TUESDAY, September 25, 2001
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
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
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
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
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
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
''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
''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
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
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
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
''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
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 pictures...like '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
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.''