The last time Fox Searchlight released an NC-17 rated movie, the world was a different place — but whether it's changed enough could dramatically affect the performance of the company's "Shame," a controversial drama about sexual obsession opening in limited release Friday.
The art film subsidiary of 20th Century Fox released Bernardo Bertolucci's sexually explicit "The Dreamers" in 2004, when Fox Searchlight faced several marketing obstacles, including several newspapers that wouldn't advertise an NC-17 rated film. The erotic drama made little noise at the box office, grossing just $2.5 million. Only one national NC-17 release followed, 2007's Ang Lee drama "Lust, Caution," which grossed $4.6 million for Focus Features.
While some marketing constraints have relaxed in the intervening years, and audiences (thanks to cable TV and the Internet) have been desensitized to sex and nudity, Fox Searchlight said some theater chains have so far declined to book "Shame" because of its adults-only rating.
The studio refused to identify the chains, but Cinemark, the nation's No. 3 chain, later issued this statement in response to a query from The Times: "Cinemark exhibits a wide variety of films for diverse audiences and will continue to do so. However, Cinemark as a company, has a long standing policy against showing NC-17 rated movies. Since "Shame" is rated NC-17, Cinemark has made the decision not to play the movie in our theatres."
In addition Carmike, the nation's No. 4 chain, has so far not booked "Shame." The chain declined to comment. When "Shame" hits video stores next year, Fox Searchlight will also be handicapped because Wal-Mart, the country's top retail outlet, won't sell adults-only DVDs.
John Fithian, who runs the trade group the National Assn. of Theater Owners, said he nevertheless believes that exhibitors won't prove an obstacle in the movie's release. "There's a myth perpetuated over and over again by the media that members won't play an NC-17 movie, and that's patently untrue," he said.
While Fithian acknowledged that that a number of theaters refused to play X-rated movies when that rating was still extant (the NC-17 mark replaced it in 1990), he said that only "three out of 100" member companies had a formal ban on showing an NC-17 film. Only one of those three, he said, was a major chain, which he declined to identify.
Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, the presidents of Fox Searchlight, said they were confident they would have no trouble advertising and booking "Shame," which follows a New York man (Michael Fassbender) who is addicted to anonymous sexual encounters, all of which are shown unambiguously.
"Every major city in America will play 'Shame,'" Gilula said. "I have no concerns. We've had no limitations getting the film where we wanted it." He did concede, however, that some rural and Bible Belt towns will probably never play the film, as several small cities rarely even play R-rated fare.
"Shame" will premiere in five American cities this weekend — Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — with some six markets added the weekend of Dec. 9, and nine more cities on Dec. 16. The hope is that critical word of mouth and audience recommendations will build momentum through the end of the year and through the awards season.
Even if Fox Searchlight can book enough theaters and place sufficient "Shame" advertising, it still must sell audiences on the film itself, which is often very difficult to watch, featuring not easily recognizable stars (in addition to Fassbender, the film features Carey Mulligan) doing some very disturbing things.
Utley said "Shame's" campaign will focus on three basic themes: "It's edgy, it's graphic, and it's high quality." Early ads for "Shame" have tried to link the film, through film critics' quotes, to the X-rated classics "Last Tango in Paris" from 1972 and 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," which won three Oscars, including best picture.
"I think it's an apt comparison," Utley said. "We're not shying away from it being edgy and sexual, but it's executed at the highest possible degree. It takes place in the world of sex, but it's not about sex — it's about addiction."
The studio, which paid no up-front fees to acquire "Shame's" American rights, will use narrowly targeted online advertising and social media to reach sophisticated moviegoers who not only might appreciate the film's pedigree (British director Steve McQueen made 2008's critical hit "Hunger") but also pay attention to leading film festivals ("Shame" played at festivals in Venice; Telluride, Colo.; Toronto; and New York). "We feel it's a lot easier to get the word out to the right people than it was before," Utley said, referring to "The Dreamers."
On Wednesday, Fox Searchlight added a red-banded "Shame" trailer to the film's Facebook page. The trailer contains brief glimpses of nudity and sex, but also touts the film's festival awards.
Though the issue of sex addiction wouldn't seem like an automatic audience draw, the "Shame" filmmakers debated the movie's appeal during the development process and concluded that its themes would resonate.
"What we thought we could do is inspire debate; we could have people come out of the cinema and have an energetic conversation with friends in which they brought their own opinions and history," said Iain Canning, the producer of the Oscar winner "The King's Speech" who also produced "Shame."
Canning said that he thought the way "Shame" depicted the two sides of addiction would resonate. "In a sense this movie is about the drunk you have a good time with at the Christmas party," he said. "Then you see he has to drink a bottle of vodka to get through the day and it's not funny anymore."
Times staff writer Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.