Ads’ basic instinct: Show-it-all and sell

“We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see.”

These are the words of a Las Vegas stripper in “Showgirls,” but they might also reflect the views of marketing execs at MGM/UA, who are showing plenty as they stoke the already considerable hype surrounding the NC-17 film.

Trading on the notoriety of Sharon Stone’s crotch shot in “Basic Instinct” – from the same writer-director team of Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven – an R-rated, bosomy “Showgirls” trailer promises that “last time they took you to the edge; this time, they’re taking you all the way.”

Meanwhile, another Eszterhas-penned release hitting theaters in October, Paramount’s “Jade,” is backed by print ads picturing star Linda Fiorentino, her arched back to the camera, alluding to the possibility that she’s receiving oral sex from a mostly unseen male, presumably co-star David Caruso.

Wait a minute. Isn’t the viewing public supposed to be ’90s-style conservative, almost puritanical, as evidenced by the furor raised by Calvin Klein’s latest ad campaign? Those ads, far less explicit than the studios’ or Klein’s previous outings, nonetheless ignited a firestorm as critics likened them to kiddie porn.

Like it or not, the rules are different in Hollywood, where even the kids in “Kids” didn’t attract the ire that Klein did.

In ads for “Showgirls,” an artfully revealing shot of star Elizabeth Berkley, showing what appears to be a never-ending leg, has stopped freeway drivers and newspaper readers. And an eight-minute trailer featuring “provocative” (read: nudity-filled) footage is being offered free this week at major video chains, except for Blockbuster.

The $38 million “Showgirls,” by far the more anticipated release, opens Sept. 22, capping weeks of leering publicity over its hot-to-trot plot about lap-dancing strippers. Much has been made of the pic’s NC-17 tag, the first for a mainstream studio pic since Universal’s artier “Henry & June” in 1990. (Others handed the NC-17 have declined the rating, releasing their films without one.)

Trailers have titillated audiences for weeks. A teaser appearing in theaters since early summer promised a film so erotic, dangerous and controversial, “we can’t show you a thing,” although it does feature a single shot – of Berkley licking a pole. Last month’s restricted, or “red-band,” trailer shows far more, including plenty of bare breasts, cat fights and the rough outlines of the film’s story, depicting Berkley’s move to Vegas, her hiring as a dancer and her gradual move to the seamier side of the Strip.

Sly strategy

Despite their eager embrace of the rating, which has limited the pic’s TV advertising opportunities, studio execs somewhat disingenuously argue the NC-17 tag isn’t being used as bait.

“I don’t think people will see the movie based on controversy,” said Gerry Rich, exec VP, worldwide marketing, at MGM/UA, acknowledging the publicity “certainly hasn’t hurt.”

“We’re selling the content of the film, and also the celebrity of the filmmakers involved, as opposed to the idea of selling it as an NC-17 film.”

Some exhibitors peg box office prospects as decent, although one, who declined to book the film because of a policy against the rating, dismissed it as “not even a good stag movie; if it wasn’t NC-17, it would never get any interest out of you, me or anyone else.”

Still, the studio is targeting its likely audience of 18-to-34-year-old men, evidenced by its decision to place ads near box scores in Labor Day newspaper sports sections, and to deploy an extensive outdoor campaign meant to turn heads of commuters.

TV blurbs OK

TV spots – without the explicit nudity, of course – were accepted by all major networks except NBC, which still allowed its O&O stations to run them. But none will run them before 10 p.m., an hour later than the standard cutoff for R films.

Mindful of its burden to help ensure the rating is enforced at theaters, MGM/UA will foot the bill for an extra usher to be stationed outside many of the 1,000 auditoriums screening “Showgirls,” “so people can’t sneak in from another film,” said Larry Gleason, president of worldwide distribution.

Paramount’s “Jade” also promises sex, but seemingly as window-dressing for a more conventional thriller, the second attempt to launch a film career for “NYPD Blue” star David Caruso, who, curiously, isn’t pictured in initial print ads.

Fiorentino (the seductress of “The Last Seduction”), plays a clinical psychologist by day and hooker by night, who is suspected of murder in the “psycho-sexual thriller,” due Oct. 13. A trailer coyly hints at “secret fantasies” and “secret lives” that “go too far,” but clips clearly label it an action thriller.

‘Basic’ brouhaha

Buoyed by “Basic Instinct’s” marketing playbook, which parlayed ample publicity over explicit sex scenes into a $100 million-plus worldwide box office, despite less than positive reviews, Par is hoping for similar success.

Paramount officially declined comment on marketing plans for “Jade,” directed by “Exorcist” helmer William Friedkin, except to say the film is being positioned as “a thriller basically set against a tapestry of sensuality.” Asked whether the studio could explain what was going on in the print ad, a spokesman replied, “I don’t think so.”

But a studio insider distanced its approach from MGM’s. “In the audiovisual campaign for ‘Showgirls,’ the plot is very visible, so to speak,” the exec said. “Our trailer does not resolve anything. It keeps the mystery.”

Also a mystery are prospects for “Jade,” hampered by the disappointing performance of “Kiss of Death,” Caruso’s feature debut, and for “Showgirls,” still a question mark once the curiosity factor wears off.

Anita M. Busch contributed to this report.

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