play the prestigious New York Film Festival next month.

The distributor will begin its slow roll-out of the film with an exclusive run in New York on Oct. 12 soon after its festival showing, expanding to a number of key cities a week later (Oct. 17) and going wider still by the end of the month. Goldman says the "ultimate goal" would be to have the film playing on some 2,000 screens by Oct. 31.

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