Hollywood Analysis: Is timing everything?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 14, 2002 at 7:12 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Just as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did, the wave of sniper killings in the Washington area is causing Hollywood to have second thoughts about releasing a movie that might seem to cash in on the misery of true life victims.

The upcoming thriller "Phone Booth" stars Colin Farrell ("Minority Report") as a man who answers a ringing payphone -- and is told by a caller that he will be shot and killed if he hangs up. Kiefer Sutherland ("24") plays the sniper, who has his high-powered weapon trained on Farrell from a nearby perch.

Although the storyline is all about Farrell's predicament, the audience learns that the sniper has already shot and killed two other people -- a pedophile and a CEO who led a major corporation into bankruptcy.

Citing a "well-placed source," Daily Variety reported that Twentieth Century Fox executives have been considering pushing back the movie's planned release date, Nov. 15, given the current context of sniper killings in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

If that were to happen, it would be at least the fourth time in less than one year that studios will have scrambled their release schedule out of sensitivity to true life tragedies.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Disney put "Big Trouble" (Tim Allen, Rene Russo) on the shelf for months because it had scenes involving a bomb being carried on board a passenger jet. And Warner Bros. held off on releasing "Collateral Damage" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) because it showed a firefighter seeking to avenge the death of his family in a terrorist attack on a high-rise building.

More recently, Columbia Pictures held back on releasing "Trapped" -- a thriller about the kidnapping of a young girl -- because the storyline struck too close to home in a country where the summer news was largely about kidnapping of young girls.

"Phone Booth" director Joel Schumacher ("Batman & Robin," "A Time to Kill") told Variety he hadn't given any thought to moving the release date for his picture, since the movie is so difference from the D.C. sniper case. Schumacher suggested that a simple connection between a movie and a true life event is not necessarily enough to require changes in a distribution schedule.

"I mean, there are many serial killers that haven't been caught," said Schumacher. "Should they not release 'Red Dragon'?"

Many of Hollywood's biggest hits have traded in disaster, catastrophe and human misery -- but usually from a safe distance.

The biggest box-office attraction of all time, "Titanic," used the deaths of more than 1,500 people as a backdrop for a conventional love story. Of course, that production followed the actual disaster by 85 years.

Timing can cut both ways. Military-themed pictures such as "Behind Enemy Lines," "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers" -- released in the months following the terrorist attacks -- benefited by going to market at a time when patriotism was in full bloom. All three enjoyed incalculable free publicity by being featured extensively in cable TV news segments leading up to their premieres.

While it may be the case that Hollywood has showed restraint out of sincere empathy for victims and their families, it is undoubtedly true that a poorly timed release can cause severe marketing headaches.

Then again, based on early reviews, the marketing department at Fox might be waging an uphill battle on "Phone Booth" regardless of the picture's release date.

The Hollywood Reporter said that "the stratagems that compel the film to stay put (at the pay phone) are as improbable as they are illogical." However, The Reporter also gave Schumacher credit for keeping "the screen lively for the entire 80 minutes."

On the other hand, Boxoffice Magazine said the movie was "a gimmick disguised as a thriller," and Matinee Magazine called it "a worthless, witless thriller."

The marketplace will, of course, have the final word on that.

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