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Opinions That Count for a Lot

When it comes to Jewish-themed projects, the views of the Simon Wiesenthal Center staff matter-too much, some filmmakers say.

April 15, 2001|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer

When writer-director Henry Bean left the Sundance Film Festival in January, he floated out of Utah on a cloud of expectation. His film, "The Believer," a controversial but powerful examination of a young Jewish neo-Nazi agitator-based on a true story-had won the Grand Jury Prize, and companies such as Paramount Classics, Miramax and USA Films swirled around, apparently poised to purchase it for distribution.

Three months later, every major distributor has passed on the film, which now seems destined for cable. For that, Bean and producer Susan Hoffman blame-in part-the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

"Just as the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay its eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys," says Bean, paraphrasing poet William Blake. "The minute that guy Cooper [Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center's assistant dean] walked into the room, I knew I should have just taken my tape and gone home. I knew that no good was going to come out of showing this film to this person."

In fact, though, the filmmakers initially were keen to have Cooper and his associates at the center see the film following Sundance. One of Hollywood's most popular charities, the Wiesenthal Center-run by Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier-has often been courted by Hollywood to show outreach screenings of such Jewish-themed films as "Sunshine." Miramax showed the center's staffers "Life Is Beautiful" before release in order to garner their ideas on marketing the film, while Steven Spielberg premiered "Schindler's List" at the center's Pico Boulevard headquarters, even installing a special sound system in its theater for the event.

The debate over "The Believer" is a reflection of Hollywood's increasing disinclination to take on controversial material, and its complicated relationship with special-interest groups, which the studios-savvy after firestorms over such films as "The Last Temptation of Christ'-alternately try to rebuff and enlist into their marketing campaigns.

"Every pressure group has a lobby, and Hollywood is easily buffaloed by these lobbies," says one former studio head who asked to remain anonymous. "The studios try to co-opt the groups by involving them early in the process because that's the right thing to do, and if you involve them early, you're hoping that you're not going to have war on your hands. Then often changes are made, and censorship happens."

In the aftermath of Sundance, "The Believer's" filmmakers hoped an endorsement by the center would boost their chances of getting picked up for distribution. But when a member of the publicity department of Paramount Classics-a potential distributor-called the Wiesenthal Center to gauge the reaction, the publicist heard an earful.

"I'm not a film critic, but this film did not work," says Cooper, who describes himself as the center's point person on cultural issues. He watched the film with eight other center employees and their wives-people of all ages and genders. "I didn't walk away from the film understanding what motivated the young man [the neo-Nazi]. I was also very troubled by the lengthy scene of the desecration inside the synagogue, especially what appeared to me as the ripping of the Torah scroll," Cooper says.

As Hoffman recalls, "Their [the center's] official position was, 'We won't oppose the movie.' Then this rabbi [Cooper] went on a crusade. He said all these sort of hyperbolic things about the movie."

There's no doubt that Bean, the screenwriter of "Internal Affairs" and a Jew who's married to a rabbi's daughter, intended the film to be provocative. "It says stuff in public that Hollywood doesn't ever say," Bean says. "I think that love is a more complicated emotion than we usually admit. In the mixture it has a touch of hate, and without that hate, the love itself loses its vitality. There's a tremendous expression of hatred of religion in the film. In my opinion, that's a necessary part of expressing the love. Not everybody sees it that way."

Cooper is adamant that neither he nor anyone else at the center has been trying to stop release of "The Believer."

"We're not the Jewish Thought Police," he says. "There's no campaign against this film. It's not our way. But if someone asks me what I think about this film, I'm going to tell them."

And Paramount Classics, a division of Viacom, is equally insistent that Cooper's remarks had nothing to do with squelching any potential deal. Indeed, according to one executive, who asked not to be identified, the studio's decision had much more to do with the general difficulty of marketing controversial material. Films like "The Believer" require labor-intensive marketing so their message isn't misconstrued by the public, and the studio simply didn't want to devote the resources, the executive notes.

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