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Erotic thrillers lose steam on big screen

Erotic genre weak

Tatiana Siegel
The last time "Basic Instinct" man-eater Catherine Tramell prowled the big screen, the studio erotic thriller was hitting boxoffice heights. The first "Instinct" took the top spot when it debuted in 1992, with an opening weekend of $15.1 million, the equivalent of $20.45 million in today's dollars.

By comparison, "Basic Instinct 2" limped into 10th place upon its arrival this weekend, grossing just $3.2 million.

In the years between the two films, a string of high-profile flops, including MGM's "Body of Evidence," United Artists' "Showgirls" and Paramount Pictures' "Jade," have all contributed to the cooling off of the erotic thriller, a genre that had once sizzled at the boxoffice.

Paul Verhoeven, director of the first "Basic Instinct" (which scored $353 million worldwide) as well as the widely ridiculed "Showgirls" (now regarded as something of a camp classic), attributes the genre's demise to the current American political climate.

"Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States," he said. "Look at the people at the top (of the government). We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends."

Scribe Nicholas Meyer, who was an uncredited writer on 1987's seminal sex-fueled cautionary tale "Fatal Attraction," agrees, noting that the genre's downfall coincides with the ascent of the conservative political movement.

"We're in a big puritanical mode," he said. "Now, it's like the McCarthy era, except it's not 'Are you a communist?' but 'Have you ever put sex in a movie?' "

For writers like Meyer, whose credits also include "The Human Stain," "Sommersby" and three "Star Trek" films, the erotic genre has become a tough sell for studios increasingly leery of adult-themed material. Despite receiving glowing coverage, he and co-writer Ron Roose have found no takers for their sexy screenplay "Spoils."

"Every studio that read it said, 'This is going to get made.' They just didn't want to be the one to make it," he said.

As writers find studios less receptive to the genre, fewer are attempting to craft the next "Body Heat" or "Sea of Love."

Mark Damon, once dubbed the king of eroticism for producing such steamy classics as 1986's "9 1/2 Weeks" and 1990's "Wild Orchid," said he stopped producing sex-steeped dramas because "I didn't find any scripts that were worth producing. The genre had exhausted itself."

During the golden era of the genre in the late '80s and early '90s, Damon estimates that 75% of the scripts he received were sex-laden thrillers, compared with only 2%-3% today.

"The agents are not requesting this type of script, so not many of them are being written anymore," said Damon, who more recently produced the Charlize Theron starrer "Monster." "That doesn't mean (the genre) can't be reborn again. I think for a good one with a good script, there is always an audience."

Meyer concurred, saying agents are dissuading their clients from the genre. "You can't blame them though because by and large, they are looking for projects that they think the studios will make,"

Despite the market downturn, "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Wild Orchid" scribe Zalman King is still penning erotic thrillers, including retro-sounding titles like "Nasty Girls Save the World." But he admits that the appetite for the genre has taken a hit, and he blames the international market.

"Korea used to be a big erotic thriller market (in the '80s and '90s). Japan, too. You used to be able to cobble deals together based on those markets, but it has become more difficult," said King, who also produced "9 1/2 Weeks" alongside Damon. "There used to be a way to finance erotic thrillers if you had the right cast based on the foreign market. The foreign market doesn't support it in the way that it used to. They are now embracing more mainstream fare."

Part of the problem, King said, is that agents are loath to put their actors and actresses in titillating fare despite the fact that Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone rocketed to fame thanks to memorable R-rated performances.

But in recent years, some high-profile actors have tackled the genre with mixed results. Meg Ryan, who made her career cultivating a girl-next-door persona, teamed with Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion in 2003 for the titillating "In the Cut." Ryan's performance was widely panned, and the Screen Gems film was a boxoffice dud, earning less than $19 million worldwide.

But Diane Lane's 2002 turn as an adulterous wife in Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful" revived her career, earning her a best actress Oscar nomination. The 20th Century Fox film also proved to be a surprise hit, grossing $122 million worldwide.

Nevertheless, the studios have only a handful of erotic thrillers in development. They include the Jim Carrey starrer "The Number 23" at New Line Cinema, the Jennifer Garner starrer "Sabbatical" at Touchstone Pictures and the "Basic Instinct"/Hitchcock homage "Need," which revolves around a psychiatrist, a patient and an extramarital affair.

For producer JC Spink, the genre's demise has little to do with politics, scripts or willing talent and everything to do with the Internet, which became ubiquitous in American homes around the same time studio executives were suffering through such debacles as "Body of Evidence," "Showgirls" and "Jade."

"Why pay $10 to see something at the movies that you can see for free on the Internet?" Spink asked. "I think the genre is suffering because sex is more pervasive in our society now than it was 10 years ago, from Vanity Fair ads to reality TV. I mean, there's porn stars on reality TV."

Still, Verhoeven said he would be game to helm a studio erotic thriller again if the right script comes along.

"If there would be a script written that had the quality of 'Basic Instinct,' or if Joe Eszterhas would be willing to dig himself into some new material and he would present it to me or a studio, then I would be highly interested," said Verhoeven, who is in postproduction on "Black Book," a World War II thriller with erotic elements that was fully financed by Europeans. "I like erotic thrillers. But in the last 10 years, I haven't found any scripts that interested me."
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