Been there, seen that: Does sex still sell movies?

Once, the sight of a Hollywood star's bottom or breasts was rare and exciting. Now they're all at it – and the results bore us. It's time for the marketing men to think more cleverly, says Tim Walker

Want to see Anne Hathaway's boobs? I thought as much.

And so did Fox, the studio behind Love and Other Drugs, a new film opening in Britain at the end of this month, which features not only a frequently topless Hathaway, but also – for the ladies – plenty of her co-star Jake Gyllenhaal's pert, naked bottom. Eager to make the most of its significant investment in celebrity nudity, Fox sent the two gorgeous stars on a high-profile publicity round to talk about being naked, being naked together, and being naked together on film.

Among the many interviews Hathaway and Gyllenhaal gave on the subject of their sex scenes was one for the magazine Entertainment Weekly (circulation: 1.8 million), which printed three separate cover photographs of the pair in the altogether. A comedy-drama based on the true-ish story of a Viagra salesman who falls for a beautiful Parkinson's sufferer, the film's US reviews were middling-to-decent, and made much of its sexual content. And yet, Love and Other Drugs failed to break even the $10m mark in its opening weekend at the US box office. On movie blogs and in studio boardrooms, its underwhelming performance has prompted a once-unthinkable question: if even Anne and Jake naked can't put bums on seats, then does sex still sell?

Thing is, if you want to see Hathaway and Gyllenhaal having sex, you could just go to Google and search for "Anne Hathaway+Brokeback Mountain". One of the first results you'll come across is a clip from one of Brokeback's heterosexual love scenes, in which Anne plays Jake's somewhat forward future wife, mounting him, topless, in the back of a car. In fact, you can already find screen shots of the pair's bare parts from Love and Other Drugs if you search long and hard. I know; I've done the research.

The internet has provided us with free access to many things we previously expected to pay good money for, including pictures of movie stars' breasts. Like music or, say, journalism, those images have been devalued as a result. Ten years ago, Halle Berry was given an extra half-million dollars to go topless in the turgid heist thriller Swordfish. The brief scene had no bearing on the plot (she was merely sunbathing) but became the movie's biggest – well, only – selling point.

No studio would spend so much on such a commonplace commodity today, and no audience would bother paying to see it in a theatre. Once, a glimpse of Demi Moore's jugs could garner $266m in takings for a film as transparently awful as Indecent Proposal (1993). When Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs to a perspiring police interrogator in 1992's Basic Instinct, it became a news story worth $352m at the box office. Now, you can see so-called "nipple slips" on the Daily Mail website, while a star need only climb from a taxi to have her crotch splashed across the cover of a magazine.

"Part of the appeal historically of seeing one of your favourite actors naked or having sex on screen was that it was rare," agrees Jay Fernandez, senior film reporter at The Hollywood Reporter. "Today, you can trip over a crack in the sidewalk and stumble upon sexual content. It's not special any more, and so it doesn't draw you into the movie theatre."

The advent of the sex tape, and the regular online leakage of one pop star or another's intimate picture texts, has demystified celebrity sex and demolished the market in men's publications. Meanwhile, other media have become increasingly permissive. In the US, such hit prime-time dramas such as Californication, True Blood and Boardwalk Empire are more than comfortable with their stars' bodies. Here, even the pre-watershed X Factor final was slathered in explicit sexual imagery.

Yet Hollywood cinema remains, for the most part, rather prudish. Inserting a semi-nude scene into a movie without any narrative justification is clearly no longer cost-effective, but why are there so few studio films with sexual themes, in which sex and nudity would come naturally? Everybody says sex sells, so why is nobody selling it? Love and Other Drugs is a rarity: nowadays, most such movies are either European, or independent productions with total budgets comparable to Berry's breast-based pay rise.

Well, for one thing, there's the ratings system. While cartoonish violence creeps ever further into films deemed suitable for young people, the rules on sexual content remain stringent. And stricter ratings are a big blow to the box office. In recent weeks, independent producer Harvey Weinstein arrayed his lawyers on behalf of awards contender Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. The film was originally given the most adult NC-17 rating by Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but Weinstein argued successfully that it shouldn't be punished for its realistic depiction of oral sex, when more "fantastical" sex scenes such as those in Basic Instinct received the lower R rating.

Gosling, for his part, told the MPAA that to give the film an NC-17 rating was "misogynistic". The classification board, he said, had decided it was "OK supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex".

