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Was the Will Smith-starring 'Concussion' softened to appease the NFL?

Was the Will Smith-starring 'Concussion' softened to appease the NFL?
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in "Concussion." (Columbia Pictures)

From "Rocky" to "Hoosiers," the marriage of sports and film has generally been a happy one, filled with rousing moments of triumph that leave audiences cheering. But one upcoming film that takes a harder look at one of America's most popular pastimes — and one of the most powerful entities in the sports world — is stirring controversy months before its release.

Sony Pictures' "Concussion" tackles the thorny issue of head injuries in the National Football League. A report in the New York Times, citing emails that leaked after last year's devastating cyberattack on the studio, raises questions about whether the movie was watered down to appease the NFL, a power player in all forms of entertainment.

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"We'll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet's nest," Dwight Caines, Sony's president of domestic marketing, wrote in an email in August 2014 to three fellow executives. In another email, Hannah Minghella, who is now president of Sony's TriStar Pictures label, wrote, "Rather than portray the NFL as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the NFL who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth."

Sony and the film's director, Peter Landesman, immediately pushed back against the allegations, insisting that "Concussion" was produced entirely without the involvement of the NFL and makes no compromises or concessions in its depiction of the head-trauma issue. The film, which hits theaters Dec. 25, stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who identified the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

With the release of "Concussion" still months away, Sony is mulling holding screenings of the film soon in a further attempt to tamp down the flap. The studio took a similar tack last year as controversy began to erupt over its North Korea comedy "The Interview."

Sony — which has no business ties to the NFL — released a statement Wednesday insisting that "nothing with regard to this important story has been 'softened' to placate anyone." The studio also produced a statement from sportscaster Bob Costas, who anchors NBC's Sunday NFL game of the week, who said, "I have seen the movie. As one who has followed, and commented on, this issue, it doesn't appear to me many punches were pulled."

A trailer for the film released earlier this week promises a drama in the mold of 1999's "The Insider," which recounted the story of a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. One scene shows a forensic pathologist played by Albert Brooks warning Smith's Doctor Omalu, "You're going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week."

The speed and intensity with which Sony worked to bat down the story attests to its high hopes for the film, which will hit theaters in the heart of awards season and could help turn a tide of disappointing releases for the studio this year, and the potentially devastating effect of negative pre-release publicity.

Having seen earlier Oscar campaigns for films like "The Social Network" and "Zero Dark Thirty" become dogged, if not derailed, by controversy, the studio is clearly eager to aggressively get out in front of the issue.

Despite the sport's massive popularity and frequent depictions in popular culture, it's rare for a movie or TV show even to take on the question of head injuries in football, which many see as posing an existential threat to the sport.

For example, last year's Lionsgate film "Draft Day," made with the full cooperation of the NFL, played almost like a big-screen infomercial for the league. The film featured cameos by current and former NFL stars as well as Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been widely criticized by players and fans alike for being slow to respond to the concussion issue.

The popular HBO documentary series "Hard Knocks," now in its 10th season, shows the rough-and-tumble life inside the training camps of NFL teams. But the series rarely, if ever, deals with the issue of concussions and how they affect pro football players later in life.

The NFL's power in the television business has only increased as technology and the proliferation of viewer choices have media companies scrambling to maintain their ability to reach mass audiences.

NFL games are the only programs that regularly deliver the kind of big ratings that were once taken for granted by broadcast television. Nearly all of those viewers watch the games and their commercials live in an age when delayed playback of shows is common. As a result, the NFL was able to demand $5 billion a year in rights fees from its television partners in the pact that runs through 2021.

The dependence on the NFL as a viewer attraction has brought skepticism whenever TV networks cover controversial issues involving the league such as concussions or domestic abuse allegations against players. Bryant Gumbel said at a news conference earlier this year promoting his HBO program "Real Sports" that it was "ludicrous" to think the networks or ESPN can cover the NFL with any degree of objectivity.

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While there has never been any hard evidence of the NFL's exerting pressure on a broadcast partner to kill a story, there have been situations that raised concerns — most notably in 2013 when ESPN backed out of its involvement with a PBS "Frontline" investigation titled "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis."

Tom Nunan, a producer and former film and TV executive who teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, believes that the studio is right to push aggressively against the allegations and that the film is unlikely to be hurt by the controversy.

"Even if there is any studio interference, the overall impact of Will Smith saying this sport is not safe will not be diminished," he said. "Even if they do nibble around the edges, the fact that the studio is showing it at Christmas time obviously shows they believe in the movie and its messaging."

A personal acquaintance of Landesman, who worked as an investigative journalist for years before breaking into film, Nunan expressed doubt that the director had allowed his movie to be watered down in any significant way.

"He's no shrinking violet," he said. "I suspect anyone who tried to mess with his vision would also want to be wearing a football helmet."

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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