Hollywood Executives Rethink What Is Off Limits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to the nation's worst terrorist attacks, many entertainment industry executives are curtailing production of disaster films and made-for-television movies, possibly for years to come.

The action-adventure thriller that features swarthy foreigners blowing up planes and buildings--a Hollywood staple for decades--is suddenly taboo. Once appealing because they were so clearly fantasy, terrorism films are now considered off limits after the horrible reality of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The world changed profoundly on Tuesday and clearly some of what we thought was entertaining yesterday isn't today, and won't be tomorrow," said Amy Pascal, chairwoman of Columbia Pictures.

Jon Landau, producer of the 1997 monumental disaster film "Titanic," summed up the new rules of movie making this way: "No bombs on planes, no bombs in buildings."

Disaster films traditionally are among Hollywood's most popular movies. "Titanic" is the highest grossing film of all-time with $1.83 billion in worldwide ticket sales.

Now the entertainment industry worries that the public appetite for plots involving disasters and terrorism has vanished. As a result, producers are changing course.

Landau's Lightstorm Entertainment this week dropped projects in development after deciding they were impossible to make in the current environment. Landau declined to disclose the specific number, or titles of the projects, but suggested that the new restrictions are far-reaching: "You can't even have a World War II movie with people running from a burning building."

The makers of HBO's new hit show "Six Feet Under" anticipate making revisions to the series when it goes back into production in two weeks. "The attack will affect the tone of the show, certainly," said executive producer Robert Greenblatt. "We have bodies coming in in body bags in every show. Now that takes on a whole different meaning."

Just how long such self-restraint holds up is unclear. HBO aired "Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing" in 1997, four years after the disaster.

"In my experience, whenever anything catastrophic happens, we all vow that the world will never be the same," said Edward Zwick, producer of 20th Century Fox's "The Siege," a 1998 film about a wave of terrorist attacks in New York. "But one can't live with a heightened sensitivity forever and gradually normalcy returns. That will happen here."

Ban on Theme May Not Last Forever

Don't be surprised if terrorist movies make a sudden return, predicted Hollywood critic L. Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative Parents Television Council. "As soon as a little bit of a scab develops on the wound" the industry will even start exploiting this week's tragedies with TV movies and other projects, he said.

Hollywood's sudden distaste for explosions is inspired by the fear of disinterest or even outright rebellion among audiences. As former Fox movie chief Bill Mechanic noted, "real life colors the decision-making process" in Hollywood.

"It will now be hard to deal with terrorism in movies," said Mechanic, an independent movie producer who was at Fox when the studio made "Independence Day," which contained scenes of the White House being blown up (albeit by aliens, not terrorists).

Mechanic said he would be much more cautious about greenlighting such movies today. He said studio executives have "a moral responsibility, even though that's not part of the job description."

Worrying about explosions is something new for Hollywood. Scott Ross, chief executive of the special effects house Digital Domain, which worked on "Titanic" as well as such terrorist-themed movies as "True Lies," said that companies in the past have primarily focused on how scripts treated children, women and minorities.

Many Scripts Revised, Shelved or Postponed

"If there was a movie about terrorism, you were usually excited about it," Ross said. "They were the bad guys. Oftentimes it was a high-quality script with a high-quality director. But right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, we'll take a cold hard look at it."

One project that definitely won't be seen in its original conception is "Nose Bleed," a Jackie Chan action-comedy film that was being purchased by MGM Films from New Line Cinema.

The script has Chan battling terrorists and doing various death-defying stunts atop the Empire State Building. Ashok Amritraj, one of the producers, said the film will undergo "significant" revisions. It was scheduled to begin shooting next summer, at the earliest.

"When horrific events like this happen, one has to do the right thing--movies really have to come second," Amritraj said. "I certainly wouldn't want to be involved with any projects where there are terrorists and bombs in skyscrapers. It's just too traumatic a subject."

