In a rare mea culpa from a major Hollywood studio, 20th Century Fox is apologizing for an unconventional online ad campaign that it recently launched for “A Cure for Wellness,” a psychological horror movie from New Regency that opened Friday.
The digital campaign included several fake news sites designed to stoke public interest in the movie and perhaps some online outrage as well. The pages were designed to resemble local news sites, with names like the Sacramento Dispatch, Salt Lake City Guardian and NY Morning Post.
They featured fictitious headlines on topics including President Trump and abortion alongside headlines that reference the movie (“Screenings for Upcoming Psychological Thriller Result in Panic Attacks”).
On Thursday, a Fox spokesman issued a statement in which the studio apologized for the misleading campaign.
“In raising awareness for our films, we do our best to push the boundaries of traditional marketing in order to creatively express our message to consumers. In this case, we got it wrong. The digital campaign was inappropriate on every level, especially given the trust we work to build every day with our consumers,” the statement said.
“We have reviewed our internal approval process and made appropriate changes to ensure that every part of a campaign is elevated to and vetted by management in order to avoid this type of mistake in the future. We sincerely apologize.”
“A Cure for Wellness” is a brooding horror story about a young business executive (Dane DeHaan) who finds himself in dark psychological territory while visiting a European spa. The two-and-a-half-hour movie has received largely negative reviews and is expected to gross $6 million to $8 million domestically on its first weekend.
Fake news has generated enormous controversy during the recent presidential campaign and in the months after Trump’s victory. The president’s opponents have accused fake news sites of spreading false information and swaying the election.
But the president and his supporters have turned the phrase against their foes, using it to describe CNN and other outlets like Buzzfeed that they claim have published or promoted misinformation.
Fox could face legal exposure from public figures whose likenesses appear on the fictitious sites, said Rick Kurnit, an attorney at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein and Selz who specializes in advertising. Among the faces to appear on the fake sites are Trump and pop star Lady Gaga.
It is “clearly a violation of the right of publicity,” under which individuals can control the commercial use of their identities, Kurnit said. He said Trump and Lady Gaga could have legal cause because they aren’t related to the movie and the context in which they are depicted is false.
“Even the president could bring a right of publicity claim,” he said.
In a call with investors this month, News Corp. Chief Executive Robert Thomson spoke about the issue, saying “digital distributors have long been a platform for the fake, the faux and the fallacious [and] have eroded the integrity of content by undermining its provenance.”
20th Century Fox is no longer part of News Corp. since the media giant was split in 2013. But News Corp. and the studio’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, have common ownership in the Murdoch family.
2:05 p.m. Feb. 17: This article was updated with comments from attorney Rick Kurnit. It was originally published at 6:55 p.m. Feb. 16.