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Big screen backlog 

by Ed Symkus


Monday morning, September 10, was just another day in Hollywood. The bean counters had just finished totaling up box office receipts revealing that the umpteenth remake of a certain Alexandre Dumas book, this time called simply The Musketeer, topped the charts with a little over $12 million -- hardly a record-maker. Others were amazed at the legs of The Others, a film without benefit of an ad campaign blitz that was still doing more than respectable business after five weeks. Numbers had also just come in that named the summer of 2001 as a record breaker in terms of ticket sales grossed -- with Pearl Harbor grabbing the top spot, and The Mummy Returns and Shrek right behind it. And plans were being made to do even more big business with upcoming releases in genres that have done so well before -- among them a big explosive item starring Arnold Schwarzenegger called Collateral Damage and a comedy about a bomb called Big Trouble.


Then came the morning of September 11 and news reports out of New York that would shake our world and make the business of Hollywood seem rather unimportant. Yet, in a surprising move (that was either a gracious show of decency and concern to the victims of the horror on the East Coast or just some fast thinking to save their own hides), some immediate changes were made involving a handful of upcoming films. In some cases, they were films that were mostly finished but still needed some tweaks, and in others, films that were already green-lit but which still only existed on paper.


Whatever the real reason, the first decisions involved both of the above-mentioned films. Big Trouble, the Barry Sonnenfeld film with Tim Allen, is based on the comic Dave Barry novel about guns and nuclear bombs in Miami. Its release date was September 21. Because of the lighthearted treatment of what some would now perceive a serious subject, there's currently no release date. Same with Big Arnold's film, Collateral Damage, originally set for October and telling of a firefighter who goes after terrorists after his family is killed in an explosion. Again, no release date is currently on the books.


A couple cases of bad timing? Absolutely, and not too many people would argue that the studios did the right thing. When everything calms down a little -- maybe that should be changed to if everything calms down a little -- both of these films will find their place on release schedules and both will probably do quite well at the box office.


But there's also the question of whether Hollywood is being too careful, of just how long and to what degree everyone should be walking around on eggshells. A couple of cases in point: An October release of David Mamet's fascinating crime thriller Heist has been pushed to November 9 because of a scene involving the theft of some gold in an airplane -- even though it's just a cargo plane with no passengers involved. An October release of Edward Burns' often delightful serio-comedy Sidewalks of New York has been pushed to November 21 because the studio felt it wasn't the right time yet for people to come see something frivolous, especially if it was happening on the streets of the titular city.


Those two decisions, especially that last one, seem just a bit harsh. Sure, one of the major reasons for going to movies is to take our minds off the everyday world for a couple of hours, but hey, New York isn't going to just vanish from our minds as we're watching one of them. Apparently the makers of Zoolander had all traces of the World Trade Towers digitally removed from the film days before it was released. The towers no longer exist in the early posters for next year's Spiderman -- and actually that's a pretty good decision, since they're not ever seen in the film. It's a good thing Spielberg's A.I. has already come and gone because someone might have found a way to remove the towers from the visually amazing sequence of them soaring above a flooded New York near the film's end.


The question arises as to whether this is all really just about putting on a kind face or is it also about the fact that with a war going on, there's a distinct possibility that coverage of the war will result in less TV time to promote films. Anyone working for any studio will readily admit that without TV commercial time, a movie cannot possibly get a proper release.





So where do we go from here? Will it be a touch-and-go,


careful approach to a supposedly nervous public? Was it


right to indefinitely postpone production of the new Jennifer Lopez vehicle, Tick-Tock, about a series of bombs going off in shopping malls just before Christmas? Is it being just too careful to put a film called Truck 44 on hold because it deals with the dangerous job of firefighting? What will happen to Designated Survivor, a story set in Washington, D.C.? Will we ever see the now finished John Woo-Nicolas Cage WW II epic Windtalkers, a November release now possibly coming out in June?


But again, where do we go from here? For all we know, some new direction might come out of what many people believe is an unholy alliance between the military and Hollywood. About two years ago, the United States Army developed a five-year contract with the University of Southern California that resulted in the creation of the Institute for Creative Technology. Although specifics of what's been going on in the ICT aren't well known, the information that is available makes its existence quite timely today.


One of the ideas of the group is to make special effects resources in the entertainment industry available to the military in order to improve immersive training simulation programs. This, in turn, is supposed to get our soldiers ready to face some of the outlandish situations that have been displayed in movies, just in case they come true. Recent rumors state that the Army is now also feeding ideas for movies to the ICT for them to bring up to the right people in Hollywood, quite possibly seeing how they would then come up with solutions to suggested terrorist plots. Of course, since no one is really talking much about this, these ideas are merely conjecture.


One thing, though, is very certain -- the uncertainty of the time ahead. There's no doubt the movie business will soon get back to something resembling normalcy. Those who greenlight movies will pretend to know the right time to give the okay to another terrorist film. And it will be made. And it will bring in lots of money. Unless, of course, Collateral Damage is an absolute dog -- and it won't be. And there might even be a day when we can be watching a movie set in New York -- be it a thriller or a drama or a romantic comedy -- and we won't be searching the skyline to see where the World Trade Towers used to be.

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