The Telegraph by Elizabeth Day
It is the news that a particular kind of movie mogul has been dreading: sex no longer sells. A new study has found that films containing explicit
sex or nudity do much worse at the box office, earning nearly 40 per cent less on average than more wholesome movies.
An analysis of 1,120 cinematic releases over the past four years has shown that films without sex scenes, such as Disney's Finding
Nemo or Toy Story 2, earned an average of $41.1 million (£22.3 million), while films with sex have grossed 38 per cent less with an average of $16.7 million.
In 2003, the final year of the study, the gap was even wider, with films without sex earning
more than double those with explicit scenes. The survey also demonstrated that an increasing number of films carry a moral message, with 63 per cent of the top-grossing films since 2001 portraying edifying storylines that follow uplifting and redemptive
In contrast, films with an "immoral or negative content" such as Hannibal, the 2001 horror sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, or the bawdy American Pie teen-trilogy, experience far lower box office returns.
The findings, taken
from an analysis of box office earnings in the US, were compiled for the Christian Film and Television Commission, a viewers' campaign group, and published in its monthly magazine Movieguide.
The figures show that in 2003, for example, 78 films with
no sex averaged $37.6 million; 95 films with implied sex averaged $32.1 million; 71 films with briefly depicted sex averaged $25 million and 35 films with extensive, excessive or graphic sex averaged only $17.1 million.
Films from 2003 that did not
depict nudity also fared better, garnering an average of $34.6 million at the box office compared with the $11.8 million raised by films which did include nude scenes. Similar patterns also emerged for the box office returns for the previous three years.
Dr Ted Baehr, the chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, said: "This is a worldwide phenomenon. We found that international figures followed the same logic, that the good guys finish first. Clearly, sex does not sell as well as
the mass media wants us to believe.
"We've shown that there are big audiences for films that meet the family criteria. The other attraction for movie makers is that it costs less to make a character-driven drama than a big blow-up starring Arnold
Although some of the disparity can be explained by the ratings given to films - for example, an "18" rating would substantially limit the size of the audience by excluding younger cinema-goers or family groups - there
is considerable overlap.
Even family films that imply sex or depict it briefly are trounced by their no-sex rivals at the box office. For example, the 2002 release My Big Fat Greek Wedding, was rated "PG" for Parental Guidance and featured
passionate kissing, a naked couple in bed and several allusions to sex.
Despite being marketed as a family-friendly film, it grossed £13 million in the UK, approximately 46 per cent less than Spiderman, which contained no sex scenes but was given a
"12" certificate. It grossed £28 million in the UK.
The rise in popularity of films that are moral in tone looks set to continue after the success of Mel Gibson's film of Jesus Christ's last days, The Passion. Despite the dialogue being
entirely in Latin and Aramaic, it has grossed more than $300 million since its release last month in America. It opened in UK cinemas on March 14.
Sheridan Morley, the broadcaster and critic, believes that British audiences were tiring of action
thrillers. "I am surprised by these findings because they go against all the wisdom of recent Hollywood," he said. "It just shows, once again, how out of touch Hollywood is with what the audience wants.
"They are still making
Schwarzenegger-type epics when it is quite clear that we would much rather be looking at Merchant Ivory films. The audience is usually ahead of the film makers and I would think that the American audience is representative of the world audience.
"Films have been totally mechanised in recent years and are no longer about people. Now we've got so hi-tech that we've lost the sense of real human relationships. Cinema needs to get back to people."
Will Self, a film critic and columnist for London's Evening Standard, dismissed the findings as "politically tendentious. The 'moral' films that they examine tend to be films with huge publicity campaigns, merchandising tie-ins and largely aimed
at family audiences, so that is far more likely to explain their box office success", he said.
Mr Self added that Americans were more likely to enjoy films with a religious or moral content because Christian belief remained much more entrenched
in the US. "We've certainly seen that with the box office success of The Passion in America, which is unlikely to be repeated here," he said. "We are a secular country, thank God.