As early as February 2022, articles about Andrew Dominik’s September-released Netflix adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel “Blonde,” starring Ana de Armas as a reimagined Marilyn Monroe, began appearing in industry journals. By June, publicity about “Blonde” was everywhere, and nearly all teasers enticed viewers with the film’s status as the first NC-17 film released on a streaming service.
In the week following its release, “Blonde” was panned widely by feminists, film critics, pop culture commentators and Marilyn Monroe fans. Interest peaked during its debut week but fizzled once viewers could evaluate the film’s promises to “offend” them for themselves.
Despite new outlets for hype in 2022, the rise and fall of “Blonde” aligns with the history of films promoted via controversy, scandal or marketing efforts that borrowed from the techniques used by exploitation films, which generated attention for their movies by hyping sex, violence or other topics that bucked censors and offended some Americans’ sensibilities. These films, which depicted topics forbidden by mainstream Hollywood, such as interracial relationships, abortion and drug use, were released in small numbers. But Hollywood studios eventually marketed their more “acceptable” fare by highlighting divisive content, exploiting an audience’s desire to see the forbidden on-screen.
Exploiting scandal to market films is one of the oldest tricks in the media promotion playbook. Thomas Edison built the first film studio, which he called the Black Maria, and filmed sensational topics such as boxing cats, the nearly nude bodybuilder Sandow the Strong Man and dancing women, including “Fatima’s Coochee Coochee Dance” (1896), which was banned by many states in the early 1900s and censored with grid lines in 1907.
Hollywood’s earliest narrative films frequently challenged moral standards to lure paying viewers. Notably, D.W. Griffith’s 1919 “Broken Blossoms” managed to incorporate child abuse, opium dens, murder and suicide in 90 minutes, and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments” reveled in the sins of the Israelites, featuring an orgy around the “Golden Calf” that was considered too scandalous to reappear in the beloved 1956 version.
To appease reform groups clamoring for censorship of Hollywood films, the industry recruited Joseph Hays to write the Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, in 1930. Aimed at censoring film content that might “lower the moral standards” of viewing audiences, the Production Code provided a set of guidelines for how crime and sex could be depicted and issued restrictions on costuming, profanity and dancing, among other things.
But filmmakers had grown used to crafting scenes of sex, violence and drug use to attract audiences. Their informal pledge to abide by the code had no mechanism to enforce it. The need to sell tickets during the Great Depression overcame any motivation to make “clean” films. Instead, films produced during the four years between the Hays Code appearing in 1930 and its eventual enforcement in 1934 exploited the sensational, creating opportunities to revel in nudity, violence and sexuality to attract viewers.
Gangster films, such as “The Public Enemy” (1931) and “Scarface” (1932), dramatized the message that crime paid, and their promotional materials emphasized crime and violence.
Similarly, promotional campaigns for some films starring women played up the sexual content — including nudity — delivered onscreen. For instance, the actors Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West built their careers on films in which their characters exchanged sex for success. “Baby Face” (1933) was advertised with the tag line “Baby Face and her 13 men.” And a trailer for the 1934 film “Tarzan and His Mate” included Tarzan and Jane kissing and riding an elephant in very little clothing, while the film featured a nude swimming scene, for which it is remembered today.
Many films made in this period managed to ride the line between just enough and too much scandal, a balancing act that created the star personae of Hollywood legends. Then in 1934, the code became more than guidelines. Films released without a “seal” from the Production Code Administration received fines and drew ire from groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency. Getting the seal of approval guaranteed that a film abided by the regulations within the Production Code, making it suitable for an audience of all ages.
It didn’t take long after the Production Code “cleaned up” Hollywood films, however, for producers, directors and promoters to return to their old strategy of using sex and violence to promote interest.
By the early 1940s, Howard Hughes was arguing with the Code Administration and trying to slip state censorship boards unedited cuts of “The Outlaw,” with Jane Russell’s heaving bosom in low-cut costumes as the primary source of controversy.
Otto Preminger’s “The Moon Is Blue” was released without a code seal in 1953, a move that drummed up business for an otherwise dull and talky film that had been denied a seal only because it used the word “virgin.” Promoters emphasized the fact that the film was released without a code seal, a move analogous to the emphasis this year on the NC-17 rating for “Blonde.”
Such early challenges to the Production Code emerged when producers refused to negotiate and acquire a code seal. In each of these cases, the films themselves offered little to attract viewers beyond the attention drummed up through their challenges to the Production Code.
Incidentally, Marilyn Monroe’s films, such as “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” were also instrumental in weakening the code, but even those that featured revealing costumes or blatant sexual innuendo received administration approval. The combination of comedy scripts filled with double entendre and Monroe’s signature gestures allowed these films to incorporate adult content through performances rather than through obvious depictions of sexuality. The films were promoted on Monroe’s star persona, rather than on the scandal of challenging the code.
In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the Production Code with a ratings system, which acknowledged that different kinds of movies could be suitable for different kinds of audiences. Hollywood jumped at the opportunity to make risque films, resulting in the first (and only) X-rated Best Picture winner in 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy.”
But this achievement was, again, partly the result of exploitation strategies. Glenn Frankel’s book about the making of the film tells how “Midnight Cowboy” initially received an R rating, but studio executives applied an X rating to generate conversation and hype for a buddy film about the friendship between a cowboy gigolo and a hustler.
The success of “Midnight Cowboy” paved the way for the 1970s “blaxploitation” cycle, which also drew on exploitative promotional maneuvers to draw audiences into films. As Novotny Lawrence and Gerald R. Butters Jr. explain, Melvin van Peebles’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), which was distributed by the pornography company Cinemation as a result of the X rating it received, nevertheless became a box office success because of enthusiastic audiences.
Following the lead of “Sweetback,” other early blaxploitation films — including director Gordon Park’s 1971 action film “Shaft,” and “Foxy Brown,” a 1974 film starring Pam Grier as a fierce protagonist — drew crossover audiences with a mix of violence, nudity and sex. Such low-budget films, brought to the screen by both Black and White executives, used exploitation strategies to capitalize on the previously overlooked Black audience segment. Despite the debate generated by their racy or violent content, audiences remember these films today for their elevation of Black heroes who stood up to the establishment.
Exploitation marketing has always been part of the film industry’s playbook. The shift to streaming video on demand for new releases and festival contenders has caused much hand-wringing about irrevocable changes to the industry, but “Blonde” demonstrates that the old promotional strategies are following content to new distribution platforms.
In 2022, we can recognize the game: Exploitation marketing is used to hype low-budget films. The NC-17 rating for “Blonde” got people talking. But once audiences saw the film, they moved on. What they saw was a film that takes the easy way out by relying on the predictable storyline of Monroe’s suffering instead of her triumphs and by hyping sex and nudity instead of artistic merit.