Sex & the Ghost III: Niches 'R' Us at the multiplex

Brownbunny_2I think it was about 10 years ago that I first heard traditional Jewish and Christian contacts in Hollywood start talking about the new movie era of grand slams and singles and the implications of this trend for religion in mainstream film.

First, let me define some baseball terms. The basic idea is that major-studio executives have, in the post-Star Wars decades, started focusing most of their attention on the creation of “event films,” those box-office grand slams that may cost $100-150 million to produce, but are going to still make loads of money if the whole culture shows up, more than once, to see them. You have to make $250 to $400 million, of course. You can’t afford to tick off too many people.

Note the emphasis on the phrase “whole culture.” This means that the movies must be hits in mainstream America as well as in elite zip codes. In other words, the movies must sell in red theaters as well as in blue theaters.

The trend associated with this is the rise of the PG-13 blockbusters, those flashy roller-coaster video rides that have enough zip for adults — that touch of Spielbergian hot sauce — yet are “safe” enough to sell to video-saturated pre-teens. Violence seems to be OK. Vivid sex is dangerous.

The losers in this scenario? People who built careers making that Hollywood staple — the sexy R-rated movie with a budget somewhere between $40-80 million, with the goal of making about $60-100 million. Once, these films were released in waves.

If the event films are grand slams, these old adult-market films were supposed to be doubles or triples. But times changed, noted the Christian Science Monitor in a recent story on sex trends in film.

A 2003 study by the Christian Film and Television Commission analyzed the box-office returns of 1,120 films over four years and found that the more explicit films sold fewer tickets.

Many would argue with that opinion and the groups that preach it. But something has been driving the decline in R-rated product.

Which brings us to films that “hit singles.” What exactly is a “single” and why is this concept important for those covering faith and film? Or sex and film?

A single is a small-budget movie that targets a smaller, but solid niche of people who are interested in a certain subject or set of beliefs. You make the film for $10-30 million and, if the script is good, you bring in $40-100 million. If the movie fails, the studio has not invested loads of cash that it could be using to make “Aliens 666.” Singles still add up to real profits, especially when something amazing happens. Think “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or even “The Passion of the Christ.”

So what are these smaller, but solid niches of ticket-purchasing consumers who cheer for singles? Some of the niches have been around for some time now. We should be seeing green lights for more smaller films targeting women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. The future is bright for gay and lesbian cinema, for marketing reasons as well as cultural reasons.

And, in the heady days post-Passion, we have seen signs that Hollywood executives might be willing to produce more films for the more traditional religious consumers in what some people are now calling the Grace Hill market (a tribute to the trailblazing Grace Hill Media publicity company). After years and years of terrible Christian films from low-budget, low-talent, low-buzz operations, there is some chance that actual studios may start making stronger films that wrestle with faith issues and decline to bash people who do not cross their fingers when they read the Bible. OK, that’s a bit of a cheap shot, but you get the idea.

But here’s the point of the headline and the art with this post. Church people are going to have to realize that this same trend in technology and marketing is going to lead to renewed interest in another very, very dependable niche subject — sex. To stay with the baseball analogy, we are going to see lots of sexy singles — like the soon to be infamous movie, “The Brown Bunny.” Here’s the Chicago Tribune on this trend:

Got sex? That could be the art-film circuit’s new slogan as explicit sex has returned to the big screen with a vengeance.

Never mind that the porn industry has migrated from grungy theaters to home video and the Internet. …
The cinema is in the midst of its own sexual revolution, flouting taboos and exploring sexuality more brazenly than ever, even if American filmmakers have been slow to pick up the mantle and explicit sex remains an anathema to mainstream theater and video chains as well as the Motion Picture Association of America.

You know something’s going on when Brian Grazer, Ron Howard’s producing partner, is preparing a sexually graphic documentary about the cultural impact of ’70s porn film “Deep Throat.”

The Tribune is not alone in seeing this trend in the culture-war age in which, to quote the story again, “outrage over an exposed breast” is “sandwiched between ads addressing sexual dysfunction.” But this neo-porn chic actually makes financial sense. The new sex films don’t cost a lot and it is actually good (from a Hollywood perspective) if their strong content actually offends some Americans.

This is precisely the same argument that many Christian filmmakers are going to be making in the years ahead, sitting across giant desks from Hollywood players. There is a case to be made for Christian singles, as well.

It is a strange time in Hollywood. Sex sells and everyone knows it. But high-quality films about faith may sell, as well. They stir passions as well, with a large “P.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I have always been amazed how violent films, often with multiple creative (and ironic) deaths are given a pass by social conservatives (especially if they are by conservative-friendly icons like Arnold) yet films with frank or explicit sex are seen as more damaging, more obscene.

    There is a great Henry Miller essay where he talks about the film “Bonnie and Clyde” and wonders if our culture would have been better off if escalating levels of sex took the place of bloody violence on the big screen.

    In any case, and more to the point of this entry, I would love to see more religious films. I am a religious film junkie and can hardly stay away when one comes out. I think the problem in the long run will be how good these films will actually be and the tendancy of Hollywood to define things in a certain way. After “Gladiator” came out, it was “safe” to produce “epics” again, sadly most of them were thematic copies of the modern originator.

    Will the same happen with films of faith? Will it be presented as a Christian-only enterprise? Will only certain kinds of faith be allowed? What about those pesky people of faith who you qualify as having their “fingers crossed” when they read the Bible? I would love to see reverent, quality films of many faiths.

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    I think Titanic was what really gave rise to the modern “home run” epics myself.

    I think the problem people of faith have with sex and violence is that violence can be justified for a cause, but premarital sex can’t. If you read the old testament, the military victories of Israel and Judah are good things. Similarly King Saul was ordered by God to commit genocide and Ehud(?) assassinated a Philistine territorial governor. On the other hand, its very rare for extramarital sex to be seen the same way. About the only thing I can think of is Judah and Tamara.

  • http://isuma.org/ jeff

    Jeff – I’ll give you the argument about pre-marital sex, but I don’t see how a violent film like ‘Aliens 666′ (the fictious example in this post) is anything more than violence for the sake of shock. My point: why I agree that violence is acceptable under [very limited] circumstances, few of the mainstream Hollywood films fall into these circumstances.

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    I don’t know abou that, Jeff. The point is the underlying moral context of the violence. If the protagonists are fighting for humanity or to save their own lives, then its ok. But if Han shoots first then some people will have a problem with it. The former is the typical plot of an action movie.

    I don’t think people have really considered the idea that this has lead to violence as an easy method for cheap thrills in the local cinemaplex.