How Showgirls (Eventually) Turned Into a Hit Movie

Showgirls is reportedly the biggest-selling MGM DVD of all time. So how did it go from flop to hit?

In the build up to the release of Paul Verhoeven’s now-infamous 1997 movie, Showgirls, the signs were looking positive. Uniting the creative team of Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas who had generated the gigantic hit Basic Instinct, MGM was gearing itself up for a further success. In the run up to the film’s release, the Showgirls website was proving to be one of the most successful to date on the-then burgeoning public world wide web, with over a million people accessing the site. We’d wager this is at the same point where AOL had barely pressed a million of those infamous CD-ROMs.

So confident was MGM that it had a must-see movie on its hands that it didn’t insist on Showgirls being cut for an R-rating. As such, it was one of the very few major movies to be released as NC-17 in the U.S., specifically restricting the under 17s from theaters. Given that several major movie chains and stores refused to stock NC-17-rated DVDs and videos, this in itself was a bold move. But then MGM was certain it had a hit on its hands.

Well, until the reviews started rolling in.

The film was released on September 22, 1995 in the U.S., and the reviews weren’t just negative – they were absolutely hostile. For Eszterhas, a second high profile project in Jade would meet a similar fate three weeks later. But Showgirls was the one taking the bigger criticisms.

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“A waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating” said Roger Ebert. “Showgirls would be offensive if it hadn’t been hyped,” wrote Empire. “But it has.” “Though the filmmakers’ incessant talk about vision, artistry and honest self-expression lead one to expect a sexually explicit biopic about the Dalai Lama,, snorted the Los Angeles Times, “what is in fact provided is depressing and disappointing as well as dehumanizing.” Hunting for a positive review took all the power of the web’s then-infant search engines.

To this point, the film had already attracted its fair share of controversy. At one stage in the press junket, Eszterhas himself stoked the fires over that NC-17 rating by saying, “You know what? Most teenagers I know have fake IDs.” A film that was already a tabloid football took a few more kicks. But for MGM, it seemed the worst was yet to come.

For when the film eventually made it to cinemas, the commercial kicking soon matched the critical one. The film had cost $45 million before marketing and distribution costs, and its U.S. take was $20.3 million. Outside of America, it didn’t do much better clawing its way to an overall total of $37.7 million. And that would appear to have been that.

Only Showgirls, nearly two decades on, has proven to be a very successful business venture, indeed. Elizabeth Berkley, who took on the starring role of Nomi Malone, was tipped to earn a Sharon Stone-esque career boost off the back of the movie. Instead, her movie hit at the time proved to be The First Wives Club. But who talks about that anymore? Showgirls, however, has endured. Just two weeks ago, Berkley took to her Instagram page to reveal she’d attended a screening of the film at the Hollywood Forever Cometary.

She wrote that “all you amazing #showgirls fans have turned this film into the beloved cult film that it is. Years ago they said it was a bomb…who knew it would become the highest grossing dvd for MGM of all time?! Thank you for loving it the way you do….it was made with a spirit of fun – from the top of my bleached blonde hair to the tip of my glittery toes.”

You read that right. Of all the DVDs MGM has ever released, Showgirls is the one that’s grossed the most. If only all box office flops were so successful, we might have a Dredd sequel by now. To quantify that: we’re assuming we mean MGM movies that were funded by the studio before it was all but amalgamated elsewhere (the MGM logo appears at the start of The Hobbit movies, for instance, but it’s still Warner Bros. who took most of the cash). But even so.

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Yet the cult of Showgirls isn’t a new thing. In fact, it started to grow within months of the film’s original run falling flat.

Within a year of the film’s launch, The Washington Post was saying that the film had found a fresh lease of life “as a midnight cult flick.” In an article dated April 22, 1996 – just seven months on from the film’s debut – it was reported that MGM/United Artists had managed to start turning the film’s fortunes around. The studio approached two cinemas, one in Los Angeles and one in New York, to propose midnight screenings on Fridays and Saturdays. It bought advertising to support the re-release, printing new posters that included some, er, ‘choice review quotes.’ And people started to come.

So did Lin Tucci, who played ‘Mama’ Bazoom in the film. She was introducing the film with, er, her ‘party piece’ at one stage. “Why is became this, how it became this – it’s a mystery, I don’t know,” Tucci admitted to the Associated Press in 2004.

But MGM/UA had a fair idea. “We received 13 Razzie nominations and there are only 12 categories,” proudly boasted an unnamed studio executive. “And the critics were calling it a camp classic.” This new approach to promoting the film extended to the VIP edition of the DVD that the studio put out. It included a blindfold, drinking games, shot glossies, a game of ‘pin the pasties on the Showgirl,’ and an audio commentary that went by the name ‘the greatest movie ever made.’

As an MGM statement said at the time, “We’ve targeted the DVD release to adults who have embraced the campy fun and even outrageous aspects of the film.” The strategy worked. Whereas 1995 hits such as Pocahontas, Dangerous Minds and Ace Ventura 2 rarely get talked about, Showgirls keeps going. It’s not become a cult success on the level of the far superior The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it’s nonetheless followed in its slipstream. That’s why Showgirls, nearly 20 years on, still gets to play in cinemas reasonably regularly.

It should be noted that the dislike of Showgirls is not unanimous too. Adam Nayman, for one, has written a fascinatingly-argued book called It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, where across 128 pages, he contends that the movie is a misunderstood masterpiece.

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Certainly, as a piece of entertainment, Nayman has a case. I’d argue that Showgirls is a better film than Basic Instinct. The cold turn the film takes towards the end of the story though robs it for me of what could genuinely make it a cult success. It goes nasty, and any sense of playing things for fun dissipates.

Still, Gina Gershon always felt there was more to it than just sexploitation and campiness. As she explained around the launch of the film, “This movie really represents the Aphrodite-Psyche myth dead-on. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, and she hears about some mortal chick who all of a sudden people are treating like a goddess, and this does not sit well with her. So she sends her lover/son Cupid down to destroy Psyche. Now, Cupid would kind of be Kyle MacLachlan’s character, and Nomi is Psyche, and I’m Aphrodite. And instead of killing Psyche, Cupid recognizes her beauty and potential and falls for her.”

Different people read different things into Showgirls, but time has clearly proven that MGM’s initial hunch – sex sells – has paid off. Just in this case over a long period of time. Universal has just repeated the trick with arguably a lesser movie – Fifty Shades of Grey – that has just become the fastest selling DVD of all time in the UK. Whether Dakota Johnson will still be attending screenings of Fifty Shades in 20 years time, and whether the films will garner the affection Showgirls has, remains to be seen though.