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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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