No major studio would seek to pick such a fight, and why would they bother? After all, the failure of Love and Other Drugs is more than matched by other recent R-rated films that featured sexual content. There was last year's Chloe, for example, an adulterous thriller starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and the up-and-coming Amanda Seyfried, all of whom have impressive commercial and critical track records. It sank without trace. Also in 2009, there was Jennifer's Body, starring Seyfried again, this time alongside Transformers bombshell Megan Fox. That, too, failed to muster a crowd.

The Hollywood marketing playbook divides its audience into four "quadrants": men under 25, women under 25, older men, and older women. Studios tend to make films designed to appeal to at least two of these groups. Seyfried is popular with both female quadrants for her slushy romantic movies, but in Chloe she portrayed a predatory bisexual tearing apart a marriage, a sure-fire way to alienate her fan base.

Jennifer's Body, a teen sex horror, might seem appealing to horny teenage boys – except that its writer, Diablo Cody, made very clear that it was a more complex work than that: a tale of female friendship and empowerment. The boys stayed away in droves (and so did the girls).

In truth, explicit sexual content is guaranteed to appeal to only one quadrant: young men. For everyone else, it can actually be a turn-off. Studios build their slates around big-budget "tent-pole" films that appeal to every variety of moviegoer. No movie mogul with their eye on the bottom line is going to take a risk on an adult sexual drama when they can make the sexless Twilight or Avatar instead.

Today, a studio's slate – its annual schedule – is more finely tuned than ever. Films that fail to perform in their opening weekend are considered flops and pulled from screens to make room for the next week's release. Thanks again to the internet, the home entertainment market has cratered. Basic Instinct was, in fact, a slow-burner that built its success first on word-of-mouth in cinemas, and then on VHS.

Few films now have a chance to do the same. A bleak tale of sexual and marital jealousy such as Chloe; a smart, feminist take on the high school slasher genre such as Jennifer's Body; even an arthouse cross-over such as Blue Valentine – in short, almost any film with adult sexual content – is unlikely to enjoy a big opening weekend on the basis of its marketing campaign alone. They need time to build word-of-mouth; time they're now denied.

In a world saturated with free sexual imagery, then, what hope is there for sex as a selling point? Hollywood's answer to declining audience numbers for blockbusters has, of late, been near-uniform: 3D. "Nobody has done the 3D raunchy sex film, in the mould of The Hangover or Basic Instinct," Fernandez allows. "But My Bloody Valentine 3D had some gratuitous nudity [and more than tripled its budget at the box office].

"For younger guys who like that kind of movie anyway, it was a draw. The producers said when they were making it, 'We gotta have a sequence of a naked woman running around in 3D', and they did. There is a seven-minute sequence of a semi-naked woman being chased, and you can bet that there were some second-weekend viewers who went based on the fact that someone came out of the first weekend and said, 'Dude, you gotta see this!'"

Then again, maybe sex never really sold movies at all. Those studio productions that still make a success of sex are sold on the basis of something else, such as horror, or comedy: Sex and the City, for example, or the films of Judd Apatow. Even Basic Instinct surrounded its many sex scenes with a compelling thriller (though, admittedly, it remains impossible to fathom the success of Indecent Proposal).

Love and Other Drugs, believes Jacquie Jordan, a Hollywood film and television producer, failed by selling itself with sex rather than comedy. "Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal have tremendous star power," she says. "But I looked at the trailer and the title, and I kept asking: 'What is that movie about?' It confused its potential audience. The book it was based on, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, had a far more interesting title – which would have made more sense for a sexual comedy. But Love and Other Drugs sounds to me like they meet, they play hard to get, they fall in love and it turns out she's terminally ill. Shoot me now...

"There's a difference between a movie being 'sexy' and pushing 'sex'," Jordan goes on. "I don't think moviegoers go to movies for 'sex'. They can watch that at home. But 'sexy' sells in movies: Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie? That's 'sexy'. In terms of Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, their appearing nude on magazine covers probably does more to sell the magazine than it does the film."

For definitive proof that sex itself doesn't sell, take yourself back to 1999, before the internet age began in earnest, when Stanley Kubrick persuaded the then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to star in his sexually charged drama Eyes Wide Shut. Even the trailer was a sex scene. One of the greatest directors in the world and its two biggest stars, having sex! The film's Warner Bros backers must have told themselves it couldn't fail. But it could, and it did.

After this article was published, it came to my attention that I’d failed to acknowledge one of its primary sources; this post by Kyle Buchanan, movie editor for the magnificent Vulture blog:

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