But there are also less obvious forces making sure Hollywood doesn’t go all the way, and one of them is probably on your desk (or even in your pocket) right now. Thanks to the Internet, sexual images and videos are never more than a click away, which makes audiences less eager to rush to a theater to see them, and also more critical about context when they do. “You can’t just put gratuitous T&A into movies anymore, like a steamy shower-sex scene out of nowhere. Those scenes are never rated highly by test audiences unless it’s part of the plot,” says Bruzzese. “Moviegoers will say, ‘Why am I going to pay to see that when I can Google it?'”
On the contrary, if a movie is going to get an R rating today, it’s better off getting a big, fat, flaming R with devil horns on it; super-raunchy fare like The Hangover, Superbad, and the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation have a shot at box office success when they go far enough over the line to make it worth moviegoers’ dime. (Though even R-rated rom-coms like 2011’s No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits have struggled at the box office.)
Pay-TV channels such as HBO and Cinemax, on the other hand, can feature as much explicit sex in their programming as they want because their subscribers are assumed to be over 18 anyway — and viewers get to enjoy titillating content in the privacy of their own homes. “It is weird that grown-up, adult sexuality in terms of studio movies has been left by the side of the road,” says Steven Soderbergh, who has done his part to keep Hollywood spicy with movies like Side Effects and Magic Mike. “We have to watch Girls if we want that.”
“Putting a shower scene in a trailer is not going to drive people to the theater for an opening weekend. Blowing up a city will.”
Another possible culprit throwing a bucket of cold water on Hollywood: CGI. As mind-blowing visual effects get cheaper to produce, it becomes more cost-efficient for filmmakers to add F/X than budget extra shooting time for love scenes, especially since sex can’t be included in a movie’s trailer (unless it’s a red-band version, shown only to adults). Explosions literally offer more bang for the buck. As Bruzzese puts it: “Putting a shower scene in a trailer is not going to drive people to the theater for an opening weekend. Blowing up a city will.”
At this point you might be thinking: Wait a second, I still saw plenty of sex on screen last year. Weren’t John Hawkes and Helen Hunt getting it on every five minutes in The Sessions? Didn’t Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard both get to home base in Take This Waltz and Rust and Bone, respectively? Sure they did. But it’s no coincidence that when Seth MacFarlane sang his polarizing “We Saw Your Boobs” song at the Oscars, nearly every movie he mentioned — Monster’s Ball, The Reader, Mulholland Drive — was an indie. Art-house and foreign movies aren’t afraid of R ratings because their audiences are almost exclusively adults, no matter what. Plus, actors who don’t normally drop trou in front of a camera can take comfort in knowing they’re still clothed in the high-thread-count cloak of respectability that a prestige pic provides.
Of course, most indies make pennies compared with the franchise films that get wheeled out each summer. The big studios aren’t likely to mess with their flashy, prudish formula — not until they figure out how to do it in a way that would pass MPAA muster, avoid the audience eye-roll at test screenings, and work seamlessly with the movies’ stories. Until then, at least we’ll always have Risky Business on DVD.
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