Ever since the film first unspooled at the Venice Film Festival, the big question surrounding Steve McQueen‘s “Shame” was who would decide to take on the risky, explicit film about sex addiction that due to its graphic content was headed for an NC-17 rating. As those who have seen it already know, the picture is a finely honed and paced piece of work and it’s difficult to know what McQueen could cut to secure a much more box office and marketing friendly R-rating, but he put the ball back in the distributor’s court. If anyone decided to take on the movie, they would have to take “Shame” as is. Well, the always adventurous Fox Searchlight stepped up and acquired it at TIFF and as expected, the movie has officially been given an NC-17 grade by the MPAA.
But the arthouse studio isn’t sweating it. They’ve been down this road before with Bernardo Bertolucci‘s “The Dreamers,” but in the seven years since that movie, the opportunity for non-traditional marketing — particularly for a movie that isn’t your standard Oscar player or a blockbuster — has increased, and opening up to The Hollywood Reporter the team behind “Shame” are ready for the challenge of getting the word out.
“We accepted the fact we would release ‘Shame’ as is. The truth is, NC-17 is a legitimate rating that tells people it’s not a movie for kids under 18. We’re fine with that,” says Steve Gilula president of Fox Searchlight. “The subject matter of ‘Shame’ is sexual addiction, and it can only be told in this way.”
If you want to know the challenge of taking on an NC-17 film, just ask Harvey Weinstein. Last year when “Blue Valentine” was threatened with the rating, he turned it into another marketing angle but there was a real fear behind the movie. An NC-17 brand does diminish the number of screens a movie can play on. As Focus Features learned with Ang Lee‘s “Lust, Caution” some chains won’t take a movie with that rating at all as Cinemark refused to carry the title. However, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian tries to play down that “myth” by saying that if a movie has “commercial appeal” no one will ban it.
“The myth that we won’t play them is wrong. We’ve surveyed 100 of our leading members, and 97 percent say they will play an NC-17 film if the movie has commercial appeal,” he said. “The second myth is that you can’t advertise in newspapers. Again, that’s not true on a widespread basis, though I think one newspaper in Utah doesn’t.”
Of course, the proof will be in the pudding when the movie opens later this year. As for Fox Searchlight, they plan to essentially use word of mouth and targeted marketing to get the word out for the movie they plan to position a big Oscar campaign for best picture, director, actor, supporting actress, cinematography and original screenplay.
“We don’t need a mass-media tool to get the word out on the film, at least not initially,” said Nancy Utley, the other president of Fox Searchlight. The movie first start its journey with a limited release — likely New York and Los Angeles — with an all audiences (green band) trailer being prepped to play in front of R-rated movies. It will likely be the kind of campaign that will adapt and change as they see what reception is to the film, but they strong believe “Shame” is one that will get people talking regardless of the rating.
“I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner,” said Gilula. “The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer.”
However, lost in all this chatter is what it says about the American moviegoing public who, compared with audiences overseas, are still much more puritanical in regards to sex on the big screen. Perhaps “Shame” will open the door to more movies embracing an NC-17 rating not as scandal, but as an indicator of a movie that is purely for adults, with mature material that your twelve year old probably shouldn’t see.
“‘Shame’ will get an 18 rating in the U.K. [no one under 18 allowed], but there’s no stigma attached,” says Xavier Marchand managing director at Momentum Pictures, who also unveiled the latest trailer for the movie. “I’m not sure why Americans are like this. There’s nothing mysterious about sex. I think it’s great Searchlight is taking on the challenge…”
But will audiences — and the stodgier members of the Academy — rise to the occasion as well? We’ll see when the film begins rolling out on December 2nd.