Times Staff Writer

Rising above Sunset Boulevard, half a block west of Crescent Heights Boulevard, one movie’s billboard stands in marked contrast to the glossy studio advertising surrounding it. Minimalist and provocative like the film it promotes, the sign features an explicit black-and-white image that appears to show Chloe Sevigny performing oral sex on director and costar Vincent Gallo. At the bottom is a simple message: “In color. X. Adults only.”

Controversy is nothing new to Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” an unfinished version of which elicited boos at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Film critic Roger Ebert called it the worst picture ever to be screened at the event. Dismissing the possibility it could land a distributor, Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote: “No one in America will ever see a frame of this film.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 05, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
“Brown Bunny” -- An article about Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” in Wednesday’s Calendar section said the theatrical version of the movie was 26 minutes longer than the one screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003. The theatrical version is 26 minutes shorter.

That quote now opens the “teaser” trailer for the movie, the tale of an emotionally fragile motorcycle racer traveling cross-country in search of true love, set to open in New York and Los Angeles on Aug. 27.

Taking a page from the playbook of Miramax Films chief Harvey Weinstein (“Dogma,” “Priest” and “Kids,” and more recently “Fahrenheit 9/11") and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the Gallo contingent is banking on the notion that controversy translates into box office.


In spite of what’s taking place in the billboard scene, which Gallo says wasn’t shot with “smoke and mirrors,” the 42-year-old denies that his billboard design is the act of a provocateur. His aim, Gallo contends, is to legitimize the film, diffusing charges of gratuitous sexuality by calling up “iconic references” to sophisticated, X-rated fare such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy.” Gallo says the X rating, which the Motion Picture Assn. of America replaced with the NC-17 label in 1990, is his own marketing device to suggest that the movie is for grown-ups, rather than pornographic.

“People regard ‘Brown Bunny’ as a freaky, self-indulgent home movie,” the writer-director (1998s “Buffalo ’66") said on the phone from Chicago -- one of six cities he’ll hit on a road trip to promote the movie ending next week in Los Angeles. “By publicizing it on Sunset, I’m positioning it as a controversial mainstream movie, an event, rather than pretentious avant-garde. The billboard was designed for sophisticated people who’d understand the aesthetic, the fact that there’s subtext and complexity. I guess I forgot about your everyday person -- the old man in a Mercedes a friend of mine saw put his hand over his mouth and mime, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”

Liza Burnett, who heads the film division of public relations firm Dan Klores Communications, says: “We all decided to embrace the controversy instead of running away from it.”

Thus far, no formal protests have been filed. Dan Goldberg, vice president of marketing and publicity for the film’s New York-based distributor, Wellspring, says Regency Outdoor Advertising, which owns the billboard space, asked no questions about content. A spokeswoman for the company says they’ve rejected certain subject matter on occasion -- and that this was a “judgment call.”


Screened to a somewhat more favorable reception at the Toronto Film Festival last September, the film will go out unrated -- an option because Wellspring is not a signatory of the MPAA, which requires movies released by its members to carry a rating. Although essentially the same conceptually as the version shown at Cannes, the current film is 26 minutes longer and has a new ending. Gallo says that he agreed to present the shorter version at Cannes only because of a deal he cut with the producers.

Sex isn’t the point of “The Brown Bunny,” a film about intimacy and relationships, maintains Ryan Werner, head of theatrical distribution for Wellspring. His company acquired the movie a year after Cannes. The Landmark chain, he says, has been particularly supportive, booking the movie for a two-week run at the Nuart in Los Angeles and a prime art house in Manhattan. On Sept. 3, “Bunny” is set to expand to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, and could be playing in the top 15 markets by the following week.

Cannes was the first hurdle, Werner says. Getting critics into the movie is the second.

“This is the biggest marketing challenge we’ve faced,” said the executive, whose company is about to release “Tarnation,” winner of the best documentary award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “I can’t think of a single movie with a sex scene like this, featuring known actors. Still, this year the studios have released a number of NC-17 movies [prohibiting anyone 17 and younger from attending], including ‘Young Adam’ and ‘The Dreamers.’ I’d like to think Hollywood is growing up a bit, but it’s always a roll of the dice.”


The film’s release coincides with the Republican National Convention in New York, which Gallo, a devout supporter of President Bush, plans to attend. Although some might question his association with the party’s “family values” stance, the director sets things straight. “The right-wing people I know are more tolerant than the left-wing commies you find at Cannes. After all, what do I reveal that Calvin Klein doesn’t -- more suggestively -- on the billboard across the street?”