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Can Sexual Provocation Still Sell?

Can Sexual Provocation Still Sell? (photo)

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Barring some epic year-end bombshell, Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” is sure to walk away with the designation of year’s most provocative movie — with its sadomasochistic sex, penis smashing and spontaneous clitorectomy, it rivals Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 cinema scandal “In the Realm of the Senses” in its efforts to shock and offend.

It’s a useful comparison. Over the years, international art cinema has often been inextricably tied to our most prurient desires. In the 1960s, foreign masterpieces were as much about championing auteurs as glimpsing a choice piece of European ass. Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” was marketed with blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg dancing around in Dionysian ecstasy, while Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” and Luis Bunuel’s “Belle De Jour” were literally sold off the naked backsides of Bridget Bardot and Catherine Deneueve. But do such depictions of outré sex still sell challenging foreign cinema today?

As recently as the ’80s and ’90s, “you could sell a lot of tickets if you were selling sex,” says distribution veteran Mark Urman, pointing to Miramax releases like “Sirens” and Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” “Back then, we were selling sex, scandal and an X rating, cloaked in something that was intellectually high-tone, which made it all the better,” recalls Urman, who worked on the marketing of the films. “But it was naughty and that’s why everyone went. Now, nobody cares.”

“Antichrist”‘s racy subject matter certainly boosted the film’s opening weekend sales, where sold-out houses in New York accounted for a little under half of the film’s total $72,000 box-office gross across six theaters. Downtown, the IFC Center boasted its best Friday ever (some von Trier fans were even turned away from Thursday’s midnight show).

However, other preeminent arthouses across the country showing the film, like the NuArt in Los Angeles, the Music Box in Chicago, Boston’s Kendall Square, San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Washington D.C.’s E Street, mostly under-performed. “We wanted other markets to be higher,” admits IFC Films’ marketing chief Ryan Werner, who’s stewarding the U.S. “Antichrist” release and explains New York numbers usually far surpass other markets. (Full disclosure: This website, of course, shares a parent company with IFC Films.)

But Werner can’t predict how long “Antichrist” will play in theaters (the movie will expand to ten cities this Friday.) In some ways, he likens the opening weekend interest in “Antichrist” to the kind of first-weekend hype and accompanying sales that surround a Hollywood blockbuster — where ticket sales often fall precipitously the following week. He says the controversy “creates interest, but at the same it hurts it,” because “most people don’t want to be challenged when they go to the movies.”

10272009_shortbus.jpg“Provocation is not what it used to be,” agrees Urman, who oversaw the release of several “hot potato” art movies in previous years. He refers to a film like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” as one that performed decently, but still pulled in half of what he expected. “And that was a film that was celebratory and fun and didn’t punish the viewer with sex — there was no genital mutilation — but we couldn’t get it booked in more than 80 theaters.” Urman cites reasons ranging from prudish exhibitors to changing audience taste. Speaking broadly, he says that after 9/11 moviegoers simply began to abandon challenging material across the board: “People were looking for comfort food.”

That’s not to say sex and controversy can’t stir up interest. Festival screenings of “Antichrist” — where audience members passed out and furious debate was sparked — helped to increase the film’s profile. “It definitely helped,” says Werner. “A typical movie that doesn’t get rave reviews doesn’t get this amount of business.” (Aggregation review site Metacritic gave “Antichrist” a mixed rating of 48.)

Really, it’s solid reviews that remain the most powerful motivator for arthouse audiences, at least according to distributors. Jon Gerrans, co-president of Strand Releasing, which has put out a fair share of racy movies, says, “Quality of content is still the prevalent draw, but quality plus sex is a killer combination.”

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.