In a world where online porn is available 24/7, it’s hard to believe that erotic movies like SHOWGIRLS once drew audiences to theatres.
Years earlier, X-rated films like 1972’s DEEP THROAT were made on shoestring budgets and did well theatrically because that was the only way to see such movies. By the time SHOWGIRLS opened on Sept. 22, 1995, from United Artists & Carolco Pictures, the goal was to take NC-17-rated sex to new artistic levels.
Director Paul Verhoeven & screenwriter Joe Eszterhas scored big with their 1992 erotic thriller BASIC INSTINCT. Made for about $49M, BASIC did $117.7M domestic & $352.9M worldwide. They hoped boxoffice lightning would strike again with SHOWGIRLS, which cost about $45M. It opened, however, to $8.1M at just 1,388 theatres and wound up with $20.4M. A key problem was not being able to book enough theatres since multiplexes in shopping malls had leasing contracts that prohibited them from showing X, NC-17, or even unrated movies.
Eszterhas came up with the idea for SHOWGIRLS while vacationing at his home in Maui. In classic Hollywood style, he scribbled it on a napkin. He had no trouble getting a $2M advance to write the screenplay and got another $1.7M when the project was green-lighted.
Verhoeven had passed on SHOWGIRLS because he didn’t like Eszterhas’s script and wanted to do an action-adventure about the Crusades, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That project was scrapped because Carolco couldn’t afford to finance both CRUSADE & the action-adventure CUTTHROAT ISLAND, from director Renny Harlin (CLIFFHANGER).
Carolco had already put $10 million into developing CRUSADE & Eszterhas had been given nearly $4M for SHOWGIRLS. Verhoeven knew Carolco, with whom he’d made BASIC INSTINCT, was now facing bankruptcy. By agreeing to direct SHOWGIRLS, he saved the day.
Verhoeven’s deal let him deliver a movie that would start out as an NC-17. That rating had previously only resulted after screenings for the MPAA made it unavoidable. In exchange for creative control, Verhoeven gave up 70% of his $6M fee and would only get his remaining 30% if the film succeeded.
Fortunately for Verhoeven, despite tanking theatrically, SHOWGIRLS became a huge hit thanks to home video, where NC-17 was a big selling point. It did over $100M in VHS rentals, making it one of MGM/UA Home Entertainment’s all-time video bestsellers. Ironically, that wouldn’t have happened if Warner Home Video, then the distributor for MGM/UA’s tapes, hadn’t passed on the controversial SHOWGIRLS. That left video distribution — and later DVD & Blu-ray — with MGM/UA, which happily raked in all those unexpected riches.
“People love seeing violence and horrible things. The human being is bad and can’t stand more than five minutes of happiness. Put him in a dark theater and ask him to look at two hours of happiness, and he’d walk out or fall asleep.” ― Paul Verhoeven