Exactly three decades after Last Tango In Paris scandalized audiences and censors, Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci is still considered too risque for middle America, at least from the evidence of yesterday's sneak preview of his latest film to US theatre owners.

After peppering up a ShoWest luncheon audience with excited talk of his upcoming release slate, Fox Searchlight's president of distribution Stephen Gilula then issued a warning to anyone eager to see the first glimpse of Bertolucci's semi-autobiographical The Dreamers.

"This is clearly Last Tango territory," intoned Gilula before strongly advising all kids in the audience, and indeed any theatre-goers offended by nudity and other graphic material of an adult nature, to vacate the huge hangar-like hotel premises where they had just munched on Chicken Caesar salad and happily passed the butter across the table.

The tantalized majority who stayed behind were then treated to some fairly innocuous scenes of bath-tub threesomes, some hot-and-heavy petting between co-stars Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Louis Garrel and some full frontal female nudity against the backdrop of a politically-charged Paris during the 1968 student protests.

Appropriately enough, for what must mark the first audience advisory in ShoWest history, yesterday's erotic teaser of a trailer took place in the Paris Hotel, Las Vegas' own interpretation of the City of Light that comes complete with a pint-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower and American desk attendants who greet arrivals with a persistent bonjour.

Although Fox Searchlight, as a subsidiary of MPAA member 20th Century Fox, would be prohibited from releasing any NC-17 material, the specialized offshoot found itself in a potential hotspot at ShoWest because of timing. Bertolucci had literally submitted his footage just a day or so earlier, leaving Searchlight with no room for editing.

As it was, Searchlight was breaking new ground at ShoWest by becoming the first specialized distributor to ever host a distributor luncheon at the convention. Whereas ShoWest attendees typically watch visceral showreels of high intensity action and star-power and then walk away with armfuls of studio merchandising, this time around they were given a rapid induction in art-house filmmaking and a nice light-up pen that allowed them to scribble their thoughts in the dark.

Only the most widely-traveled among the audience, which comprises a broad cross-section of middle America, will have understood all that they saw and heard, since much of the English dialogue in the clip reel was spoken by international actors including Javier Bardem (The Dancer Upstairs), Nutsa Kukhianidze (The Good Thief) and Paddy Considine (In America).

Not that Searchlight is unduly worried about the rarefied niche it is occupying in the marketplace. Having just heard from MPAA chief Jack Valenti in the morning how Hollywood movies now cost an average of $89.4m to produce and release in the US, Gilula took great glee in noting that his own division caps their investments at $15m per film.

In fact, during 2001-2002, the average production cost for each of the 11 films it put out under its label came to just $6m, said Gilula, but the box office gross each generated stateside was a healthy $17.4m.