Complimentary movie passes to Black Snake Moan have been showing up at the gym all week, its steamy sex-and-redemption storyline apparently meant to appeal to the weight-rack and Creatine-supplement demo. Or maybe it's just the ad's trashy-looking picture of star Christina Ricci wrapped in a 40-pound chain.
"Sex as a way to market movies: Who knew?" commented my trainer guy, glancing at the movie pass. And then: "What makes this different is, it expects to teach us something, too."
A trend among many of the 122 American and international feature films at this year's Sundance Festival, movies upped the ante with sex -- but justified the content by positioning themselves as "Important Message Pictures."
Paramount Vantage's Moan, which premiered at Sundance and opens in theaters March 2, is just one example. In Los Angeles, at least, it's been hard to miss the ubiquitous billboards, featuring neo-Richard Roundtree Samuel L. Jackson as a has-been Bluesman turned self-styled sex reformer set on making the battered town nympho see the error in her ways -- by chaining her to a rusty old radiator and quoting Scripture till she realizes Justin Timberlake is the only man she truly loves. But according to the film's cast and crew, it's also about post-traumatic stress, the affects of childhood sexual abuse, and the overall exploitation of women.
Another Sundance film that piqued media interest with its amped-up-sex-for-a-message was Hounddog. As if anyone missed the controversy, the film includes a subtle yet obvious scene in which 12-year-old actress Dakota Fanning is raped by a neighborhood delivery man - as well as scene in which Fanning seductively teases two younger boys with a snake. For a few days in January, the horror was palpable. "How could they?" family focused activists cried, demanding answers and Federal investigations. References were made to Roman Polanski and calls were placed to Tatum O'Neil.
It seems that Hounddog would be just as powerful without subjecting its impressionable lead actress -- and audiences -- to an actual on-screen rape, regardless of how understated. But according to director Deborah Kampmeier, these scenes are indeed necessary to effectively share her character's cycle of abuse, motherlessness, and the power of female sexuality.
In some instances, however, graphic sex does play an integral role: it has to be there to make the movie work at all. Take Teeth, for example, director Jess Weixler's female-empowerment horror comedy, which was picked up at Sundance by The Weinstein Company and Lionsgate for $2.5 million. Unlike Hounddog, its storyline relies on an unnaturally toothy feminine organ in something of a lead role. But because there is some humor in that "vagina dente" concept, Teeth is likely to be more accessible to audiences -- the difference between a message being shoved down one's throat and gently massaged.
Another Sundance premiere, and due out this April, is director Marco Kreuzpaintner's thriller, Trade, which stars Kevin Kline as a down-and-out cop on the trail of a young Mexican girl who has been kidnapped by an underground Russian sex-slave network. Based on a New York Times Magazine expose by Peter Landesman, sex would be difficult to avoid here. And though the film does most certainly have a message -- in addition to Sundance, it was screened at this year's young Christian-centric Passion Conference '07 -- it's purportedly been adapted for commercial appeal with a bit of sensational violence and drug-use.
Of all the sex-for-a-message Sundance efforts, perhaps the most difficult to sell -- and the hardest to position as a date movie -- is Zoo, the sympathetic dramatization of the infamous Enumclaw, WA men who conducted loving affairs with horses -- until one of them died. It's just another, legitimate way of being in love, the film maintains.
"Did you hear about this one?" I asked my trainer guy. "You know what it's called?"
"Of course," he said. "The Aristrocrats."
Maybe it won't be so hard to sell after all, I thought. Maybe it just needs a little repositioning.
PR Babylon is a regular online column by PRWeek's LA bureau chief, Randi Schmelzer