“Let’s Be Cops,” the straight-from-television buddy comedy directed by Luke Greenfield, didn’t crater this weekend, grossing $17.7 million in the three-day period to earn the title of top new weekend opener.
Then again, those openers ("Expendables 3" and "The Giver") were both weak, and the Jake Johnson-Damon Wayans movie actually came in behind a pair of holdovers, making it unlikely anyone is rushing to call “Let’s Be Cops” an unqualified success.
With its dismal reviews and mediocre (B) CinemaScore, there are a number of reasons why that’s the case, though it’s hard to avoid one more: the accidental timeliness that had the film opening the same week all eyes were trained on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
Studio Fox clearly had no idea it would wander into a tragic current-events situation when it dates an escapist summer comedy. But wander it did. For starters, “Cops” make Keystoney schtick out of what has been especially serious subject matter in recent days. Maybe more sensitive, it offers an aspirational quality -- from the way that wearing a police uniform enables Wayans and Johnson’s characters to fulfill their fantasies to the directive of the title — at a moment that won’t exactly be used as a recruitment opportunity for local police forces.
Are we thinking about the news when we make our decision to buy movie tickets? It's a perennial (and often unanswerable) question. But the sight of cops in military gear suppressing protesters doesn’t tend to inspire people to see a movie titled “Let’s Be Cops," not for any group and perhaps particularly not for those most affected by the actions of the police. As Tom Bruegemmann wrote on the subject at Indiewire, “Of note from Fox's audience surveys is that attendees were only 20% African-American, below average for most successful movies, more so one boasting a prominent black leading man.”
“Let’s Be Cops” is not the first film to become entangled in the news, and -- given the finite subjects for cinema to tackle and the seemingly endless capacity for disastrous news -- it certainly won’t be the last. Two years ago, a movie called “Neighborhood Watch” debuted its marketing campaign just weeks before the story of Trayvon Martin, shot, of course, by neighborhood watch officer George Zimmermann, became national news.
Though the comedy was primarily about a stealth alien invasion, the events found the studio, also Fox, promoting a movie with an unexpectedly charged title and poster (Seth Rogen as a neighborhood-watch officer mimicking a shooting). Nervous statements and adjustments followed, as did a new title (“The Watch”). The movie faltered when it was released several months later.
Other events have set off similar scrambles. “V for Vendetta” may or may not have been postponed by Warner Bros. for four months because its images of semi-triumphant subway-bombings came a little too close to the July 7, 2005, tube bombings in London. But it certainly had uncomfortable echoes of it, creating a distraction for commentators and a very real deterrent for moviegoers. (The adaptation of the popular graphic novel grossed just $132 million worldwide and a paltry $7 million in the U.K.).
What's so vexing for Hollywood about these instances is that in an industry where every decision is micromanaged, the news is the one variable even studio executives can't control. After the attacks of Sept. 11, various Hollywood action movies desperately pivoted as the events dominated the news and the national consciousness; among them was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage,” which was pushed back four months in part because it depicted a deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The movie wound up being a tepid box-office performer as well. Simply removing a film from the news cycle doesn’t seem to be a very effective strategy.
Of course, accidental timeliness, if it seems to run with the news current instead of against it, can also help boost the profile of a piece of entertainment, even making its creators look prescient. The release of P.O.W.’s such as the Israeli Gilad Shalit and the American Bowe Bergdahl has given “Homeland” a topical dimension, while “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 Oscar Grant shooting in Northern California, was long in development when the Martin shooting happening. But the Florida tragedy lent the film a new set of eerie echoes and allowed it to be even more timely when it came out. Far from insensitive, the film seemed to be continually if tragically relevant.
There’s no easy way to handle news that overlaps with a film. If a studio does inadvertently wander into current events, one of the only things it can do is guide the marketing away from the conversation. Or make a movie that’s so good it resists the comparison in the first place. One of the best ways to ensure moviegoers take a pause thinking about the news is to have them talking about the movie.