Too Close to Reality : TV and Film Industry Grapple With Storyline Sensitivity in the Aftermath of Oklahoma City Tragedy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, television executives almost immediately shied away from shows that presented explosions or subversive militia activities as integral parts of their storylines. But movie studios are forging ahead with films featuring explosion-filled scenarios.

Fox, ABC, CBS and HBO--all of which had been planning for weeks to air shows with blasts--responded by making last-minute changes to episodes, adding disclaimers or canceling programs altogether.

ABC nixed an "All My Children" storyline that resembled the Oklahoma City tragedy in that a character makes her own detonation device. "The whole bomb plot line is eliminated," said Sallie Schoneboom, ABC's "All My Children" press representative. "We are taping, shooting, re-editing and rewriting the entire framework for this particular story."

The bombing appears to have had minimal effect on release schedules and marketing plans for Live Entertainment's "Top Dog," Fox's "Die Hard With a Vengeance," Gramercy's "Panther" and Warner Bros.' "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory"--all movies that incorporate bomb sequences or anti-government sentiment.

Coincidentally, several producers have been in development for months, if not longer, on feature films that include scenarios bearing similarities to recent real-life events.

"Obviously, the notion of terrorism and bombings is a very hot topic," said Chris Zarpas, president of Scott Free, a TV and movie production company owned by brothers Tony and Ridley Scott that has two such films on the fast track.

"It doesn't take a genius to know that this sort of terrorist scenario is on the minds of every development executive and producer in town," added Zarpas, whose company obtained the rights two months ago to do a movie based on the real-life experiences of Jim Fox, the lead investigator in the World Trade Center bombing and an investigator in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Meanwhile, "Top Dog"--an action comedy starring Chuck Norris that begins with a white supremacist gang's bombing of a public-housing project in San Diego--opened Friday in 1,900 theaters nationwide.

A Live spokesperson describes the PG-13-rated "Top Dog" as a "kids-oriented" film. Of the initial explosion, the source said, "It's real minimal. In the very same bombing, Reno the (police) dog carries a baby out in his teeth in a blanket. It's not horrifying. They're solving crimes throughout the whole movie, and they get the bad guys."

(The Times review by Kevin Thomas, published Saturday, strongly advised parental caution because of terrorist menace.)

Fox's "Die Hard With a Vengeance," which portrays an evil character Simon (Jeremy Irons) who sets off bombs all over New York City, will open May 19 as scheduled.

In a statement released Monday, 20th Century Fox expressed sadness about the recent events and extended condolences to the families of those who "suffered greatly from this senseless act."

"However, because there is no correlation between this real-life tragedy and the actions depicted in our fictional motion picture, we have no plans to adjust the marketing or the presentation of 'Die Hard With a Vengeance,' " the Fox statement continued.

Over the weekend, Oklahoma's attorney general even warned families of victims against being taken advantage of by Hollywood people seeking to buy the rights to their stories. The Oklahoma State Bar Assn. is offering free legal assistance on that and other issues.

But last week, officials at ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox reported no plans to order or air a TV movie based on the bombing in Oklahoma. A source at CBS did confirm the network was receiving pitches from TV producers.

Literary agent Vince Panettiere said he is "surprised" by the interest he has received for a script about Middle Eastern terrorists plotting to blow up a Staten Island ferry.

"One person (to whom the story was pitched) was critical of my trying to exploit the tragedy," Panettiere acknowledged. "I don't think this is exploitive. This script has been around. It went from being fanciful to being reality."

It is perhaps a Hollywood tradition to tap into the anxieties and concerns of the American public.

"This whole phenomenon is going to give rise to movies that exploit Americans' fears about this subject but that allow them to leave theaters saying, 'We're going to lick this problem. We're not all going to be blown up going about our daily business,' " said Scott Free's Zarpas, citing "Outbreak" and "Fatal Attraction" as examples of films that exploit American fears in entertaining ways, allowing viewers to breathe collective sighs of relief when the end credits roll.

Another Scott Free film is "The H.A.N.D.," which is being written by anti-terrorism expert Sabi H. Shabtai, an Israeli native who penned the best-selling "Five Minutes to Midnight," a novel about the threat of nuclear terrorism.

"The H.A.N.D." deals with the West's fear of a nuclear device falling into the hands of terrorists, who use it to advance a political or religious objective, Zarpas said.

Shabtai also has created a story for producers Bob Rehme and Mace Neufeld, who are known for such action-adventure films as "Clear and Present Danger," "Patriot Games" and "The Hunt for Red October." Tentatively titled "In Times of War and Insurrection," the film deals with a terrorist attack leading to a potential takeover of the United States and the curtailment of certain Constitutional rights.

"We're quite excited about it. We feel that it's going to be a very, very hot property--not because of Oklahoma City, but because it's a dynamite story, and it's so current," Rehme said of the script, which writer Dan Gordon already has completed.

"In this story, we're talking about something much bigger than Oklahoma City," said Shabtai, whose 1986 experience of being hijacked by two terrorists trying to free their jailed brother was the basis for the Dan Gordon-scripted "Passenger 57."

In addition, Don Simon and Jerry Bruckheimer are developing "Rogue Warrior" for Hollywood Pictures, based on four books by anti-terrorism expert Richard Marcinko, with another script by Gordon.

Ever since the April 19 disaster, executives and writers at the TV networks have been scrambling to take action.

For ABC's soap "All My Children," the network rushed to air a disclaimer/public service announcement at the top of last Monday's episode.

Executives at Fox and Spelling Television on Monday had not yet decided what to do about "Melrose Place's" season finale on May 22, which coincidentally contains an explosion.

Executives at CBS, Fox and HBO took more drastic steps for other shows. Last Tuesday, CBS promptly pulled "Deliver Them From Evil: The Taking of Alta View," a fact-based movie in which a gunman holds hostages in a maternity ward and threatens to set off a bomb.

Fox yanked the April 23 episode of "The Critic," in which Jon Lovitz's character Jay Sherman is held hostage by a terrorist, who attaches a bomb to Sherman as he airs his 15th anniversary special live from Carnegie Hall. HBO removed "In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco" from its supplementary channel lineup.

* Times staff writers Daniel Howard Cerone in Los Angeles and Edwin Chen in Oklahoma City contributed to this story.

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