NC-17 Rating Wouldn’t Necessarily Spell Financial Doom For Nymphomaniac

After a vigorous marketing campaign, Lars Von Trier's sexually explicit film could still do well

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Ina Fassbender / Reuters

From left: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lars Von Trier on the film set of 'Nymphomaniac' in Cologne, on Sept. 20, 2012.

In case you weren’t tipped off by the title, Lars Von Trier’s upcoming film Nymphomaniac features a lot of sex. The Danish director’s much-buzzed about movie is billed as “the wild and poetic chronicle of a woman’s journey from birth to the age of 50 as told by the main character, the self-diagnosed nymphomaniac,” played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The film reportedly features body doubles who were used to portray much of the film’s cast — in addition to Gainsbourg, the movie stars Uma Thurman, Stellan Skarsgård, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell and Shia LaBeouf — in exceptionally graphic scenes. Even the film’s NSFW trailer, which was first released on Vimeo on Nov. 22, feels as if it should come with a restricted rating.

Originally Nymphomaniac, which will premiere in Denmark on Dec. 25 and be released in two parts, was to be edited into two versions: one explicit and the other, soft core. However, after Von Trier declared that he was unable to edit down the film from five and a half hours himself, the studio decided that only one, explicit version would be released, which is almost guaranteed to earn an NC-17 rating in the U.S.

Typically, if the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave a movie an NC-17 rating — meaning no one under the age of 18 is allowed in the audience, even if accompanied by an adult — it was thought to mean the kiss of death for the film’s box-office potential. Since the NC-17 rating was introduced in 1990, some 30 films have been slapped with the restrictive rating, and many of those brought in less than $1 million at the domestic box office.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean financial doom for Nymphomaniac. There have been NC-17 rated films that have done well at the box-office, particularly when it comes to artistic films, often from foreign directors. Henry and June was the first movie to carry an NC-17 rating, way back in 1990, but the rating didn’t prevent the art-house film from taking in $11.6 million. In 2004, Bad Eduction from director Pedro Almodóvar took in $5.2 million despite its restricted rating. In 2012, Steve McQueen’s Shame took in $3.9 million and this year’s Blue is the Warmest Colour has brought in $1.5 million so far. (Though as TIME noted last month, not all American theaters were actually preventing teenagers from seeing the film about a young lesbian couple.)

While the box office returns are minimal compared to those of Hollywood’s big blockbusters, the sales often met studios’ expectations. James Schamus, the producer of 2007′s Lust, Caution, from director Ang Lee, and the head of Focus Features, which distributed the film, told Entertainment Weekly that he was pleased with NC-17 rated film’s $4.6 million box-office sales. “We were very satisfied with the release,” he said. “It was a profitable venture for us.”

Like many of its NC-17 predecessors, Nymphomaniac is an art-house film from a foreign director with a loyal cult following, which is likely to appeal to a niche market with or without the restricted rating. And, importantly, the film has already had a substantial marketing campaign to attract that audience, while making no bones about how explicit the content is. Teaser clips from the film were released throughout the year and a series of racy promotional posters, each showing one of the film’s stars in the throes of passion, was released earlier this month.

Then again, even if the ad campaign doesn’t translate into ticket sales, there’s plenty of potential for DVD sales, which have offered NC-17 rated films big money in the past. After 1995′s Showgirls brought in $20 million at the box office — which amounted to less than half of its production budget — its NC-17 rating was partially blamed. Yet the movie did go on to become a financial gold mine for MGM studio in the end, as video rentals and sales brought in an additional $100 million. Lust, Caution also garnered more than $18 million in DVD sales and rentals after its run in theaters.

While Von Trier probably won’t set any box-office records with Nymphomaniac, the film’s rating isn’t likely to hinder its financial potential the way it once might have. As Jonathan Sehring, the president of Sundance Selects, which distributed Blue Is the Warmest Colour, said when his film was slapped with the rating, “an NC-17 rating no longer holds the stigma it once did.” And in the case of Nymphomaniac, which is clearly riding high on the hype around its racy premise, the rating could create just a little more buzz.

Warning: This film trailer for Nymphomaniac is NSFW.