Film Fund-amentals: Sex and the Independent Filmmaker

Sex sells movies. Well, sometimes. Actually, it’s more like a balancing act, since the right amount can work but other times… oh crap, it use to be a lot simpler figuring out how to tease the audience. If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks who made the movie I Love You Phillip Morris. They may or may not currently have an American distributor and they may, or may not, get released in October. They can’t seem to find a viable distributor for love or money and are in the odd situation of having a potentially hot controversy with no place to go.

Which seems especially ironic for a small-budget movie (estimated production of $13 million) starring Jim Carrey. Oh, did I mention all of the gay sex scenes? If you hurry, you can even go online and see samples of the scenes, though you have to move fast since the producers are trying to pull this footage from every website on earth.

The core problem is the financial/legal fight between the movie’s production company, EuropaCorp, and its intended American distributor, Consolidated Pictures Group. CPG is an upstart distributor with few titles, little real experience and not much else. Amazingly, CPG has not been able to raise the $3 million dollars needed for its deal with EuropaCorp. For crying out load, even Parker Posey’s name in the lead should have been enough to get a lousy $3 million! This should be a reminder that a major name actor doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

By all accounts, EuropaCorp ended up with this distributor for the simple reason that it couldn’t find anyone else who was interested in dealing with the film. So you got a big name star carrying on like a crazed maniac (OK, it’s Carrey’s forte) while performing acts of simulated sex with other men (well, mostly with Ewan McGregor), and all within the context of an off-beat comedy that (according to folks who have actually seen it) is hysterically funny (at times), and they can’t get anyone major to release it over here? Good grief! Decades ago, Last Tango in Paris had a publicity field day despite the fact that Brando would barely take off his coat.

Of course, Last Tango in Paris was straight sex (well, that’s what they tell me – personally I found the movie to be kind of bizarre, though it did help me get through the more dismissal moments of apartment hunting). Brokeback Mountain may have busted down a few barriers, but the gay thing is still a touchy issue for movies. In a sense, it was easier years ago when the whole subject was taboo. Oh sure, it was extremely repressive and totally hypocritical, but at least the ban was pretty straightforward. Now, we live in a valley of contradictory nuances surrounded by the shadows of political correctness and right-wing nuttiness.

So I guess Jim Carrey should have kept his pants on. Obviously, I Love You Phillip Morris is a tad too much for some, which raises the question: What kind of sex and how much of it can a movie expect to get away with these days? Sure, gay sex sets off alarm bells with some people, but not as much as it used to. Heck, hot girl-to-girl lip action is practically de rigueur at award shows. Despite what Newsweek magazine thinks, gay actors have been playing straight romantic leads for centuries. The whole sexual preference issue use to be treated as a major secret that could destroy a person’s career. Now, it’s just a PR bit.

Which brings up the question of current audience attitudes toward sexual preferences at the movies. Oddly enough, current trends would suggest that many people are more comfortable with lesbian sex than male gay sex. When Paris Hilton swings both ways, it boosts her otherwise dubious celebrity status. Gay male celebrities still tend to be more low-key, though the recent gossip reports about Daniel Craig do not seem to be hurting his Bonded job in any way whatsoever. Likewise, both Sean Hayes and Neil Patrick Harris are doing just fine.

The explicitness of the material is always a major factor. On the one hand, Americans love sex in the media. Heck, we’ve got TV ads that are practically pornographic. On the other hand, we don’t want other people to be exposed to anything that is too explicit. I do mean other people. Virtually all debates of this issue end up with someone insisting that they are trying to defend the community from smut. Nobody has ever tried to defend themselves, so presumably they like it but don’t want anyone else to be getting their rocks off. In America, this squirrelly logic almost makes sense (just like Reaganomics).

This may be the real problem faced by I Love You Phillip Morris. I’m sure that some of the distributors who have passed on this movie have done so because they’re defending the audience’s sensibility. In truth, the modern movie-going public has no particularly clear or defensible sensibility. Just look at The Hangover, a rude and crude farce that was also wildly successful (and to be honest, pretty funny in its own whacked-out way). Likewise, anyone who might be offended by a movie has the constitutional right not to go see it (and the audience does exercise this right on a regular basis). It’s not as if Jim Carrey is standing outside the theater with an AK-47 taking hostages. We even have a lousy rating system to help people decide.

But this also leaves the independent filmmaker stuck in a quandary. When is enough too much? The track record isn’t very promising. Back in 2003, Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny did real oral sex in The Brown Bunny and still couldn’t get an audience to watch the movie (making this, quite probably, the most expensive blow job since the Clinton impeachment hearings). More recently, Kevin Smith’s production of Zack and Miri Make a Porno did only slightly better.

For some, this is proof that decent God-fearing Midwestern Americans will not tolerate such filth. In reality, all the Midwestern Americans are staying home and watching their porn online.

So yes, sex still sells. But the audience wants to sneak it at home for free.