In Hollywood, War Is Hell

Studios shelved movies about terrorists, bombs, and battles after September 11. Now they are agonizing about reversing that strategy

By Ronald Grover

Roger Corman isn't exactly the arbiter of good taste. So it makes sense that he would be the first guy in Hollywood to figure the time for being politically correct is over and it's O.K. to bring taboo subjects like terrorism back to the big screen.

Only six weeks after the September 11 attacks, Corman, whose lengthy list of horror films includes such classics as The Brain Eater and A Bucket of Blood, is taking on the Taliban. He has picked up a 1994 Russian film about Soviet POWs in Afghanistan, called Pershavar Waltz, and is recutting it to give the movie a pro-Western slant. It will be released under the title Escape from Afghanistan.

If it's like most of the B movies Corman has done in his 37-year career, the film will do modestly well at the box office and have a lengthy afterlife in video, DVD, and cable TV. No release date has been announced.


  Corman may be onto something. It seems the suspicion is stirring in Hollywood that it overreacted by shelving such movies as Collateral Damage, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger battles terrorists and the Tim Allen comedy Big Trouble, which features a nuclear bomb in an airport. Now, very quietly, some Hollywood executives have been test-screening films about war and terrorists, thinking perhaps the time is right to put at least a few of them before an audience.

Executives at Revolution Studios are actively considering moving up one of their biggest-budget films, the $95 million Black Hawk Down, and releasing it in a few theaters over the Christmas weekend. The film, based on author Mark Bowden's book of the same title, details the real-life Battle of Mogadishu, during which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down during a 1993 raid in Somalia. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor, it's a slam-bang action drama produced by Pearl Harbor's Jerry Bruckheimer. It's stirring a terrific buzz in Hollywood and doing well with test audiences.

That's exactly why Revolution and Sony, which will release the film for Revolution, are seriously contemplating moving up the film's Mar. 1 opening date. Although neither studio would talk publicly about the plans, insiders say their market tests show theater-goers want to see patriotic films, even those in which America suffers some casualties. Moreover, by releasing the film in December, the thinking goes, the current mood of patriotism sweeping America may well translate into an Academy Award nomination for the film.


  Sony folks also admit in private they're worried that other military-themed films may come to market ahead of Black Hawk Down. One in particular that's making them agitated is the Mel Gibson movie, We Were Soldiers, a real-life military drama about Vietnam. Ironically, Paramount Pictures picked up the film after Revolution put it in turnaround. It's scheduled to be released next summer, and Paramount says it has no intention -- as yet -- of moving it. But the studio could change its mind, and Black Hawk Down's value declines if Mel and his army buddies get to market first.

Why the sudden fuss, when only a few weeks ago MGM postponed to June its World War II film Windtalkers? Hard to figure. Insiders can say what they want about what their marketing data show, but theatergoers aren't rushing to see action films just now. Dreamworks, in fact, blames the overhang from the terrorist attacks and the war for the lackluster opening of its film The Last Castle, a military-prison film that generated a meager $7.1 million in box office its first weekend. "The 25-to-54 male audience is the toughest to get out of the house, and they're the market for this film," says Terry Press, Dreamworks' head of marketing. "They got their fill of fighting on CNN."

He is among those who caution Sony, and all the other studios, against rushing to fill theater screens with blood and gore. Yet others feel the tide is turning. "Folks aren't afraid to see Americans fighting during times of war," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking company Exhibitor Relations. He points out that folks flocked to see Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne play heroes during World War II, and people are renting action and war videos and DVDs in huge numbers. "Folks don't need anyone to filter out world events for them," he says. "And I think movie studios are starting to realize that."


  Indeed they are. Two of the hottest films at the just-started MIFED film festival are low-budget actioners called Marines and Air Strike. And word around town is that Warner Bros. is even considering rerescheduling Collateral Damage, in which Schwarzenegger plays a fireman who avenges the murder of his family by dispatching a brigade of the killer terrorists.

A Warner spokeswoman says she's unaware of any new schedule for the film, which was to have been released in October. But sources tell me that, following in Sony and Revolution's footsteps, Warner soon plans to put the film before a test audience to see how it likes watching terrorists get their heads handed to them.

Hollywood guys love to say they go with their gut. A studio guy's stock and trade is his ability to divine what will sell. And right now, as unlikely as it might have seemed just weeks back, at least some of their guts are telling them that bombs and bullets may be selling again.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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