The urban action movie "Juice" won't open until Friday, but its advertising campaign is already stirring up emotions, based on the violent experiences that surrounded the openings last year of "New Jack City" and "Boyz N the Hood."
"I hear it's a pretty good movie," said Mike Salgado of the Anaheim-based Parents Against a Gang Environment, ". . . but the trailers seem to show it as a gang movie."
"Juice" is the story of four young men facing wretched conditions on the streets of Harlem. Peer and societal pressures lead to a robbery and shootings. The title is meant to suggest power, and who has it.
"How far will you go to get it?" is the question asked in ads for "Juice," created by the movie's distributor, Paramount Pictures Corp.
But the question others are asking is, how far will Paramount go for juice at the box office?
Ads for the film show the four leading actors--Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, Jermaine Hopkins and Tupac Shakur--in a blue haze, with the name of the film in red. Those are the two primary colors of prominent rival street gangs in Los Angeles.
An earlier version showed one of the men brandishing a pistol. A Paramount spokesman said that the gun was removed from the ads before they were to have been released publicly--as the studio refined its ad campaign--but copies of the first version were obtained by some local TV stations, which broadcast it last week. Both versions also were published in an entertainment industry newspaper, the Hollywood Reporter, on Friday.
The movie's TV ads and theater trailers also have been criticized for emphasizing the film's elements of violence. As a result, there is widespread concern that "Juice" will lead to a repeat of the violence that marred the openings of "Boyz N the Hood" and "New Jack City."
"We're not against the film because it tells the truth, we're against the violence they (the ads) promote," said William Upton, the head gang and drug counselor for the L.A.-based Mothers Against Gangs in Communities. "The trailers show the action-packed aspects, not the other parts (of the movie) which are positive. . . . Hollywood has learned that the best (advertisements) are the violent ones. . . . Paramount is probably happy that all this talk is going on."
A Paramount spokesman, however, said that the trailer for the movie being shown in theaters and on TV "represents all elements of the film's story line."
Paramount Motion Picture Group President Barry London, in an interview, said the movie is "first and foremost about peer pressure, and one person looks to rise above it. All that is very well represented in the ad campaign. . . . I think it is quite a statement against violence."
But London acknowledged that "certain movies have an ability to attract certain audiences. And, unfortunately, a potential exists for violence in this society."
Lost in the controversy, which is gaining growing media attention, is the movie itself. The early word on it from movie theater exhibitors who have seen it is that it is a powerful film, with a strong, anti-violence message.
One film industry executive, who wished to remain unnamed, pointedly noted that ads for a current film, "Kuffs," show star Christian Slater carrying a pistol, "but it's a white face with a smile."
Both "Boyz N the Hood" and "New Jack City" were considered by most film critics to be strong entertainment with anti-gang and anti-drug messages. Both were financially successful. But both also attracted violence and shootings on their opening nights.
In both cases, the distribution companies, Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros., decried the violence and maintained that the films themselves were not the cause of the trouble. The studios attributed the violence to crowd control and offered to pay for extra security at the theaters.
A riot broke out in Los Angeles' Westwood district, where "New Jack City" opened last spring, after the theater oversold tickets without informing hundreds of patrons waiting in line.
When "Boyz" opened in July, at least 11 people were wounded from gunfire at Southern California theaters--including a complex in Universal City. At least 25 violent incidents were reported at theaters nationwide.
Theater owners apparently are factoring these experiences into their plans for "Juice." Although it is scheduled to open Friday in about 1,000 theaters nationwide, it is not currently booked at theaters in Westwood or Universal City. A full-page ad in Sunday's Calendar section of The Times was notable for its lack of the usual list of specific theaters.
One executive of a major theater chain that has booked "Juice" said that the company plans on taking "appropriate steps" to provide security. "Exhibitors have to learn to play these kinds of films. . . . There are at least 11 ethnic-oriented movies on this year's schedule," he said.
Paramount said that it will provide extra prints to theaters in order to accommodate crowds that might attend late shows, which were the scene of most of last year's troubles. The studio also has been amenable to theater operators who want to skew their movie schedules to earlier hours, a spokesman said.
At the Baldwin Theater complex on South La Brea Avenue, "Juice" will open with additional security, as did "Boyz" and "New Jack City." In both cases, the theater, which is the nation's only African-American-owned first-run movie theater, experienced no problems at all. Management has not determined if a metal detector will be employed for "Juice," as it was when "Boyz" was playing.
Kenneth Lombard, executive vice president of Economic Resources Corp., which owns the Baldwin Theater, said that the principal issue for theater owners is crowd control.
"Hollywood and theater operators are going through the initial stages of a learning curve on how to play these movies," he said. "Any kind of action film is going to attract the same type of audience. But there's nothing about the product itself that will make people go out and shoot guns."
Lombard, who has seen "Juice," had praise for its dramatic strength and message, adding: "We know that this movie will play big at the Baldwin, so we will provide the necessary security."
"Unfortunately, the news-worthiness of this type of picture is beginning to outweigh the type of product this is. . . . The media are beginning to take this beyond the level of reality."