The new Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn/Jonah Hill comedy The Watch is out tomorrow, though that’s not the title it was written, shot, and originally marketed under. Somewhere between page and premiere, it lost its original title and saw its marketing focus shift; as has been known to happen, the events of the world off-screen either changed events on-screen, or colored our response to them. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten films that unexpectedly intersected with real life, and what happened to them as a result.
When the first trailer (above) appeared for Akiva Schaffer’s comedy Neighborhood Watch, the premise seemed simple: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade as four members of a neighborhood watch patrol, comically ineffectual yet clearly intoxicated with their own sense of power and authority. Then neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the premise didn’t seem so funny anymore (nor did its bullet hole-ridden poster, or the moment in the trailer where Hill mimes firing a shot). Fox responded by first pulling the poster and teaser from Florida theaters, then changing the title to simply The Watch. The new trailers played down the neighborhood watch angle and played up the film’s Men in Black/Attack the Block-style alien invasion premise, which was entirely absent from the first wave of marketing. According to the studio’s press release: “As the subject matter of this alien invasion comedy bears no relation whatsoever to the recent tragic events in Florida, the studio altered the title to avoid any accidental or unintended misimpression that it might.”
Big-budget, highly-anticipated blockbusters have been known to occasionally create special advance teaser trailers to build buzz for their eventual release — often shot before principal photography of the film itself, and featuring footage not included in the final cut. Such was the case with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which finally commenced principal photography in 2001 after years of false starts and aborted deals (including one that would have put James Cameron in the director’s chair). The Spider-Man teaser, which appeared in summer of 2001 (a full year before the film’s release) featured a bank robbery sequence not in the shooting script, in which the thieves escaped via helicopter — only to find themselves trapped in a giant web spun between the two towers of the World Trade Center. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Sony quickly pulled the teaser — not only from theaters, but reportedly from video copies of A Knight’s Tale, where it was included as part of the tape’s trailer package. They also pulled the original teaser poster, which showed a WTC-heavy NYC skyline reflected in Spidey’s eyes.
Collateral Damage/Big Trouble
Compared to two other intended fall 2001 releases, Spider-Man’s post-9/11 tweaks were minor; at least the troublesome footage was only in an advertisement, and not in the finished film. But the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Collateral Damage was in bigger trouble; slated for release on October 5, it featured Schwarzenegger as an LA firefighter avenging the death of his wife and son, who are killed in a Los Angeles building bombing coordinated by terrorists. Warner Brothers immediately pulled the film’s trailers (which included that bombing, of course) and pushed the release date back to February. In an attempt to stifle the odor of exploitation, Schwarznegger donated a million dollars to the Twin Towers Fund and got New York mayor Rudy Giulliani to accompany him to the New York premiere (to the consternation of some commentators and police), where the mayor pronounced it “a classic Arnold Schawarzenegger movie.” Audiences didn’t seem to agree; it grossed a small-for-its-star $78 million worldwide (on an $85 million budget).
Barry Sonnenfeld’s comedy Big Trouble fared far worse. A funny picture with a lousy sense of timing, this ensemble comedy (adapted from Dave Barry’s novel) culminated in a climactic airport sequence, in which a suitcase bomb is smuggled onto an airplane. Ha, ha… ha? Originally slated for a September 21 release, the film was quickly pulled from that date, but there wasn’t much Touchstone could do with it otherwise; the bomb (and gun) on a plane stuff was pretty much what the movie was about, so it wasn’t like they could do some clever editing and remove the now-troublesome elements. Instead, they sat on the film until April of 2002, released it quietly, watched it tank ($8 million gross against a $40 million budget), and wrote it off as a loss.
The China Syndrome
This tense 1979 drama from director James Bridges concerned a near-meltdown and subsequent cover-up at a nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles; with a cast that included Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, the film received positive reviews and respectable box office when it was released on March 16th. Then, twelve days later, a partial nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania made the film seem eerily prescient — particularly a line in which one character notes that the titular syndrome would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” uninhabitable. Unlike the 9/11 movies, The China Syndrome was already in theaters, and its presence there didn’t smack of exploitation; in fact, the coincidental timing help boost The China Syndrome to a $51 million domestic gross.
Oliver Stone wrote the follow-up to his Oscar winner Platoon in 1986, but he couldn’t have timed its release the following year more perfectly. Stone peeled back the protective seal of stock trading to show the greed and corruption underneath, best personified in the character of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the slithery Street hotshot who famously announces that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” But it didn’t seem to be working on Monday, October 19, 1987 — aka “Black Monday” — when stock markets around the world crashed, causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to plummet by 508 points. That event made public awareness and interest in Wall Street higher than expected when it hit theaters less than two months later — along with the sentencing and fining (a cool $100 million) of Gekko-esque insider trader Ivan Boesky a week after the picture hit theaters. It ended up grossing a respectable $43 million against its $15 million budget, and prompting a sequel more than 20 years later, in the aftermath of another financial meltdown.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle/O
Scream scribe Kevin Williamson’s directorial debut seemed like a sure bet: with a cast including Katie Holmes (from his television hit Dawson’s Creek), the great Helen Mirren, and 7th Heaven heartthrob Barry Watson, the dark comedy about three teenagers holding their worst teacher hostage was set for a late summer 1999 release by Dimension Films, the Miramax subsidiary that had put out the Scream series. Its title, at that time, was Killing Mrs. Tingle, but that title seemed woefully ill-advised after April 20th,when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School and murdered 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. On May 8th, Variety reported that Miramax was changing the title to the softer Teaching Mrs. Tingle, though no changes were made to the film itself, which their spokesman insisted was “not about killing a teacher.”
Miramax took greater pains to separate itself from another film intended for a 1999 release: O, Tim Blake Nelson’s high school adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. This time, the area of concern wasn’t something as easily fixable as a title: the film culminated with a school shooting, albeit one very different from those in Littleton. Nonetheless, Miramax put the film on the shelf, where it gathered dust for nearly two years; the company ultimately sold distribution rights to Lionsgate, which finally released it (to little fanfare) in August of 2001.
Opera director Chen Shi-zheng’s feature debut won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival; it featured Meryl Streep, playing a supporting role as a patron to Liu Xing (Liu Ye), a Chinese graduate student who ends up killing several faculty members before taking his own life. It was loosely based on the true story of University of Iowa student Gang Lu, but its similarity to another real story became its undoing: It was scheduled for release in April of 2007, until Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech before turning his gun on himself that very month. The film was shelved for a full year, and the eventual theatrical trailers only hinted at the story’s dark turn, but it did no good — the film barely opened and grossed a mere $30,000.
Last week’s shocking mass shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado put Warner Brothers in a tough spot, not only with regards to that film, but with their upcoming release Gangster Squad. The film’s trailer — which went out attached to some prints, though reportedly not the one that screened in that Aurora theater — features a scene in which gangsters open fire in a crowded theater, shooting through the screen at members of the audience. Warners understandably pulled the trailer from Dark Knight prints, as well as television and trailer sites, and spent this week deciding what to do about the scene itself. It’s apparently a climactic moment, and removing it would require reshoots and reshaping of the finished film — which is apparently what they’re going to do, bumping back the film from its original September 7 release date to January 13 of next year. The bump makes sense; the reshoot is more troublesome, since it lets the actions of a madman dictate what we can and can’t show in a film. As Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny notes, “Warner is making the wrong decision for the right reasons,” correctly accessing it as “a no-win situation” for the studio.