Slate's Hollywood Economist: Onscreen Nudity Drops

Alex Chadwick talks with Slate contributor Edward J. Epstein about the decline of sexual nudity in films over the last few decades. Epstein says film studios are being pressured by the DVD and television markets to offer less salacious films.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

If there's a truism about Hollywood, it is that sex sells. Well, maybe it's not so true. While the porn industry is thriving, in mainstream movies, sex has become almost as rare as purple tuxedoes at the Oscars. That's because sexual nudity causes a lot of problems for studios these days, more than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Here to explain is Edward Jay Epstein. He writes on the economics of Hollywood for the online magazine Slate.

Edward, welcome back to the show. And why can't the studios just say, `We'll give this movie an R or an NC-17 rating' and just let people judge for themselves what they want to see?

EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN reporting:

Well, the problem is that people might want to judge for themselves, but there are certain gatekeepers. First of all, there are the theaters themselves that don't let anyone in under 18 for, let's say, an NC-17 film, so whether they want to go or not, they can't go. Secondly, and much more important, there's Wal-Mart, which now basically accounts for about one-third of all the DVD sales, and the DVDs are immensely more profitable than the movie theaters. And Wal-Mart will not allow, first of all, an NC-17 DVD in their store, but secondly, even if it's R-rated, they tend to put them in the adult section and try to get sanitized versions. And then third, there's television, which is another profit center for Hollywood, a very big profit center. And, you know, the networks can't put nudity on. So they don't make their money at the movie theaters. They make their money what they call downstream at Wal-Mart and the networks, and that's where they can't have nudity.

CHADWICK: When you have a movie that's out this summer, "The Wedding Crashers"--it's a big, big hit. It came with an R rating. What about that? Does that change anything?

EPSTEIN: No, it doesn't change anything because the theaters are not where they make their money. The delusion of the public is that you make money from people going to movie theaters. The studios lose money on the movie theaters and make it up downstream.

CHADWICK: And in DVD sales and sales to the television networks, nudity is a problem. You look in your Slate piece at the top 25 films of last year, and how many of those top 25--how many contain sexual nudity?

EPSTEIN: I don't think any contain sexual nudity. One, "Troy," got an R rating, but that was for violence. But violence is different than nudity. The stores will accept violent movies, kung fu movies like "Kill Bill," because they feel that basically the violence is integral to the story and can't be cut out.

CHADWICK: Within the creative community, the writers, the directors who work for these studios, is there any kind of sense that they should try to change this to make the movies more sexual, or are they accepting this?

EPSTEIN: Well, if you listen to their rhetoric, they're very much against any censoring or editing of their films. But every director accepts having their film edited for the airline edition and for the television edition. There are exceptions. Woody Allen, for example, won't allow his movies to be edited for airlines, but that might explain why the studios don't employ Woody Allen even though he's one of my favorite directors.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Edward Jay Epstein. He's the author of "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood." And he writes the Hollywood Economist column for the online magazine Slate.

Edward, thank you again.

EPSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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