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TUESDAY, September 25, 2001   

Script Check

Hollywood reacts to the crisis. In the wake of terrorism,
execs scramble to rework their film schedules


BAD TIMING An L.A. billboard the day after

by Jeff Jensen and Benjamin Svetkey

"It represents capitalism. It represents freedom.
It represents everything America is about.
And to bring those two buildings down would bring America to its knees."
This horrifying snippet of dialogue is from ''Nosebleed,'' a Jackie Chan film project about a window washer who uncovers a terrorist plot to blow up the World Trade Center. The script was written nearly two years ago and has been in development ever since; just last month, its authors met with MGM to discuss a rewrite. But now, after the events of last week, it's a safe bet the movie will be scrapped. ''I can't imagine they'd want to make it,'' says Stu Zicherman, one of its writers. ''I wouldn't.''

For reasons that are all too sad and obvious, Hollywood is reconsidering a lot of decisions right now. Warner Bros. has been removing posters for ''Collateral Damage,'' in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a firefighter who battles Colombian terrorists after losing his family in a building explosion -- and has indefinitely postponed the film's Oct. 5 release.

The studio has also pushed back the Sept. 21 debut of its gritty LAPD drama ''Training Day,'' not because of its violent content but because the lack of TV ad space and talk-show face time due to uninterrupted news coverage has made it difficult to promote.

Disney has delayed the opening of its Tim Allen comedy ''Big Trouble'' (originally scheduled for Sept. 21), in which a bomb is snuck onto a plane, and is reconsidering its plans to rerelease ''Pearl Harbor'' this fall. Columbia Pictures has recalled posters and teasers for next May's ''Spider-Man,'' which feature the Twin Towers in the background (though the buildings do not appear in the film).

Paramount Classics' ''Sidewalks of New York,'' which has a poster that features the towers in silhouette, is also being bumped from September. ''A film celebrating single life in New York just doesn't seem appropriate right now,'' says Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman. ''It just doesn't feel right.''
After Sept. 11, all of Hollywood grappled with what does and does not feel right. Almost every studio can find a reason to be skittish about any of its upcoming films -- from glimpses of the World Trade Center in the Ben Stiller comedy ''Zoolander'' to the touchy politics of ''Spy Game.'' ''There's an immediate reaction when your mind gets flooded with all sorts of worrisome things -- where you start to find that the Twin Towers exist when there are two l's in a title,'' says Amy Pascal, Columbia Pictures chairman. ''You have to be careful of hysterical overreaction.''

Reaction, however, is not limited to the major studios. Lot 47, the distributor of ''Waydowntown,'' a comedy about office workers who willingly trap themselves indoors, has bumped the film's opening from October to January.

Another indie, Gener8Xion Entertainment, will risk the taste question and go forward with the imminent release of ''Megiddo: The Omega Code 2.'' After consulting with prominent Christian leaders, the producers of this sequel to 1999's surprisingly successful apocalypse thriller, decided to proceed with a Sept. 21 rollout despite ''a couple of scenes that may make people wince,'' says Sean Abbananto, Gener8Xion's VP of marketing.

For the time being, it appears that mainstream Hollywood is going to great lengths to avoid even the slightest perception of insensitivity. ''You're dealing with uncharted emotional territory,'' says Tom Rothman, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. '

'I couldn't pretend to know if people would be affected adversely or not [by seeing the towers], but I suppose if you were watching a comedy, it would be a very present reminder of what you're trying to forget.'' Which is why a number of studios are currently scrutinizing their upcoming slate of movies for shots of the Manhattan skyline.

Paramount, for one, is digitally eliminating the towers from ''Zoolander,'' due Sept. 28. Columbia is reshaping the climax of next summer's ''Men in Black 2,'' which included a scene (not yet shot) at the World Trade Center; it will now take place at the Chrysler Building. Changes are also being made to DreamWorks' ''The Time Machine,'' originally slated for a Christmas release, now moved to February.

