Hooray for Hollywood -- at Least for Now

It's showing restraint, sensitivity, and generosity in the wake of Sept. 11. How much longer can that attitude last?

By Ronald Grover

Every once in a while, Hollywood does itself proud. And certainly, the aftermath of the horrific events of Sept. 11 was one of those times. Media companies and Hollywood biggies alike gave huge amounts of money to relief efforts, such as AOL Time Warner's $10 million donation and the separate $1 million checks from Rosie O'Donnell and Michael Eisner's charitable foundation. And in a remarkable show of unity and heart, network executives are putting aside their ratings competition to simulcast a huge benefit concert on Sept. 21 that will star everyone from Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts to Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks.

So this is not a column that will bash Hollywood. The entertainment business has taken its licks -- many of them deserved -- in recent years for its lewd lyrics and for marketing R-rated flicks to kids. Now, as Americans try to get on with life as best they can, Hollywood has a dilemma: Does it return to its traditional offerings of blood-and-guts movies while the country is still hurting? And another question: Will TV shows featuring terrorists and bomb threats still play?

Complicating all this is the fact that business plain stinks for just about everyone in media these days. Even before the terrorist attacks, advertising was falling fast for the TV networks. The hijackings will drive them down even further, to a 6% decline his year, says the Myers Report, which was predicting a 4% downturn a month before the attacks.

The $5.79 billion collected at the box office so far this year is nearly 10% more than a year ago, but that hike has more to do with higher ticket prices than larger crowds flocking to see hot movies. As for music sales, they were already limping along with a 5.4% decline through the first half of the year, according to Soundscan.


  The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that folks need movies, TV shows, and music to escape the awful images associated with Sept. 11. "We made war movies during World War II," points out one Hollywood executive I spoke with. "People like to forget their troubles in a dark room with strangers." Maybe so. Left unsaid is the fact that big, expensive action movies -- the kind that sometimes feature terrorists, and almost always feature lots of folks dying -- are big business in Hollywood, bringing in lots of money, both here and abroad.

Bruce Willis made Twentieth Century Fox a fortune in the 1988 film Die Hard, where he battled German terrorists in a high-rise office building. Harrison Ford made a pile of money for Paramount Pictures with 1992's Patriot Games, in which he was pitted against Irish Republican Army thugs.

This is a different time. In those films, Americans were the winners. Today, we're still reeling from the horror of the losses inflicted upon us. Hollywood understands that, and quickly yanked some films that were clearly in bad taste in light of the current situation.

Walt Disney Co. canceled the imminent release of its Tim Allen comedy Big Trouble, which makes a nuclear bomb on an airplane a key part of the plot. Warner Bros. postponed Collateral Damage, which features Arnold Schwarzenegger as a firefighter who loses his family to a terrorist's bomb. Even video-game maker Activision pulled its new Spider-Man 2 game because it featured tower-like skyscrapers in the background that could be mistaken for the World Trade Center.


  Now comes the tough part. Yanking offensive stuff in the midst of tragedy was an easy decision to make. But when -- if ever -- is the right time to bring out a movie that has Schwarzenegger made a widower by terrorists, even if the movie has the potential to be a blockbuster? Warner Bros. says that film has been shelved indefinitely, but with a price tag north of $100 million, you know it won't stay on that shelf forever.

And there's a Steven Seagal-starrer in the works, which bills itself as "Die Hard in a Prison." What if America goes to war? Will folks want to see soldiers dying in battle on movie screens at the same time they're doing so in real life?

MGM has a pair of war movies scheduled for this fall, including Windtalkers, about the Navaho Indians' role as radio signalmen who used their native language to defeat Japanese eavesdroppers during World War II. The studio is planning a large benefit for the Navaho around the film's release. An MGM spokeswoman says the studio has no plans, as yet, to delay either of its war-themed films but acknowledges that those plans may change -- especially if the U.S. moves closer to military conflict in the weeks ahead.

Black Hawk Down, being made by Joe Roth's Revolution Studios for Sony to release, is scheduled for next spring. It focuses on a failed mission in Somalia in which American soldiers were killed. A Sony spokeswoman says the film's scheduled release is too far away for any decision to be made.

The TV networks, however, must focus immediately on their offerings, making sensitive decisions about a couple of new shows. With the start of the TV season already delayed by last week's events, they don't have the luxury of time -- or a plethora of other new product -- on their side. Fox isn't scaling back, as yet, on its plans to air 24, a drama that follows a Secret Service agent's efforts to protect a Presidential candidate from a terrorist assassination plot. The network says the show, which has received high marks from critics, is mostly focused on the mind games played by the terrorist and the agent, played by Keifer Sutherland.


  CBS has no plans as of now to pull The Agency, a drama about the CIA. Both shows represent large financial commitments on the part of two networks, which pay not only licensing fees to air the shows but, in these cases, also cover some of the production costs, which run about $1.6 million a week each. The programs also are important pieces of the networks' programming strategies. CBS is putting The Agency up against NBC's powerhouse ER on Thursdays, while Fox is airing its show in an up-for-grabs slot on Tuesday night.

Neither network expects to change its decision about airing the shows, barring a change in world events. But CBS did decide against running The Agency's pilot episode, which dealt with CIA efforts to stop Osama bin Laden from bombing a British bank.

Of course, viewers can vote with their remote controls. If they don't like the new shows, or find them offensive, they won't last long. Here's hoping in the weeks ahead that the industry continues to show sensitivity and good sense, rather than focus on dollars and cents.

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

Edited by Patricia O'Connell