Last week, Walt Disney Studios announced a flurry of release date changes for its upcoming film slate, kicking a number of premium titles down the road as COVID-19-stricken movie theaters slowly reopen.
Buried among seismic moves like Marvel’s “Black Widow” heading to theaters and Disney Plus on the same day was yet another push for the long-suffering murder mystery ensemble “Death on the Nile,” a Hercule Poirot adventure from director and star Kenneth Branagh.
The film, a sequel to “Murder on the Orient Express” and an orphan from Disney’s mega-acquisition of 20th Century Fox, was delayed yet again to Valentine’s Day 2022. The prominent thorn in the rosy picture is Armie Hammer, the disgraced leading man who has been dropped by numerous employers in the wake of a rape allegation and multiple claims of abusive behavior with extramarital partners. Hammer is now in the middle of a very public custody battle with his estranged wife Elizabeth Chambers, who announced their divorce in July 2020 after 10 years of marriage.
Hammer has denied all allegations against him. Less than two weeks ago, an attorney for Hammer said the actor “has maintained that all of his interactions … have been completely consensual, discussed and agreed upon in advance, and mutually participatory.”
It does not take a Poirot-level detective to see the public relations nightmare Disney is faced with, numerous rival studio executives and agents told Variety. Having pushed the film from a planned release this September (its sixth date change) to the first quarter of 2022, the media giant has a few more months to watch the Hammer scandal unfold and formulate a plan. Crafting that strategy – one that respects silence breakers and survivors, protects Hammer’s co-stars like Gal Gadot and Letitia Wright, and avoids unsavory mentions of cannibalism fetishes and criminal sexual assault allegations for a brand synonymous with family – presents a dizzying array of challenges.
One source familiar with an early cut of “Death on the Nile” said Hammer’s role is significant to the point of being the film’s male lead. The studio is not currently considering a reshoot or recasting his role, another insider with knowledge of the project said. Reshoots, after all, could cost tens of millions and would be nearly impossible to pull off given the packed schedules of the ensemble, which includes Annette Bening, iconic comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, “Game of Thrones” star Rose Leslie and Sophie Okonedo.
“It seems like the only way to go with this is to come out front and say, ‘Hundreds of people worked on this project, and we’re not scrapping it because of one individual,’” said a rival studio executive, who also suspected the film might forgo a theatrical release entirely and premiere exclusively on its streaming service Hulu.
Disney declined to comment on the matter.
Two other sources noted an unfortunate coincidence around “Death on the Nile,” saying it could well have been released over a year and a half ago, had Disney not had more pressing business with Branagh. In 2019, one of the insiders said, the director was already on location in Morocco prepping the “Nile” shoot when Disney called him home for yet another retooling of “Artemis Fowl,” the Branagh-directed adaptation of the kids’ series pegged to be the next “Harry Potter” franchise. Mop-up on “Artemis” pushed the shoot date for “Nile” by six months. Instead of launching a new film series, “Artemis Fowl” went on to debut to lackluster reviews and a straight-to-digital premiere, thanks to the global pandemic. Disney’s March 2019 acquisition of Fox and coronavirus pushed the rollout of “Nile” even further — and into the eye of Hammer’s public implosion.
Historically, studios have responded to a problem like Hammer in numerous ways: Sony famously recast Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” following over a dozen accusations of misconduct and sexual abuse. After acquiring Woody Allen’s indie “A Rainy Day in New York,” Amazon Studios returned distribution rights to the director, when daughter Dylan Farrow’s abuse allegations received renewed scrutiny in the thick of the #MeToo movement. Allen denies all charges against him. After being accused of inappropriate conduct on the set of “Transparent,” actor Jeffrey Tambor was replaced in a character poster for his IFC Films drama “The Death of Stalin” in 2018. His role was not recast, however.
Given that Hammer’s downfall has largely played out in unverified social media exchanges, Disney has been left to react in real time. The company was not given a heads up last week, a source said, when Gloria Allred held a press conference with one of Hammer’s former female partners accusing him of violent rape. Though Hammer vehemently denies the claim, the criminal allegations led to an LAPD investigation with Hammer as the prime suspect — something that Disney learned about as the news hit the press. Though Hammer’s sex life is a personal matter, the allegation of a serious crime now directly impacts the perception and box office potential of his work.
Even before the allegations rose to the level of Allred’s client’s rape accusation, Hammer had already been fired from multiple projects: “Shotgun Wedding,” a rom-com in which he was set to star opposite Jennifer Lopez, and “The Offer,” a series about the making of “The Godfather” that Hammer was going to topline for Paramount Plus. Just this week, Hammer was dropped from the final movie on his upcoming slate, “Billion Dollar Spy,” a low-budget Cold War thriller from director Amma Asante and producer Akiva Goldsman.
While Hammer may still contractually be obliged to promote “Nile,” it’s unlikely that Disney’s marketing team would ask him to participate in any publicity campaign – which could begin as early as this Christmas. As is, any media blitz could be overshadowed by his alleged crimes, as his co-stars and filmmakers would be put in the tough position of answering questions about Hammer’s controversies, rather than focusing on their work in the film.
“Death of the Nile” is not the only project with a Hammer hanging over it.
Hammer is part of the cast of Tracy Letts play “The Minutes,” which aims to re-open in 2022, after Broadway is back. Last year, long before the scandal surfaced, he wrapped production on Taika Waititi’s sports comedy “Next Goal Wins,” though his role is so minor, one source described it as a cameo. The film is not yet dated, and Searchlight Pictures (owned by Disney) did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment on his involvement in the film.
The long-rumored “Call Me By Your Name” sequel is perhaps the biggest question mark for Hammer’s moviemaking future, but the film had never actually been greenlit or put into active development. Though fans had been clamoring for another movie, and the actors have expressed their interest in a sequel in various interviews, a script has yet to surface. Director Luca Guadagnino was not available for comment, as he is currently on pre-production on his next film.
Even if Hammer were to receive offers, he might have trouble hammering out a deal. The actor’s agency WME dropped him in early February, as the allegations began to catch fire on social media.