The film concluded with New York City being showered with meteorites from an exploded moon -- an image the studio is understandably uncomfortable putting before moviegoers. And it remains to be seen how Miramax will deal with its upcoming drama ''People I Know,'' which reportedly includes a surreal shot of the Twin Towers as seen through the eyes of a drug-addicted publicist played by Al Pacino.

EYE SPY ''Spider-Man'''s reflective poster has been recalled
Not that the studios' response to last week's tragedy was limited to creative and marketing revisions. Like every town in America, Hollywood has been deeply scarred by the events of Sept. 11. The city is draped in symbols of grief and unity: American flags flap from the antennae of SUVs, ''God Bless America'' banners decorate the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills, West Hollywood is aglow with candlelight vigils.

But unlike any other town, this one also happens to produce most of the world's movies. And right now, the people who make those films are reflecting on what they do for a living with a rare introspection and reticence that bares a remarkable resemblance to humility -- even embarrassment.

''Everyone is in a state of shock,'' offers Pascal. ''Nobody knows what to do with themselves. Are you supposed to work and pretend that it hasn't affected you? But that makes you feel really creepy because there are all these people suffering and you can't find a way to help. It's all really surreal.''

''Everybody feels guilty,'' says MGM vice chairman and COO Chris McGurk. ''Nobody wants to talk deals. Nobody wants to pitch movies. It all feels so small and unimportant.''

''The one blessing of this tragedy is that everyone gets an instant perspective,'' says Douglas Wick, a producer of ''Gladiator'' and ''Spy Game.'' ''On one hand, work is trivial. On the other, sometimes it was just a pleasure to get into a story conference and go somewhere else. The bad part of work is the part that's always the most ludicrous -- dealing with anyone trying to be too greedy, selfish. That seems more ludicrous than ever.

''Most of the studios officially reopened for business on Wednesday, with execs returning to their lots to discover strict new security measures (at Paramount, where several false bomb threats had been phoned in, guards checked the trunks of all vehicles passing through its gates).

But except for the most basic chores -- sending prints to theaters by truck instead of airplane, helping stars stranded at overseas press junkets and the Toronto film festival find transportation home -- almost no work was done. Instead, many studios organized relief funds.

Over at Sony, a production executive hung an American flag outside his office, inspiring others to do the same until the studio sprouted a forest of flags. Other stars found comfort the way millions of unfamous Americans have -- by giving blood.Almost everyone here agrees that the disaster will have a profound impact on the choices made over the next several months -- ''We're all Americans, we're all affected by what's happened,'' says MGM's McGurk -- but it's anyone's guess what exactly that impact will be.

Many are even predicting the end of the terrorist-action movie as we know it -- or are at least anticipating a long moratorium. ''For years, there's been this genre of terrible-things-that-happen-in-the-U.S. movie that was appropriate as entertainment because we've never been visited by that kind of horror.

Now that this horrific incident has occurred, the entire genre has to be reevaluated,'' says producer Gregg Davis, whose Warner Bros.-affiliated production company, Alcon Entertainment, decided last week to halt development on a terrorist thriller called ''The Alchemist.'' ''I mean, does anyone want to see aliens blow up the White House now that someone on this planet made a real effort last Tuesday to do just that?''

''Terrorism is going to be a very difficult subject in movies for quite a while,'' says Wick. ''Any assault will look like it's exploiting the World Trade Center tragedy. No one but the most insensitive pig will want to do that.''   

But it may not matter whether audiences have lost their appetite for yippee-ki-yay-style action -- some people in the creative community already have. ''When you're writing a script, you have to believe in your hero,'' says Jonathan Hensleigh, who penned ''Die Hard With a Vengeance'' and cowrote ''Armageddon.''

''And in a perverse, schizophrenic way, you also have to believe in your antagonist. Personally, I don't want to put myself in a situation where I have to get inside the head of someone who would commit such acts against the United States. Not right now.''

Which is why some in Hollywood expect a shift toward lighter, frothier fare -- the sort of cinematic confections that helped America tough out the darkest days of the Great Depression. Maybe not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but how about Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon?

