In the normal course of things,a Hollywood movie about space aliens wouldnt be affected by newspaper headlines.
But things arent entirely normal these days. In recent weeks,executives at 20th Century Fox have been quietly scrambling to distance a summer comedy Neighborhood Watch,starring Ben Stiller,Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill,from the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Martin,an unarmed black teenager,was killed on February 26 by George Zimmerman,a community watch participant,who has said he acted in self-defense.
But late last month,Fox pre-emptively pulled its trailers and advertising materials for the movie,which has Stiller,Vaughn,Hill and Richard Ayoade as four suburban watch members who save their neighborhood,and the world,from an invasion by space aliens. The studioincluding the movies producer,are now left to wonder whether a media storm and a ferocious public debate over the shooting and its possible legal consequences have spoiled the fun of a movie.
That Neighborhood Watch should be tainted by even a whiff of the vigilantism at issue in the Martin shooting is attributable not just to the films name,but also to an unfortunate decision by Fox to release a brief initial teaser trailer that portrayed its stars as a band of dark-clad heavies cruising their suburban turf to a hip-hop theme. Hill points his fingers as if firing a gun.
In a statement following the cancellation of the trailer,Fox extended sympathy to those touched by the Martin shooting,and said,Our film is a broad alien invasion comedy and bears absolutely no relation to the tragic events in Florida.
Historically,studios have been inclined to hang tough when a movie collides with the news.
In 2006,for instance,Disney released Apocalypto just a little more than four months after its director,Mel Gibson,had erupted in an anti-Semitic rant during a drunk driving arrest. The studio played straight into the controversy,challenging viewers to distinguish between Gibsons persona and his art and even re-titling the film,as Mel Gibsons Apocalypto.
But much has changed since. You err on the side of being very sensitive, said Dennis Rice,a film marketing consultant
Literally,every minute,something online is going to support or take away from your picture, Rice said . Still,an internal debate about timing continues at Fox: is it better to accelerate the marketing plan with an immediate splash that brands Neighborhood Watch as an absurdist comedy about interplanetary threat? Or should the studio lie low for a while? If the Trayvon Martin controversy deepens,Fox could be pressed further,for instance to re-title or delay the film. But Hollywoods conventional wisdom still says that such changes usually compound the problem.
The change of dates hurt our picture,I think, said David Foster,who was a producer of Collateral Damage in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a firefighter whose family was killed in a bombing. Originally set for release by Warner Brothers in October of 2001,the film was delayed for four months because of the Sept. 11 terror attacks,It made only $40 million in domestic box office receipts.
In 2002,Fox similarly rescheduled its release of the sniper suspense movie Phone Booth after the Beltway sniper attacks.
And Fox will definitely be watching for developments in the Sanford case that could further erode the fun in the film,including what happens online. I wouldnt want to see a film like this right away, said one post on the message boards at IMDb.com in late March.
The best time to release it is while its fresh in peoples minds, advised another.