Why Gratuitous Sex, Violence and Nudity Won’t Help Your Screenplay

Many new screenwriters are tempted to add sex, nudity and foul language to their script thinking it makes it edgy, controversial or more interesting.  These things will never make a script more interesting.  The best thing you can do for your script is to avoid these.  Here’s why.

No filmmaker wants a rating over PG.  An R rating or NC-17 is like the box office kiss of death to most producers because a PG movie attracts a wider audience.  Think about who goes to the cinema the most: families and teenagers.  If your movie is rated R or NC-17, you lose half your audience.  A PG movie is open to what’s called the “Four Quadrants” of the movie-going public, which means anyone can see it and producers potentially get the big bucks. 

You can make a film edgy, controversial and engaging without nudity, sex, foul language, or violence.  There are so many fantastic films out there that don’t even touch on it.  There are also a lot of films that rely on it to draw an audience and the film suffers.  There’s a difference between effective use of these devices and gratuitous use of them.  If used effectively, it’s organic to the story, if not, it stands out like a sore thumb and your story will suffer. 

Keep your focus to the story.  I’ve read scripts with scenes that were there only because the writer wanted to show naked girls in a locker-room or a naked girl in a shower or half-naked girls having a pillow fight.  If it doesn’t make sense in your story, cut it.  Any Hollywood reader will see through your distraction and realize your story is hollow.

Comic book movies know they have a younger audience.  Films like Iron Man 2 (PG-13), Spiderman (PG), Superman Returns (PG), The Dark Knight (PG-13) are action-packed and even have darker story lines, but they avoid swearing, bloody violence or nudity.

My friend has two young boys, 4 and 7.  It turns out it’s not the violence she’s worried about, but the love scenes.  Even though Spiderman is rated PG, the 7 year-old repeatedly watches the DVD and re-enacted the upside-down French kiss…with his mom.  Ew.  Maybe you’re thinking it’s just this one kid and maybe he’s a bit odd, but then she told me of another kid who did the same thing to his mom.  As screenwriters, we can’t be held responsible for viewers’ actions and parents are responsible for what they allow their kids to see, but it is something to keep in mind if your potential audience is under 13.

One other big reason to exclude the gratuitous stuff: A-list actors won’t do it.  Many actresses have no-nudity clauses in their contracts.  Some will do nudity if they believe the scene warrants it and if it’s tastefully done, but why limit your options?  If A-listers won’t touch it, who’s going to produce it let alone watch it?

But what if I want to write an R-rated movie?

You can write what you want, I’m not going to stop you.  But a producer might.  An agent might.  You seriously limit your options by injecting all that unnecessary R-rated stuff.  Besides, this article isn’t about writing R-rated movies, it’s about having gratuitous, offensive content in your potentially PG movie.

Challenge yourself.  Write the scene without going into R-rated territory.  You can write a love scene without actually showing naked people or the act of love.  You can write a bloody murder scene without showing the actual killing.  You can write an edgy, controversial film without falling into the trap of the gratuitous.  If, however, you know the scene is necessary then by all means, write it. 

Try to be classy about it.  I’ve read countless scripts where the writer leans on the vulgar.  You can write a horror film with nudity without getting vulgar.  Even Snakes on a Plane was a bit ridiculous with the snakes biting into male and female sexual organs.  Really?  That was clearly gratuitous, but at least they made both genders fair game. 

I get that it was trying to set the tone of a classic campy ’80s slasher film. Campy ’80s slasher films are really comedies and the whole point was to stuff as much gratuitous nudity, sex and violence into one film as you could.  That’s a whole different story.  If that’s the kind of movie you’re writing, then obviously that’s the territory you tread.  But really, Snakes on a Plane could have been done just as well without it.  That is the test: can your story be told just as effectively without it?

2 thoughts on “Why Gratuitous Sex, Violence and Nudity Won’t Help Your Screenplay

  1. Great article. Thank you for addressing this in a sea of gratuitous sex and violence for no reason other than to titillate mostly male viewers with cheap tactics. So sick of it and it only seems to be growing in hollyweird’s fore.
    Hopefully we’ll grow out of it soon and get back to making good movies/shows. 🙂

    • Thank you, D. You’re welcome. I’m happy to address topics like these. They spark healthy discussion and hopefully help to inspire positive change. Have you read the article on strong female leads?

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