Yes, you read that right. The old adage has it that sex sells, and the conventional wisdom holds that pop culture is becoming markedly more sexual all the time. Yet, the film industry has become more reticent about that particular approach to selling its product. Sex has certainly not vanished from movies, but its place within them has changed, especially where the kinds of films that top the box office are concerned.
Certainly major theatrical releases prominently featuring a strongly sexual theme for any purpose but comedy are rather less commonplace than they used to be. Back in 1987 Fatal Attraction was the second-highest grossing film at the American box office, earning an astonishing $156 million (over $300 million in 2012 terms), and more than matched that overseas. Even then it was an outlier, but it was not entirely alone in achieving such success. Basic Instinct was the ninth biggest hit of 1992, Indecent Proposal the sixth biggest movie of 1993.1 At the time of its release, each was a genuine pop cultural moment.
The change came in the mid-1990s. Demi Moore had another, comparable hit in 1994 with Disclosure – but her sex-laden version of The Scarlet Letter was a big-budget flop in 1995, just like the next two movies scripted by Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, Jade, and the NC-17-rated Showgirls (which not just featured an Eszterhas script, but was also helmed by Instinct's director Paul Verhoeven). In 1996 Moore had another flop with Striptease, while the sequel to 9 1/2 Weeks bypassed theaters on its way to cable and video. In 1999 Eyes Wide Shut, despite its high-profile July release, the cachet of its being the last film of the legendary Stanley Kubrick, and the reliable draws the stars were held to be, earned a mere $55 million, leaving it only the 42nd highest-grosser at the American box office that year.
The data gathered in Box Office Mojo's list of the highest-grossing "erotic thrillers" tells the story in a relatively systematic way. Even though the list is unadjusted for inflation, so that it favors later movies by a significant margin, only six of its top twenty were released after 1995, and only four after 2000. The highest-grossing of these was 2009's Obsessed, which made the number four position with a mere $68 million, a figure which made it only the 48th highest-grossing film of the year (while, given its PG-13 rating, the term "erotic" seems applied rather loosely in its case).
What happened here? One part of the story is the intensification of the culture wars, and the identity politics of which they are a part. The rhetorical guns are all on hair-triggers, and while it often seems as if anything can set them off, the fact remains that in these times there is still nothing to evoke paranoia, or exercise the capacity for taking offense (real or pretended) to its outermost limits, like sex. The moralist (in that word's narrowest, most conventional sense) sees in every failure to condemn the least little twinge of it the end of civilization. The postmodern preoccupied with power relations does not see anything else in depictions of sex, sexuality as such quickly disappearing from view within thickets of misused and abused academic jargon. Members of every demographic complain that depictions of their group are not more frequent or more favorable, or their preferences are not more openly, frequently or favorably presented. The result is an awful mess.
Such things were certainly prominent in the reactions to Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure. Of course, they profited by the fact, but the point is that there was risk here, risk which has continued to rise since then, making it seem safest for films to have as little to do with sex as possible, especially with exploding budgets continually raising the stakes. (I still think Rainier Wolfcastle put it best: "The film is just me in front of a brick wall for an hour and a half. It cost eighty million dollars.")
But at least as important is the fact that sex, and stories which center on sex, are something smaller-scale productions can do with the same facility as the big studio-financed movies. In contrast with action scenes, big budgets and big screens are not generally thought to enhance the viewing experience.
The reason that sex remained big in feature film as late as the early 1990s was the prevailing fact of the movie industry's history since the proliferation of television: its struggle to hold its own against the smaller-scale industries serving other, cheaper, more convenient forms of audiovisual media, which it carried on by offering moviegoers content television could not. In the day of small black and white screens, the Movies offered Technicolor and Cinemascope. At a time when a reference to the facts of life so mild as the mention of pregnancy was forbidden on TV, sexual stories and sexual scenes were another.
That once tight censorship eroded, of course, due to technology as much as culture. By the mid-1990s cable, video and the Internet offered everything that mainstream film offered in terms of subject matter or its presentation, not just more conveniently, but privately. ("Wink wink nudge nudge say no more say no more.") One result was that by the time Basic Instinct 2 came out the erotic thriller genre, like the B-grade action movie, had migrated almost completely to these other media, as perhaps that franchise should have, to go by its box office receipts.2 Such depictions of sex on the big screen as get much attention lately (especially when the content is intended to evoke anything but a guffaw) tend to be small, independent productions with low budgets and limited audiences, especially in their theatrical runs – small because, contrary to that familiar adage, what they offer is not in itself enough to sell more tickets.
1. Basic Instinct earned $353 million ($579 million in today's terms), and Indecent Proposal $267 million ($425 million in 2012 dollars).
2. The $70 million movie grossed $39 million worldwide – after inflation, less than a tenth of the original's income. Its performance was particularly poor in the U.S., where it pulled in $3 million in its first three days, putting it in 10th place that weekend.
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