Biz leaves salacious stories to the tabloids

Major studios have banished the R-rated erotic thriller from their slates. Bigscreen and smallscreen producers are largely ignoring the tawdry sex scandals that hog the headlines. And A-list nudity is so yesteryear.

As Hollywood’s appetite for the salacious has waned to that of a celibate monk, it begs the question: Does sex still sell?

The scandals du jour involving Arnold Schwarzenegger and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn are being met by industryites with a tepid response. Projects that Schwarzenegger had lined up to revive his Hollywood career have dried up as well.

While procedurals such as the “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises often adopt storylines from newspaper headlines, the infidelities of Tiger Woods (numerous mistresses and call girls), former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (prostitutes) and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (a mistress) — toname a few bigger cases in the last few years with elements ripe for exploitation — have fueled media frenzies but have inspired just one high-profile project: the Spitzer doc “Client 9,” which is as much about the Wall Street financial meltdown. HBO tried to mount a telefilm based on the rape case against the 2006 Duke U. lacrosse team, with Kasi Lemmons writing and directing, but the pay cabler eventually balked at the project as the real lives of the story’s principals continued to take labyrinthine turns (the accuser was recently charged with murdering her boyfriend).

In the past, scandal-driven stories regularly spawned quickie books and telefilms, and often bidding wars for the rights. Nearly two decades ago, Long Island Lolita Amy Fisher spawned a trio of competing TV movies on NBC, ABC and CBS, all of which drew huge ratings — 19.1 for NBC, 19.4 for ABC and 15.8 for CBS.

So what accounts for the industry’s lack of enthusiasm?

When it comes to fact-based stories, Hollywood takes its cues from the publishing world. And in recent years, publishers have become less enamored with the indiscretions of the powerful and famous.

“Because of the immediacy of today’s news cycle, the sex scandal stories have a lot more value to a tabloid or a newspaper — where they will drive Web traffic — than to a book audience,” says Gotham-based lit agent David Vigliano, who has enjoyed success taking a number of ripped-from-the-headlines stories to the bestseller lists. “A book takes six to nine months. Plus, publishers tend to turn up their noses at those kinds of books. They like to think they are publishing literature, not exploiting someone’s situation.”

Non-scripted TV has turned into a Mobius strip of onscreen scandal spilling out into the tabloid press and then back again — a lucrative mechanism that dilutes the public’s appetite for more than they can get on TV, print and the Internet.

One notable exception in the publishing world involves 2008 presidential hopeful John Edwards’ extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, which resulted in an illegitimate child. The story has generated two successful books: Andrew Young’s “The Politician” and the late Elizabeth Edwards’ “Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts Facing Life’s Adversities,” which dealt with her husband’s affair and themes of forgiveness.

“There is a very limited market for the straightforward (sex scandal) story,” Vigliano says. “Take the Schwarzenegger case. If it’s just the details of the affair written by the maid, there is limited appeal, a limited shelf life. It would come and go very quickly.

“The reason why Elizabeth Edwards’ book was so successful is she is a very sympathetic character. If Maria Shriver did a book, it would have a lot of appeal.”

Young’s book was a tougher sell. Far less likable than Elizabeth Edwards, the former campaign staffer claimed paternity of Hunter’s child, then later admitted it was part of a cover-up. Thomas Dunne Books was the only publisher to bid.

Nevertheless, “The Politician” became a New York Times bestseller and piqued the interest of Oscar-winning scribe Aaron Sorkin, who is adapting the material for the bigscreen as a directing vehicle. Sorkin has remained tight-lipped about the project since optioning it last summer, when he called it “an extraordinary story filled with motivations, decisions and consequences that would have lit Shakespeare up.”

“The Politician’s” prospects were also buoyed by the fact that Young and Sorkin are both repped by WME’s Ari Emanuel, who took a personal interest in the story. Emanuel’s brother Rahm served under Edwards’ presidential rival Barack Obama.

“The Politician” notwithstanding, Hollywood nowadays prefers its sex scandals as a backstory rather than the story itself. Kim Kardashian has parlayed a leaked sex tape into a lucrative multimedia career for herself and her whole family. The Lifetime telepic “Northern Lights” benefited from tabloid interest in an extramarital affair between stars LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian. Details of the secret affair were leaked days before the preem, which became a ratings star for the network.

And who could discount the success of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” a film that launched a thousand tabloid headlines thanks to an offscreen affair between a then-married Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie?

With a $478 million worldwide haul, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” remains Jolie’s biggest box office hit for a non-animated film. For Pitt, the pic marks the second biggest success of his career.

“You can’t really argue with that math,” quips one insider.

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