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Universal Set to Make ‘Freedom’ a S. Africa Event

“We think they’re up a creek. We think this is great.”

Universal Pictures President Thomas Pollock has had a few days to get over the shock of South Africa’s decision to accept the studio’s anti-apartheid film “Cry Freedom” for integrated theatrical exhibition, and he is in a joyfully feisty mood.

“I would have sworn to you last week that they would never allow the film in,” Pollock said Tuesday night. “But now that they have, we are going to make the most of it.”

Pollock said that Universal and UIP, its international distributor, are gearing up for a major marketing campaign in South Africa and that he doesn’t expect the government to go along with everything that will be attempted.

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“If we take out a full-page ad in the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg and include quotes from (late black activist) Steve Biko, what are they going to do? The writings of Biko are banned. Will they allow (the quotations) to be published?”

Pollock said the ads may also contain quotes from current black South African leaders Oliver Tambo and Bishop Desmond Tutu, both of whom he said have endorsed the film. The distributor may even attempt to publish a list of blacks killed in prisons in South Africa.

“Do we intend to be confrontational about it?” Pollock said. “Yes, we do. If they don’t go along, we’ll point them out for the hypocrites they are.”

Just a few weeks ago, Universal appeared to be up a creek itself with “Cry Freedom.”

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Richard Attenborough’s film, which focuses on the experiences of banned white South African newsman Donald Woods, opened Nov. 6 in 27 theaters. It was accompanied with generally good reviews and a fair onslaught of publicity, but did not generate the kind of business that bodes a hit.

Universal quickly revamped its release strategy and announced that it was delaying “Cry Freedom’s” wide national release until after the holidays.

To film analysts, it was apparent that the studio’s only hope of turning “Cry Freedom” around was a successful Academy Award campaign.

Then, Pollock got an idea that may prove to be the coup of the year. When “Cry Freedom” was submitted to South Africa’s censorship board, there was little doubt that the film would be rejected, he said. So, why not put a little heat on the board for doing it?

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Before the censorship board could reach its decision, Universal and UIP publicly challenged the board to accept the film uncut for integrated theatrical showing. If the government agreed, the film makers would donate all profits from that country’s exhibition of the movie to a United Nations fund earmarked to benefit the children of South Africa.

It was a rather macabre challenge, considering the film’s most horrific scene re-enacts the Soweto riots, during which children were indiscriminately gunned down by the South African militia.

Universal had nothing to lose by the gamble. The challenge alone got “Cry Freedom” in the news around the world and its anticipated banning in South Africa would merely give it additional marketing cachet.

Then came the stunning announcement from South Africa. The film was passed by the censors and accepted in whole for routine exhibition. The government officials denied that Universal and UIP’s publicity stunt influenced their decision, and implied the movie wasn’t worth all the fuss.

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If those officials thought the commotion would end there, they don’t understand how Hollywood works. This controversy--over a film whose subject was obviously inaccessible to most American film-goers--was just what the marketing doctor ordered.

The effect of the publicity is already showing. Last weekend, “Cry Freedom” did an average of $16,860 in each of 20 theaters in the United States, 50% better than it did during its opening weekend. It opened last week in London and, according to Pollock, is breaking house records at the Empire Theater.

Bad news has suddenly become good news.

“It isn’t quite as cynical as you make it out to be,” Pollock said. “ ‘Cry Freedom’ is an important film. It may have taken the South African government to point that out. In any case, it’s done.”

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South Africa’s decision may also give Attenborough and Universal ammunition to counter their critics.

Attenborough has been accused by many critics and some black leaders of patronizing black South Africans by focusing on the heroic adventures of a white newsman instead of probing the character of the charismatic Stephen Biko. Universal’s marketing plan has been criticized for making a crowd-pleasing adventure story look like a bleak social documentary.

The irony is that had Attenborough taken the less commercial route and attempted to tell the story of apartheid from the black perspective, the film would have faced even longer odds with the South African censors. And had that film somehow been approved, its audience would have been mostly black.

Pollock thinks the criticism of “Cry Freedom” has been unfair. He said the movie’s potential for causing political change--a heady ambition for today’s cautious film community--is dependent on whites in South Africa seeing it. Particularly white liberals, he said, who will see in the film what has been banned in print.

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In any event, few people in South Africa are going to be unaware of when and where “Cry Freedom” is playing. Pollock said UIP is going to book as many theaters across the country as it can and, assuming the government does nothing to impede its release, will open it soon after the first of the year.

“We want to make a big deal out of it,” Pollock said. “We’re going to do all the things we can to make the film the event it ought to be in South Africa. This is going to be fun.”


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