Culture: Why pornography doesn't always pay

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kevin Smith, the writer and director of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, pays tribute to Judd Apatow for proving that sexually explicit films can make over a hundred million dollars at the box office. Without the success of The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007), according to Smith, he would not have been able to make a mainstream, commercial film about a couple of friends who decide to make a porn movie.

"If I was making this movie 10 years ago, I'd be making it for two million bucks and it would only be released in the top 50 markets," he says.

In fact, he may have spoken too soon. The raunchy subject matter of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which opened in the UK on Friday, created several problems for the Weinstein Company when it came to releasing the film in America.

The original poster, which strongly suggested Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks engaging in oral sex, was judged too explicit by the Motion Picture Association of America and had to be withdrawn, despite the characters being fully clothed. More financially damaging perhaps was the film initially receiving an NC-17 rating – it was only granted an R certificate on appeal. As a result, several cinema chains refused to show it.

It is possible that some of these setbacks were orchestrated by Harvey Weinstein as a way of attracting publicity for the film, but if so the strategy wasn't 100 per cent effective. The film opened on 2,735 screens, but only took $10.6 million on its opening weekend, which was slightly below expectations. In spite of its fairly modest production budget – $25 million – it will need to do well internationally if the Weinstein Company is going to recoup its investment.

So is America not yet ready for a mainstream comedy about pornography? It is true that there were numerous references to porn in both Knocked Up and Superbad, both of which did well, but the characters in those films were consumers of pornography, not people who actually work in the adult entertainment industry.

My sense is that it is now perfectly socially acceptable among Americans under 40 to admit to using pornography, but to be involved in its actual production – particularly in front of the camera – is still taboo.