Last summer there were several filmmakers vying to create the first 3D porn flick in the US (even though titles like Disco Dolls in Hot Skin were released in 3D back in the '70s and some of these new titles' porn credentials were dubious). One of those films – Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy – updates a 1991 Category III softcore comedy starring Hong Kong vixen Amy Yip. When a scholar with a tragically small penis swaps his un-hung hero with that of a horse (yes, really), he sets out on a lust-filled frenzy, embarking on a series of bawdy escapades. Will this cornucopia of eastern eroticism make US audiences stand up and take notice?
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the title, billed as the "world's first 3D erotic film" will see a North American release. No date has been set yet for the sexcapade that includes a cast of Japanese porn stars, but we do know that in Hong Kong, Sex and Zen grossed more than James Cameron's Avatar on its opening day, selling out its first week. The film was released uncut in Australia and New Zealand, to similar box office success. In the land of Oz, Sex and Zen made over $1 million, averaging about $122,000 per screen (more than Fast Five's $114,000 – which has been shown on more screens). In New Zealand, it raked in a per-screen average of $24,000, which equaled the heavily promoted and comparatively mainstream Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
China Lion plans on announcing what their North American release schedule will look like in a few weeks, but CEO Milt Barlow has confirmed that the distributors are " … looking at as wide as possible a release for this groundbreaking film in North America and are currently working with our theatrical partners AMC for the US and Toronto, Cineplex for Vancouver and Consolidated in Hawaii."
Depending on how much the film lives up to the "extreme ecstasy" promised by its title, US audiences might not find the film released with certification comparable to the R18 applied Down Under. The likelihood of a wide release through AMC seems questionable, and as independent chains usually don't come equipped with the same kind of 3D technology as multiplex operators that seems out of the question as well. When US audiences have any number of erotic titles available at their fingertips to watch from the comfort of home, will they pay to see Sex and Zen in theaters? What lessons can the film learn from its foreign-to-US erotic brethren?
Last year, Italian director Tinto Brass announced a 3D remake of his 1979 cult classic, Caligula. He may be looking for a little Zen guidance if the film ever sees a theatrical release. Unlike the original Sex and Zen, the uncut version of Caligula did contain actual pornographic scenes, shot by producer and Penthouse Magazine founder Bob Guiccione. Brass and his team wrapped the Rome-shot film in 1976 (funded by an estimated $17.5 million dollar budget) and released the movie in Italy and the UK in 1979 to quite a stir. In 1980, the film arrived in the US, where it was greeted by negative reviews. Subject to a self-imposed X-rating, the movie grossed only $13.5 million on its initial release, and $23.4 million overall (it was re-cut and rated-R for future exhibition). Caligula's wash at the theaters can definitely be attributed to its X-rating in part – which automatically barred the feature from being advertised on television, in the newspapers, or shown in chain theaters.
Porn's illicit thrills obviously make it difficult to bridge the transition into regular theatrical rotation, but films like Sex and Zen – which seems unlikely to stray terribly far from its softcore roots for the remake – still make for a comparatively racy entry into the mainstream. Some conventional movie theaters screened hardcore films with higher production standards in the '70s, even though it often hurt their reputation. That was a different era, though -- when the porno chic of Deep Throat made seeing an adult film an event. It remains possible that Sex and Zen could usher in a new era where adult entertainment once again crosses back into the mainstream (something already happening, really), but don't hold your breath. Chain cinemas are unlikely to do anything to risk their family-friendly image, and few things would do that more than showing adult-rated fare alongside regular releases. After all, no one wants to take their kids to a theater to see Kung Fu Panda 2 when it's showing right next door to a film like Sex & Zen.