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Bare Breasts Don’t Beget Boffo Box Office

A new analysis of five years of box-office data finds nudity and sexuality do not, on average, increase a film's profitability or prestige.
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Want your movie to make more money? Throw in a gratuitous sex scene. At least, that seems to be the working assumption among certain studio executives, who assume a flash of female flesh will increase the box-office take by attracting young male audiences.

It turns out they haven't been keeping abreast of the latest research.

"Analyses of 914 films released between 2001 and 2005 indicated that sex and nudity do not, on the average, boost box office performance, earn critical acclaim or win major awards," reports a new study titled "Sex Doesn't Sell — Nor Impress." According to the researchers, sex and nudity were negatively correlated with a film's net profits from domestic distribution and had no positive impact on a picture's popularity or prestige according to a wide variety of measures.

"I have yet to see a way of crunching the numbers where sex/nudity has a positive relationship with box office, even controlling for MPAA rating or budget," reports co-author Anemone Cerridwen, an independent scholar based in Vancouver, British Columbia. "'Sex sells' is a myth, at least for this database."

"When I presented these results at European Science Days this summer, I was struck by how hard it is to overcome preconceptions about the box-office consequences of highly graphic sexual content," says co-author Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis. "But not all truisms are true."

"The most the market can apparently handle is PG-13 sexuality, and even there, there may be a loss relative to PG or even G," he adds. Their paper is published in the November issue of the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Cerridwen and Simonton analyzed "the bulk of the films that were widely distributed in mainstream theaters" during the five-year period, looking at box office performance (domestic and international), critical evaluations and awards. Using criterion established by the Web site Screen It, they calculated the extent of potentially objectionable material, including sex and nudity.

"It is apparent at once that sex doesn't sell by any of the four box office criteria, including the rough indicator of U.S. net," the researchers write. (The other criteria are gross receipts for the U.S., U.K. and worldwide.) They add that "the adverse effect of sex is actually greatest for world gross," which suggests the appetite for sexual content is actually lower outside the U.S.

In addition, they found sex and nudity have a negative relationship with critical evaluations of films (as measured by ratings in DVD guides). "In the case of movie awards," they add, "sex/nudity does have a small positive correlation with the Golden Globes, an appreciation not shared with the Oscars." (Insert your own snarky comment about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association here.)

Simonton considers their findings particularly striking in light of the fact that "sex is cheap with respect to production costs. Female actors can be hired for less than male actors, and can be urged (i.e. coerced?) into displaying more sexual nudity/activity; and for various reasons, sex scenes may be less expensive to shoot. And yet, mainstream cinema still can't get an additional buck out of the practice."

If and when this lack of a payout comes to the attention of producers, the amount of needless nudity in films may decrease. But that doesn't mean Hollywood will cease to profit from catering to our ignoble instincts.

"In contrast (to sex and nudity)," the researchers note, "violence tends to have a positive effect on U.S. and world gross. Only the U.K. consumer seems immune to this particular content."