Not now, girls

Colette Burson on the indignities of censorship.

SOMEONE IS CLEARLY frightened of the female orgasm: There's a charming teen sex comedy called Coming Soon that can't find a distributor, and the main thing that separates it from the likes of She's All That and the forthcoming American Pie (aside from its witty script and light but confident directorial touch) is that it's about three teenage girls searching Manhattan for that elusive sensation. Due to this touchy subject matter, the movie has not only been turned down by every studio but the movie ratings board (the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) slapped its initial version with an NC-17 rating—which would have kept the movie's target audience from being able to see it, even though Coming Soon has no nudity or violence. (Films that have been rated NC-17 in the past include the far more extreme The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.) While the MPAA does not, strictly speaking, have the power to censor, their ratings have such authority that it's virtually impossible to get distribution without them. Filmmakers sometimes have to reedit their films several times to accommodate the MPAA's demands.

After the film was received with delight at SIFF, director/cowriter Colette Burson explained how her troubles began long before her film was presented to the ratings board and that they center around the portrayal of sex from an authentically female point of view.

WEEKLY: This is your first feature. How did you come to direct it?

BURSON: I never gave any thought to directing. But then my screenplay was optioned by a company in LA, and during the space of two or three years I interviewed directors. I wanted a female director but they were hard to come by. Either they only did their own work or they were too big—like Penny Marshall, or Amy Heckerling, who directed Clueless—you can't really get them for an independent movie at the $2 million level. So I was sent these male directors, and repeatedly the same conversation would go down: "Colette, I love your script, I love it. Two things: I really think it should be less about the orgasm, more about high school life, and what I'm really interested in are Chad and Henry's back stories." Chad and Henry are the two main male characters in the film. After one of these meetings I left and thought, "I really should think about doing this myself."

WEEKLY: And now you can't get it distributed.

BURSON: Fox 2000 has bought the international rights. It's very rare that a company buys international but doesn't buy domestic. It went to their domestic marketing department and they had this strange reaction: "There's no market. We are totally uninterested." They won't even release it in LA and New York.

WEEKLY: Which is curious because the market for this movie is currently the hot market—it's the audience for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Titanic.

BURSON: Hollywood has a huge history of underestimating the girl teen market. When I first pitched this movie, I was told, "People are not interested in watching teenage girls." And I'd say, "Teenage girls want to see teenage girls; teenage boys want to see teenage girls; dirty old men want to see teenage girls; women want to see teenage girls—who doesn't want to watch teenage girls?" They'd be like, "No, boys drive the market." Shortly after that, Clueless came out.

WEEKLY: But despite the success of "girl-driven" movies, there's resistance.

BURSON: People—particularly women, but also enlightened men—respond to Coming Soon. It's very funny! But men who have issues with their sexuality, or issues with their daughters' sexuality—we're talking about men in their forties with 17-year-old daughters—they're the audience that does not respond to this movie, and unfortunately many of them are in marketing. If some of these marketing guys ever sat in a room of teenage girls watching this movie, they'd change their minds. Every time I screen I get fan letters from teenage girls. I'm convinced that whoever buys the domestic distribution rights right now will make a lot of money.

WEEKLY: What's even more surprising than the studios' reluctance is the response from the MPAA.

BURSON: I expected to get a PG-13 and was stunned into tears when it got an NC-17. Just that day I had read an interview with the makers of 8mm, who were saying "We had a surprisingly easy time getting an R for this movie." I thought, "That is it in a nutshell. It's okay to kill girls in movies, but my movie has no nudity and yet it's termed NC-17"—which for an independent movie is the kiss of death. It must be delivered to a distributor as an R. The MPAA takes its responsibility very seriously, they're not a bunch of jerks—but they're reflective of the mandate that society has given them, and that mandate needs to change. I'm not the first, I'm the hundred billionth person to say it, but we need to get a little cooler about sex and a little more stringent about violence. The most painful part of these cuts is that they're all huge laughs. There's a scene where a girl rushes into the bathroom and spits in the sink. There was this whole bit of dialogue that had to be cut, where she said, "Whoo—I just can't swallow," and Gaby Hoffman goes, "Who can? A mouthful of sperm has, like, 17 grams of fat." And I thought, okay, maybe they're going to make me take away that.

WEEKLY: Which compared to some of the gags in There's Something About Mary or past teen comedies like Porky's is pretty innocuous.

BURSON: When you've got a scene that works, the audience laughs, and then it's cut for an arbitrary reason that you don't believe in, it's really upsetting. I said, "I feel that if this were about young boys"—and if this movie were about young boys I'd have a distributor right now with no problem—"if this were boys and sex, you wouldn't have such an issue." The board representative said, "That may very well be true; but it's our job to judge for parents who haven't seen the movie, and if parents have a double standard, it's good for us to think that way also." What could I say? But here in Seattle a guy came up to me and thanked me for making it, and it's because he has an 8-year-old daughter. He said it was the sort of movie he'd want her to watch when she grew up because she'd laugh and then she'd also know how to take control of her sexuality. I said, "I wish you were my dad!"

 
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