Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to controversy.
Since bursting on the scene with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992, the video store geek turned cinematic bad boy, has inspired blowback over everything from the use of racial slurs in his films to his penchant for disposing of his characters in gruesome fashion. But nothing has prepared him for the firestorm he’s unleashed over the last few days.
Tarantino’s appearance at an Oct. 24 rally in New York against police brutality led to boycott threats by law enforcement unions of his next film, “The Hateful Eight.”
Tarantino inspired their ire by remarking at the event,”When I see murder I cannot stand by. And I have to call the murdered the murdered and I have to call the murderers the murderers.”
And his comments at the gathering have kicked off a media backlash, landing him in the crosshairs of conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and as front page fodder for the likes of the New York Post.
“It’s a minor distraction,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “People love Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker and an artist, and whatever he does on the side is white noise. It’s not going to stop people from watching his movies. He has a few personality wrinkles, but we’re not talking about Roman Polanski here.”
Indeed, filmmakers like Polanski and Woody Allen have endured punishing scandals only to go on to commercial successes and awards glory. In the case of Tarantino, his offense, if indeed it should be considered as such, is related to his political views, not any personal peccadilloes. Stars like George Clooney and Sean Penn routinely hold forth on social issues with no discernible impact to their careers.
“Audiences have become much more sophisticated about separating peoples’ personal thoughts and views and lives from their professional work,” said Joe Quenqua, director of the entertainment practice at DKC, a public relations firm.
Sometimes a spin in the news cycle can even boost business. In the past, films like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and last year’s “American Sniper” have gotten a box office lift from controversies. But the dissension surrounding their release stemmed from their on-screen content. “The Hateful Eight” is in an unusual position. Nothing in the film, which is set in the post-Civil War era, has anything to do with police violence. Its subject matter is completely divorced from the furor surrounding it.
That’s not to say the Weinstein Company, which is distributing “The Hateful Eight,” and Tarantino’s team isn’t in crisis mode.
“Studios invest a lot of time and money and resources into releasing a movie and they want to control as much of the campaign for that film as they can,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “When you’ve got a vocal filmmaker or actor or celebrity that can cause a real headache for studios.”
In that case, team Weinstein might want to reach for the Advil. The indie label has a lot riding on the film, a Spaghetti Western mash-up that is heavy on the director’s pulp-culture flecked dialogue. Recent films like “No Escape” and “Burnt” have disappointed or flopped at the box office, and the studio is having cash flow issues. It needs “The Hateful Eight” to succeed.
But its chief, Harvey Weinstein, is heavily reliant on Tarantino in other ways. The director’s loyalty (Weinstein released “Pulp Fiction” launching Tarantino into the stratosphere) has lifted the Weinstein Company at key junctures. “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds” are the company’s highest grossing and fourth highest-grossing titles, respectively. In return for delivering hits, Weinstein largely leaves Tarantino alone, allowing him to bring his visions to the screen with minimal interference.
And in this case, Tarantino is showing no signs of backing down. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said that he didn’t mean to imply that all police officers were “murderers,” but did hit back at the unions for boycotting the film and trying to “intimidate” him. He’s scheduled two upcoming appearances on “All in with Chris Hayes” and “Real Time With Bill Maher,” neither venue a favorite with critics on the right.
Still public relations gurus think that the director may be able to defuse the situation by further clarifying his comments. They also argue that the fact that the film is still nearly two months away from its release will mitigate any fallout.
“The news cycle is accelerating all the time, but this one has some legs to it,” said Quenqua. “This is a bad situation for everybody involved. Even though this has a shelf life, it will be off the shelves long before the film campaign truly begins.”
The police unions could be the least of its concerns. “The Hateful Eight” has not been screened for critics yet, but if the picture has the same liberal use of a racial epithet that got Tarantino into trouble in films like “Jackie Brown” and “Django Unchained,” it could result in a graver problem.
“If he does use the n word and African-American leaders get upset, that could turn more people off and be an even bigger threat,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.