Several completed films already have been shelved or postponed. Warner Bros. canceled the Oct. 5 release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorism-themed movie "Collateral Damage," and yanked all related advertising. Walt Disney pushed back the Barry Sonnenfeld action comedy "Big Trouble," starring Tim Allen, from its Sept. 21 release date until next year. A key plot point dealt with a nuclear device being smuggled past airport security.

"When the wounds are so raw, how do you put out a movie that touches the subject at all?" says Nina Jacobson, president of Disney's Motion Picture Group.

Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh expressed hope that Hollywood will show great restraint when it comes to attempts to exploit the real-life tragedy. But Hensleigh, who worked on "The Rock," about a disgruntled war hero who threatens chemical warfare against San Francisco, and "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," about a terrorist bomber on the loose in New York, is not convinced that will be the case.

"I'm sure there are TV movies on the drawing board right now that are re-creations of the events," Hensleigh said.

Industry Tends to Stay Away From Headlines

Doug Wick, producer of "Gladiator," said that Americans will at some point "have an appetite to have stories told about heroes going after these shadowy figures who embody our fears." But he warned that Hollywood walks a fine line in bringing those stories to the screen.

"On the one hand, we have to put to pictures and words feelings that are floating around in popular culture. On the other hand, to exploit this incomprehensible human tragedy would be so obviously repugnant," he said.

Historically, Hollywood's movie community has shied away from jumping on the headlines. For producers, studio and network executives, the ticklish part is deciding how close is too close.

Films about World War I and II, the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam were particularly sensitive. There were no critical movies about Vietnam until the late 1970s, when "The Deer Hunter," "Coming Home" and "Apocalypse Now" appeared.

A recent example of an off-limits topic was the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Disney-owned Miramax got cold feet and shelved the movie "O," a modern-day take on Shakespeare's "Othello," after the school shooting in Littleton, Colo. Miramax was uncomfortable with the provocative story line and violent ending, in which students shoot teachers.

"Miramax decided that it was too hot of a potato," said film critic Leonard Maltin. "The irony is that I think it was a very worthwhile film that attempts to tackle some substantial social issues rather than another brainless movie that pollutes more young minds."

The producers of "O" sued for breach of contract, and the issue was resolved when Miramax sold domestic distribution rights to Lions Gate Films, which released the movie two weeks ago.

Some television network executives shrugged off the question of whether there are subjects they will avoid when planning next year's programs.

"I can't answer the question today about what's taboo going forward," said Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment TV Group. "Not the day after such a traumatic event. We don't know."

Something of a test case will be "24," a show about a CIA anti-terrorism agent set to premiere in October. The first episode features a terrorist parachuting out of an exploding airplane. Brian Grazer, the executive producer of the Fox series, said, "We don't have to make any changes in the show. It's from the point of view of a really good guy. A really positive perspective." But he conceded that, going forward, "24" will "stay away from subjects or arenas that are now toxic. Buildings blowing up, airplanes crashing. The whole arena of flight you avoid now."

But Grazer isn't shying away from terrorists. One of his upcoming unnamed films "shows how effective the intelligence agencies of the world can be when they are fighting terrorism," the producer said. "[It's the] most positive possible message. The script needs another rewrite. I just got off the phone with the person the movie is fashioned after. I was going to meet him in Morocco. Now we can't meet there. We'll meet in Paris as soon as we can."

Ultimately, the question of how much this week's terror changes Hollywood will be determined by the nature and duration of the war against the perpetrators. In the meantime, said Larry Auerbach, associate dean of USC's School of Cinema-Television, studios probably will be careful.

For one thing, if a studio releases a movie that comes too close to this week's events, it will run the risk of people complaining, "There goes Hollywood again, acting irresponsibly."

"It's also a political issue," said Auerbach. "These companies are owned by large multinational corporations and they are not going to want to offend Washington. They are not going to invite a problem they don't need."

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Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz, James Bates, Corie Brown, Patrick Goldstein, Meg James and David Streitfeld contributed to this report.

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