Last month, a Fox executive spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the studio's upcoming release, "Neighborhood Watch," saying, "We are very sensitive to the Trayvon Martin case, but our film is a broad alien-invasion comedy and bears absolutely no relation to the tragic events in Florida."
Today, the story of the neighborhood watch captain of a gated community in Sanford, Fla. who shot and killed an unarmed 17-year old Trayvon Martin on February 26 is news in every corner of the country. Since the shooting gained national media coverage on March 8, everyone from Geraldo Rivera to President Obama has added his or her two cents about race relations, gun rights, and hoodies.
Fox's inopportunely titled "Neighborhood Watch"—starring Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, and Ben Stiller—has been in the works since September 2011. The film follows four suburban dads who form a watch group to get away from their families only to stumble upon an extra-terrestrial plot to destroy Earth. In an unfortunate and unexpected coincidence, Fox released a teaser trailer on February 29—three days afer the Martin shooting—to pique interest for the film's planned July opening. The trailer shows the film's four leads rolling through their neighborhood in a minivan, intimidating residents with Dr. Dre music, and making guns with their fingers.
As well-planned and executed as any film's marketing may be, acts of unpropitious parallel can derail even the surest bet at the box office. The Martin shooting did not attract attention until after the trailer's release so Fox can justifiably claim ignorance, but the similarities nonetheless beg comparison. And although Fox eventually pulled the trailer from theaters, it's still viewable online.
This isn't the first time a film blew up on the launch pad through no fault of its own. The Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick "Collateral Damage" saw Arnold as a firefighter out to avenge his wife and son after they died at the hands of a group of Columbian terrorists—it was set to release in October of 2001. Fox originally wanted to open "Phone Booth"—a suspense-thriller in which Collin Farrell is held hostage in the titular phone booth by a man with a sniper rifle for 80 minutes—in the middle of the 2002 D.C. sniper rampage. Even the Cameron Crowe sap-fest, "We Bought A Zoo," where Matt Damon raises his family in a private zoo, opened on the heels of an Ohio man who owned a similar zoo releasing all his animals and then committing suicide.
All three of those pictures suffered dismal returns, even when the studio tried to react as tastefully as possible to the events—generally by stalling release dates, scaling back advertising, and drastically downplaying association with the scandal. Completely shelving a movie would mean throwing out tens of millions of dollars, so what's a film executive to do in the face of such an unfortunate occurrence besides just declaring the whole thing a loss and try again?
To respond to that question, I'd like to direct your attention to a film called "Apocalypto," directed by Mel Gibson and released on the heels of his runaway hit, "Passion of the Christ." In July of 2006, Gibson gave his infamous anti-Semitic rant on the side of a Malibu freeway while stopped for a DUI—yes, the "sugar tits" one. This irreparably damaged Gibson's image as a family-oriented good guy that had been his trademark since the early '80s. With "Apocalypto" slated to open within six months of the rant, distributor Buena Vista did not distance the film from the scandal surrounding the director—they did the exact opposite.
Operating under the mantra of "any press is good press," Buena Vista raised more than a few eyebrows when they sought to capitalize off of the controversy of their film's creator. "Apocalypto" was soon renamed "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto"—at least in its ad campaign—and Gibson ran the interview circuit with a new mangy beard. The implicit message he and Buena Vista endorsed was that the dark manic zeal of Mel's roadside speech had been poured into the movie by the bucketful.
The move may have been morally questionable, but it piqued people's interest all the same. Under the banner of Gibson's radical new image, the film—despite starring completely unknown actors, being spoken in a dead language, and being set in a relatively obscure period of history—went on to gross three times its budget and was nominated for three Oscars. That the film's success may have resulted in part from Gibson's actions and the way "Apocalypto" was advertised in light of those actions raises a moral con undrum for the studio executive.
Some tragic events certainly require a different level of nuance than others. We'll feel the sting of 9/11 far longer than that of the Space Shuttle Columbia, for example. But the shrewd—if unethical—studio response appears to be that confidence in creation and embracing a positive association with controversy equals big numbers at the box office. If a studio holds its tail between its legs and half-asses an advertising campaign for whatever reason, that film will almost undoubtedly be doomed to fail. In the wake of some tragedies, a few probably should forget about their profit margins and adopt such an approach.
People are talking about "Neighborhood Watch" right now—long before anyone should for a mid-budget comedy that is three months out. It would go against Fox's financial interest to try to stop them. Their representative's statement about the film shirks blame, and leaves a sour taste in our mouths. Rather than deny the similarity, it would be a devious masterstroke for Fox's business right now it they turned the news to their favor and released a statement saying that their company empathizes with Trayvon Martin and the Sanford, Fla. community, but their film nonetheless serves as a sober reminder of the event and tackles many of the same grey areas of civilian rights, abuses of power, and racial profiling associated with residential law enforcement. Although marketing their film as part of the healing process would quite clearly be both evil and misleading, it might well fill theaters.
When presented with this option it is rather impressive, if not downright commendable, that movie studios often take the moral, less profitable route. Fox still has plenty of moves to play with advertising "Neighborhood Watch." Time can only tell how far they're willing to go for their picture.