New Rule: Sex Doesn’t Sell

“Chloe’s” paltry take is another nail in the coffin of the erotic thriller

Last Updated: April 2, 2010 @ 4:53 PM

When "Chloe," a drama of sexual obsession and jealousy, was released in theaters last weekend, it landed with a whisper, not a bang.

GIven what’s on the internet these days, moviegoers just aren’t in the market for that anymore.

Since the mid-’90s, the popularity of erotic thrillers and steamy films like "Chloe" has waned dramatically. Gone are the days when audiences would flock to see Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke cavort in soft porn like "9 1/2 Weeks," or crane their necks as Sharon Stone opened her legs in "Basic Instinct."

Not even the presence of current "it girl" Amanda Seyfried could keep "Chloe" from debuting to a mere $900,000 in just 350 theaters.

More recently, films like "Original Sin," "The Black Dahlia," "Deception," and "Perfect Stranger" featured big stars such as Angelina Jolie and Hugh Jackman, but failed to make much of a profit. Not even "The Brown Bunny"s’ promise of unsimulated oral sex with Chloe Sevigny could stimulate audiences. That 2003 drama made headlines with its sexual content, but only grossed $366,301.

(See Slideshow, Duds in the Bedroom: Erotic Movies that Bombed)

"[Chloe] is a niche film, but back in their day movies like ‘Fatal Attraction’ were up there with the biggest of summer blockbusters," Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations told TheWrap. 

While "Fatal Attraction" made $320 million worldwide in 1987, "Basic Instinct" raked in $352 million in 1992, and "Indecent Proposal" grossed $266 million in 1993, the ensuing decade was not kind to the erotic genre.

Starting with the 1995 bomb "Showgirls," which grossed $20.5 million on a $45 million budget, the list of turkeys has been awe inspiring. For every modest performer like "Obsessed" or "Unfaithful," there have been ten movies like "Jade," the 1995 stinker that grossed less than $10 million and killed David Caruso’s nascent movie career.

Though crowds lined up to see Sharon Stone’s nether regions in "Basic Instinct" more than 15 years ago, these days they prefer that stars keep their legs tightly crossed.

Even Stone’s return to the role that made her famous in 2006’s "Basic Instinct 2" was met with a paltry $38.6 million at the box office and multiple Razzie awards.

"Sex isn’t as special," Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and the author of a recent study arguing that sexually explicit films do worse at the box office. "People are more likely drawn to the theater to see something like ‘Avatar’ that’s in 3D and is a unique experience."

Part of the issue is that the rise of internet porn means that movies are no longer the dominant medium for sexual provocation. There’s no need to pay the price of the ticket when graphic sex and nudity is a few clicks of the mouse away.

"The prevalence of porn on the web has meant that people looking for titillation can readily find it online," Craig Detweiler, director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University, told TheWrap. "While a groundbreaking film critic like Pauline Kael could claim, ‘I lost it at the movies,’ the next generation of moviegoers likely lost it on the Internet."

The box office chops of event pictures such as "Avatar" and family friendly fare like "Up," that bring in young and old alike, make studios wary of having their movies slapped with an R rating or worse yet, NC-17.

In the process, mainstream American cinema has been effectively neutered. Most studios shy away from releasing films under am NC-17 rating, because it will mean certain stations and newspapers won’t carry advertisements and some retailers won’t sell their DVDs.

Movies like "Last Tango in Paris" and "Midnight Cowboy" — the only X-rated movie to get a Best Picture Oscar — may have once seemed to proclaim a new frankness in sexual depictions in film, but more than three decades later, it is a promise that remains unrealized.

While auteurs like Stanley Kubrick may try their hand at graphic sexuality in a film like "Eyes Wide Shut," these movies make little impact at the box office and have remained the province of adventurous foreign directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Alfonso Cuarón.

Unsurprisingly, foreign audiences have more of an appetite for sexually explicit movies. For instance, Ang Lee’s 2007 erotic drama "Lust, Caution" was a $4 million dud domestically but made $62 million at the foreign box office. Ditto, 2004’s "Closer," a brutal dissection of modern sexual mores which only attracted $33 million at the U.S. box office, but took in $88 million abroad.

"It is a problematic genre, and it has to hit just right to work," Vincent Bruzzese, president of the motion picture group at the research firm Online Testing Exchange. "These movies can hit too close to home. Movies about infidelity, which many of these are, are hard sells. Women don’t want to see men cheating and guys aren’t chomping at the bit to see women seek vengeance for being cheated on."

A surer box office bet is to have sex appear as either icing on an action-heavy cake, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "Transformers," or as sight gags in comedies like "Superbad" or last weekend’s "Hot Tub Time Machine."

Anyone who has seen the sexually charged pyrotechnics in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" or the way the camera glides up Megan Fox’s body as she straddles a motorcycle in the "Transformers" sequel knows that those movies have erotic underpinnings, but the only genre where getting it on is explicitly encouraged these days are the movies that come out of the Apatow canon or focus on the "Sex and the City" quartet.

"There’s a kind of prolonged adolescence in American movies," Linda Williams, professor of film studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told TheWrap. "We’re very nervous about adult sexuality, so we need to mix it in with fart and penis jokes to make it less threatening. We have to laugh about our embarrassment with sex."

Tellingly, movies like "American Pie" sell gross out humor rather than sexual couplings and films such as the upcoming "Sex and the City 2," spend their advertising dollars stressing the female bonding aspects of the plot rather than the bedroom action.

To be sure, sex still sells, just not at the multiplex.

In place of mainstream movies, sexually frank entertainment has migrated to other mediums. Hit TV shows like "Californication," "Spartacus" and "True Blood" use graphic depictions of sex and flesh to attract audiences; Lady Gaga and Britney Spears have become pop music sensations through sexually provocative lyrics, and Jackie Collins is one of the bestselling authors of all time due to her steamy roman a clefs.

"Some of these shows and other things seem to exist merely to display naked bodies and sex scenes," Williams said.

At the movies, that doesn’t cut it.