Sex! Violence! Religion! Drugs! Race! Politics!
These are the hot-button issues that can get filmmakers and execs into hot water. The general industry attitude to-ward films that trade in such subjects is that they are marketing challenges and box office poison.
But many filmmakers have an affinity for such incendiary material, and there are obviously exceptions to the common B.O. wisdom.
So the question arises of what to do when you have a controversial film. One industry camp holds that the media spotlight such subjects attract is the best thing that could happen to a picture. There’s an equally vociferous group that insists there is no worse commercial fate.
“It’s tough to quantify, but I’d say that all the heat about ‘JFK’ probably meant an additional $25 million-$30 mil-lion at the box office,” Warner Bros. distribution president Barry Reardon said. “That’s an extreme case. People don’t generally buy a ticket to see controversy, but it can stimulate awareness about a picture that will filter back to those who are most interested in seeing it.”
The latest film to push people’s buttons is “Crash,” director David Cronenberg’s dark, brooding tale of sexual and vehicular collisions based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. It joins a notorious group that includes “Trainspotting,” “Showgirls,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Kids,” “Boyz N the Hood” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The most controversial movies of recent note have invariably taken on societal attitudes about violence and sexuality. “Crash” certainly deals with both, but could hardly be labeled exploitative.
“Oh my God, what’s that nice Holly Hunter doing in a porno film?” shrieks the diminutive Oscar-winning actress. “Have people left their brains at the door? This is a serious, disturbing film. You don’t attract talent of this caliber unless they’re being offered challenging material. Do people think we were slumming?”
Hunter has been in a lather about the controversy swirling around the Cannes-prized “Crash,” in which she appears with James Spader, Roseanna Arquette, Deborah Unger and Elias Koteas. Spader said he took his role because it forced him to confront issues that created conflict within himself, and the experience proved fulfilling. “Frankly,” he said, “I’d be surprised if the film wasn’t disturbing for most people.”
The picture divided critics at the Cannes fest, where it was awarded the jury prize for “originality and audacity.” It won five Canadian film awards including best direction and screenplay. It has had successful openings in Italy, France and Spain, grossing more than $11 million internationally and better than $1.5 million in Canada.
The picture gained notoriety of a different sort when it became the first ever to be banned in London’s West End last month. Its content apparently so unhinged Ted Turner, whose Fine Line Features acquired U.S. rights, that the planned October debut was scuttled. Turner subsequently made a surprise public apology about meddling where he shouldn’t, and “Crash” now will arrive Stateside on March 21.
“The movie obviously presses some interesting buttons,” Cronenberg said. “We’ve had criticism about the portrayal of accident victims and, at the same time, some impassioned support from handicap organizations. It’s certainly not graphically violent; I suppose you could argue that it’s sexually perverse. What’s ultimately being argued is not the film itself but the idea of the film or people’s perception of what it is or represents. I feel like I’m fighting a phantom.”
The oft-repeated dilemma is that the controversy can overshadow the film. Second- and third-hand knowledge largely propelled protests directed at “Last Temptation” and “Natural Born Killers.” In the fracas, very little was actually said about the content of either picture.
“Striptease” producer Mike Lobell said the picture was hurt in the U.S. because it was reviewed on the basis of “Demi disrobes for $12.5 million.” The Demi Moore starrer grossed a disappointing $33 million domestically, while internationally (where salary was not an issue) it’s done about $80 million.
“Controversy, per se, does not dictate the success or demise of a movie,” said Don Murphy, who co-produced “Natural Born Killers.” “No one sets out to alienate the audience, but once someone sets off the fuse, it’s almost impossible to put it out. I certainly don’t mind the debate if we’re talking about the story. But too often films become political hobby horses. It’s a way to fob off blame. ‘This murderer had a bad childhood and saw “Natural Born Killers.” ‘ The disturbing element is that people will give up their freedom to choose what they want or don’t want to see in favor of government protection in the form of censorship.”
Despite all the uproar, there is no government censorship in the U.S., where the ratings system is administered by the industry’s Motion Picture Assn. of America. However, the perception remains that the group has a legally enforceable mandate to classify movies.
Similarly, in Great Britain, the British Board of Film Censors is officially an advisory body. Though the country generally follows the lead of the BBFC, local boards, such as the Westminster Council, which requested three cuts in “Crash”, can override or modify its rulings.
Cronenberg is somewhat dubious about the process. His experience has been that ratings boards hold up “community values” as a cudgel. “Crash’s” British producer, Recorded Pictures Co., organized a petition signed by 50 U.K. artists including Mike Leigh as a counterbalance to negative press about the movie.
The country’s Secretary of State for National Heritage, Virginia Bottomley, recently has been spouting rhetoric on screen violence that singled out the film much in the way that Bob Dole had targeted “Natural Born Killers.”
The filmmaker said one can’t lose sight of the fact that the censor is “a political animal whose actions are often dictated by outside forces.”
He also noted that it’s sometimes difficult to separate the defenders from the detractors. One current irony involves London Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker, who described “Crash” as “beyond the bounds of depravity,” and said that it would test the mettle of the British censor. His piece is being used as a rallying cry by extremist groups, but Walker remains one of England’s staunchest voices opposing film censorship.
But when all is said and done, the films still have to confront a paying public.
“It’s good to have your picture in the papers or on the news,” maintained Landmark Theatres senior VP Bert Manzari. “It’s a particular asset for a specialized movie, because it allows it to rise above the noise of all the other things in the marketplace. It may be the only reason why some people have awareness of a film and what will make them want to see it.”
Alliance Releasing president Victor Loewy points to his experience with “Kids” as a stark example of the advantages of controversy. In Canada, where Alliance distributed the graphic yarn of sexually active, drug-taking teens, the film was given a Restricted tag and the decision caused hardly a ripple of press attention. It also created little B.O. stir.
In the U.S., Miramax made hay of the rating controversy surrounding the pic’s content, going so far as to create a separate film label in order to distribute it unrated. It was one of the biggest specialized hits of 1994.
Pushing the buttons
Repeatedly, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein is cited as the reigning master for using controversy as a market-ing tool. Murphy points to the company’s announcement that it would open “Priest”, the saga of a gay prelate, on Good Friday as a singularly inspired and foolhardy act.
“Usually, controversy is good,” said former Universal Pictures president Tom Pollock. “From the studio perspective, it’s not much fun to receive death threats, as many of us did when we released ‘Last Temptation of Christ.’ And I can’t honestly say that the film wound up doing more business than had it been a less incendiary picture. But films like ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ where people were afraid of being killed in the theater, definitely do not benefit from that type of attention.”
The dangerous elements of “Crash” are thankfully only on celluloid. However, as one studio production exec noted, the film has an altogether different problem that could mute the possibility of controversy translating to cash. He said the movie’s notoriety is peaking now, three months before its commercial release. The ideal, when it comes to such matters, is to be onscreen during the height of the debate.