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A YEAR AFTER

Even the Green Lights Flash Caution in Today's Hollywood

In film, what's notable are the stories that aren't being told while on TV dramas have tackled terror even as nostalgia takes a greater role in programming.

September 09, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS, ANITA M. BUSCH and DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

John Fogelman, who heads the motion picture talent division of the William Morris Agency, also cited financial considerations. "The emotional chord that dictates what the public desires to see has shifted," he said. "No longer do people want to watch [realistic] terrorism, because it is reminiscent of a sad reality."

The reason studios have avoided Sept. 11 as fodder for big-screen entertainment while the networks have laced some of their top shows with terrorism themes is both practical and economic. Television--as well as the magazine and book publishing businesses--can more easily address ripped-from-the-headline tales faster and at less cost than movies, which typically take from two to four years, and often longer, to get from script to screen.

The last thing a studio executive wants is to shoulder the costs associated with a $100-million action film when no one knows how the current war on terrorism will play out.

"It takes a long time to get a film out there, and who knows what the mind-set of the public might be and who knows what the realities of terrorism might be by the time you get the film made?" said Rick Jewell, associate dean of the USC School of Cinema-Television. "If I'm the money man at a studio who is ultimately going to green light something, I am going to green light escapist fare like 'Spider-Man 2' or 'Austin Powers 4' before anything else."

Studios found themselves shouldering heavy interest costs after Sept. 11 when they shuffled release dates for such big-budget pictures as "Collateral Damage" and "Windtalkers."

One film studio chief admits that fear also plays into his decision making.

"My job is to say 'yes' and 'no' to entertainment projects," said the studio head, who requested anonymity. "I don't want to antagonize these people further.... We don't want to go there."

Last fall, the FBI privately briefed executives from the seven major film and TV studios and told them their companies were on the list of potential attack targets.

"We were told there was a threat--that a suicide bomber might blow up a studio," said one executive who attended the meeting. "Some people hired personal bodyguards."

One security expert who works for studios, however, called the meeting a "dog-and-pony show" and suggested it was designed to rally support among media moguls for the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Nevertheless, security companies benefited as movie lots became virtual fortresses.

Two months after the attacks, Karl Rove, a top strategist for the administration, met with Hollywood's power elite to discuss possible areas of cooperation. The meeting was controversial; some in the creative community were concerned about government influence over content and cited the 1st Amendment. The result, however, is what some in the industry describe as a form of self-censorship, though others call it a responsible reaction to dangerous times.

"Hollywood is caught in a bind," added a former studio executive-turned-producer. "Executives are very wary of the word 'terrorist' in screenplays. In fact, it's being excised. It's almost a dirty word. They don't want to use Arabs as villains, but why can't we show the truth? The answer has still not been reached."

Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman John Calley countered, "I don't think we are censoring ourselves. We have not had that meeting that says, 'Here is what we are not going to do' because we have to be open to all possibilities."

Among the few feature-film projects on the front burner at major studios dealing directly with Sept. 11 or the war on terrorism is one at MGM. It's based on a New Yorker magazine article about the life of John O'Neill, the former hard-charging FBI counter-terrorism chief in New York who died in the World Trade Center, two weeks after being hired as chief of security at the twin towers.

O'Neill, who spent four years pursuing Osama bin Laden, had tried to warn his bosses at the FBI of the danger posed by Al Qaeda and also urged the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency to collaborate in battling international terrorism.

According to MGM President and Chief Executive Michael Nathanson, the deal was struck because O'Neill is a heroic and principled figure "whose story deserves to be told."

Lawrence Wright, who penned the New Yorker article and is writing the screenplay, said: "It's going to be about real events as much as possible. I'm going to people it with real characters. That's what [MGM] bought. I believe that American artists, whatever form we work in, have an obligation to examine reality, to look at the world the way it really is. I think the failure of Hollywood is, we turn our eyes away from life as we know it."

But Wright is still mulling whether to include scenes of hijacked planes crashing into the twin towers. "Maybe it will be implicit or explicit," he said. "I haven't decided yet."

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