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Sex doesn’t sell tickets. Yeah right

A new report Sex doesn’t sell—nor impress! Content, box office, critics, and awards in mainstream cinema, published in this month’s Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts journal, claims much but delivers its findings off the back of some dodgy methodology.

The premise of the study is that sex, or more specifically women taking their clothes off in film, does not affect, ahem, performance. The 914 films analysed, all released between 2001 and 2005, indicated to the report’s authors that “sex and nudity do not, on the average, boost box office performance, earn critical acclaim, or win major awards”. (Apart from at the Golden Globes, which might say more about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association than it does about films.)

It’s an interesting theory, but one that is not possible to prove or disprove because, although the report offers up some numbers, it’s based on flawed methodology. There is no way to provide a control for the research.

Comparing movies in which (for gratuitous or more artistically-justifiable reasons) the wardrobe department has been the victim of budget cuts with movies where the participants remain buttoned up does not supply an ‘apples and apples’ comparison.

Movies are not simultaneously released in ‘tit-free’ and ‘tits out’ versions, in cinemas or on video, so there is no way of knowing whether, say, Titanic’s sales were boosted (or diminished) by the absence of Kate Winslet’s attire. One would suspect Kate Winslet’s breasts were not a major driving factor in determining viewers’ decisions whether or not to sit through Titanic, but suspicions are not proof.

There’s also no way of proving whether said breasts increased or decreased the number of awards and nominations the film garnered, but with fourteen Oscar nominations and eleven wins it’s doubtful.

It is a fact that those specifically seeking to watch females sans attire increasingly have options other than going to the cinema available to them. It’s also likely that some films that contain nudity, Knocked Up and Rush Hour 3 for example, were never going to be – even in their authors’ wildest dreams – either blockbusters or Oscar contenders. Measuring how they performed against other films in their genres might have been a more statistically valid approach.

However, this is largely American research, from the land where facts and good stories don’t interfere with one another. Want to invade Afghanistan or Iraq? Suspicions are a fine justification. Would you like creationism with that? Absolutely. Bare breasts? Hmmm, what would Jesus do?

There’s also a wider criticism to be made of the methodology, in that it could be applied to any (relatively small) contributing factor to a film and produce the same findings. If you had the inclination and a sufficiently high boredom threshold, you could probably gather enough data to prove that films with donkeys don’t win many awards or make good blockbusters, at least beyond The Greatest Story Ever Told and Shrek.

The period of the study is questionable as a representative period. It represents a five year period and almost a thousand films, so it not a highly selective choice, but it does coincide with an event that had a long-lasting impact on the US film industry and the nation at large: 9/11. Directly it led to a number of films in development and pre-production being scrapped or some completed films having their releases postponed. It also changed appetites and ushered in a period of moral conservatism under President George Bush jnr.

The Best Picture Oscar winners during the period of the study were A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, LOTR 3, Million Dollar Baby and Crash. Little in the way of nudity and sex to be viewed but, discounting the pre-9/11 A Beautiful Mind, lots of violence (including sexual and racial violence), which perhaps suited the mood of the times, in the US at least.

Outside the period of the study, American Beauty won in 1999, The Departed in 2006. Both contained nudity. Of the losing Best Picture finalists 2001-05, a third contained nudity.

However, by the time a picture gets to the rarefied heights of being an Best Picture Oscar nominee, it seems silly to suggest that had Brokeback Mountain or Munich been made without nudity, one of them might have pipped Crash for the precious metal.

As the study is primarily concerned with female nudity, a nose through the Best Actress categories might also support the report’s argument, but again – outside of the limited study period – it doesn’t hold up well.

Since the early 90’s, one third of Oscar Best Actress awards have gone to d?shabill?es including, this year, Kate Winslet (The Reader) and Best Supporting Actress Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) for a non-nude but very sexually active role.

So, a nice try by the fun police, but no cigar.

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