MGM is considering shipping hundreds more prints of ''Legally Blonde'' into theaters this month because McGurk believes ''it's exactly the sort of escapist movie people want to see right now.'' Paramount made a similar call to stick with releasing ''Hardball'' three days after the tragedy; the inspirational baseball drama opened at the top of the box office chart.

Others are betting that old-fashioned patriotism will make a big comeback -- not that it's been away lately. It'll be interesting to see how MGM ends up marketing ''Windtalkers,'' John Woo's World War II drama about Native American soldiers who thwarted Japanese code-breakers, due this November.

And, for that matter, ''Hart's War,'' the Bruce Willis drama about a murder trial in a WWII POW camp, which MGM has scheduled for early next year. How, too, will Paramount handle ''We Were Soldiers,'' a Vietnam saga starring Mel Gibson, which deals candidly with the quagmire of unwinnable wars?

In fact, this serendipitous slew of military movies -- all of which were put into production well before Sept. 11 -- will also include Revolution Studios' ''Black Hawk Down'' and Fox's ''Behind Enemy Lines,'' both slated for early next year and both about dangerous rescue operations in foreign lands.

Fox's Rothman says the studio will tread carefully to not exploit patriotic fervor (the marketing campaign will be ''subtle,'' he says, but adds ''in a certain sense, it's unavoidable, it's the story of the movie''), yet he does believe his film could benefit at the box office because of it.

More immediately, there's Universal's ''Spy Game,'' starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt as CIA agents at the end of the Cold War. Wick says he and studio execs debated whether it was appropriate to release the film (some of which is set in Afghanistan) so close to the Sept. 11 tragedy; for now, Universal is sticking with its Thanksgiving opening despite what sounds like potentially provocative material. ''It's not about terrorism, it's about mentoring,'' says a studio spokesperson, perhaps hinting at the marketing strategy to come.

ALTERED STATES ''The Last Castle'''s military prisoner Redford
DreamWorks' ''The Last Castle,'' in which Redford plays a court-martialed general serving time in a military prison, isn't budging from its Oct. 12 opening, either -- although the studio did recall the poster, which features an American flag flying upside down as a signal of distress.

''If there's one movie that's not going to move off its date, this should be it,'' insists the film's director, Rod Lurie. ''This is a movie that honors soldiers and honors people who are victims of terrorism. It's a deeply patriotic movie that's deeply in love with the military.''

Even films that didn't necessarily start out as flag-wavers may end up being sold that way. Like ''Collateral Damage,'' which some insiders believe could be just the sort of cathartic release moviegoers will soon be craving.

''Arnold's character witnesses the murder of his wife and children and then does what every American wants to do right now,'' says Schwarzenegger publicist Jill Eisenstadt. ''At the right time, I could almost see audiences standing up in the theater and cheering.''

So, action movies may just get a red, white, and blue makeover. It happened before, when Hollywood went to war in the 1940s, but with mixed results. ''I hope we skip the racist and jingoistic 'First Yank in Tokyo,''' says Steven E. de Souza, who penned the first two ''Die Hard'' films. ''I hope we get the more thoughtful works that came at the end of the war, like 'They Were Expendable' or 'A Walk in the Sun.'

''Of course, the one film nobody in Hollywood wants to even think about making is the incredible-but-true story of what happened in New York and Washington, D.C. Still, even that most horrific tale may eventually find its way to the screen.

''Pearl Harbor, which was a day that shall live in infamy, became a Michael Bay movie,'' points out Edward Zwick, the director of ''The Siege,'' which posited the seemingly preposterous notion that martial law could be declared in New York after a series of terrorist bombings. '''Titanic' was the greatest tragedy ever to hit the country and that became a movie. It's all about time and distance. Never say never.''

Stu Zicherman, the ''Nosebleed'' screenwriter, isn't entirely convinced. ''When we met with MGM a month ago about rewrites, we actually talked about changing the plot,'' he says. ''Incredibly, some of the executives thought a re-bombing of the World Trade Center was implausible.

If I pitched what really happened as a movie -- four airplanes hijacked and rammed into the World Trade buildings and Pentagon -- no studio exec would buy it. Not in a million years.''