Watch What You Say: A Look into Political Sensitivity in Hollywood

Whenever there is any sort of major tragedy in the news, there are always at least a few pundits who blame the events on the desensitizing effects of modern media.  Probably the best example of this comes from the fallout from the Columbine shootings, for which many blamed the shooters’ love for movies like Natural Born Killers or video games like Doom.  This debate has been present in many events since, the most recent of which being the shooting in Aurora, Colorado which has come to be a sad association with The Dark Knight Rises.  What I’d like to talk about in this post, however, isn’t the effects of violence in the movies on violence in real life but rather the other way around: The effects of violence in real life on violence in the movies.  I’ll be focusing on two major recent examples, both of which are major films which made significant changes to their presentation based on the studios’ desires to be sensitive to national issues.  While I have never been a fan of censoring the media for the purpose of political correctness, I do believe that there are many cases in which avoiding national pressure-points can actually be more beneficial to the film in the long run than if those concerns were not addressed at all.

Just to clarify quickly, I’m not referring to censorship in the sense of bleeping out bad words on TV or blurring out the kind of nudity which the general public apparently can’t handle.  What I’m talking about is the very specific altering of a movie’s title, trailers, promotional material or even basic subject matter designed to avoid “Too Soon” reactions from the audiences.  The things that are changed for political correctness’ sake are often not inherently political, yet they call back to something which creates a highly sensitive association in the viewer’s mind.

The first example of this altering of association is the change of the title of The Neighborhood Watch to simply The Watch.  It might only be an omission of one word that doesn’t even alter the denotative meaning of the title, but its the changes to the word-association that went along with the original title that hold the real significance.  Most of you are fully aware of the events surrounding Trayvon’s highly publicized death in a suburban Georgia neighborhood earlier this year by the hands of an overzealous Neighborhood Watchman.  The ensuing national debate turned to a desperate search of people to blame for Trayvon’s death, ranging from racism to gun control to the danger of wearing hoodies, and while the Neighborhood Watch itself was never blamed directly for the shooting, its name was still associated with a very negative piece of national news.  This sort of negative association is the kind of thing that production studios try to avoid at any cost in their marketing, and as a result the studio gave the go ahead to shorten the film’s name.  The fact that the movie had nothing to do with Trayvon’s death other than the titular organization (To the best of my knowledge there were no aliens involved in the shooting) did not matter, the nature of word association is that it is instantaneous and often subconscious and no amount of reasonable justification of the original title’s un-political nature would have been enough to fully remove that association.

The second example is of a film for which neither the title nor the subject matter bore any linkage to recent politicized events.  The only thing that caused any sort of stir was a single scene in the film’s trailer, yet that scene alone was enough to pull the trailers for the film from movie theaters across the country and move back its release date to next year.  The film I’m talking about is Gangster Squad, a movie centered around a 20’s era gangster and the off-the-books team of police officers that attempt to take him down by any means necessary.  The silver screen is no stranger to stories of powerful mob bosses or corrupt cops, and if the movie had been released at any other time it likely wouldn’t have been controversial at all.  Unfortunately for Gangster Squad though, there is a scene near the climax of its trailer that features mobsters firing fully automatic Tommy guns into a crowd at a movie theater.  They probably wouldn’t have been able to pick a poorer scene for the trailer than that and it was no wonder that the trailers for the film were immediately pulled from nearly all theaters Nationwide following the shooting in Colorado (It should be noted that the trailer reportedly was not shown during the premier of the Dark Knight Rises that was showing at the time of the shooting).  Originally scheduled to release this September, the film has now been pushed back until January in order to wait for some of the dust to settle in the wake of the associated shooting.

Check out the Trailer for Gangster Squad Here

Was Gangster Squad appropriately sensitive in its self-censorship or is this more of “But now you’re letting the terrorists win” sort of situation?  In my opinion, not only would the movie have suffered financially had no changes been made (even The Dark Knight Rises took an estimated 20% hit to its initial grosses following the event) but it would have been regarded as a rather cold-hearted move on Warner Bros part to have continued on full speed ahead with no sort or restraint in the face of such a painful subject.  With such a great cast (Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, and more) it would be a shame to see this movie be overshadowed by the negative connotations of one scene, especially if it turns out to be otherwise decent.

In any case, I applaud Warner Bros for saving the victims of the shooting from having to face such an unnecessary and troublesome reminder of the tragedy.

About r361n4

I'm a student at the University of Washington Majoring Business. I've always loved movies and my goal is to work on the financial side of the film industry. Until then though, I figure I'll spare my friends from my opinions and shout them from a digital mountaintop for anyone who's interested. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody blogs about it, does it really happen?
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4 Responses to Watch What You Say: A Look into Political Sensitivity in Hollywood

  1. Interesting that Hollywood would be the considerate ones. While I don’t believe violent films is what creates these real life monsters, there’s nothing wrong with slightly altering one trailer.

    • r361n4 says:

      I think being considerate is only part of what goes into these sort of decisions, the rest is the the simply fact that not being sensitive has the risk of alienating audiences which tends to hurt ticket sales. At least the business motivations and the ethical highground are on the same side here, that doesn’t always happen nowadays

  2. atothewr says:

    I’m really on the fence about all of this. I still say if you are going to be bad, then you are going to be bad. A Looney Tunes cartoon would make you kill someone by dropping a safe on their head if your mind makes that leap.
    However, there are times when movies or TV shows could limit themselves based on availability – such as showing too much stuff on a cable channel that is free to the public at large. It doesn’t give the parent a chance to monitor their kids if they are just flipping channels and see something of a violent nature.

    • r361n4 says:

      Trust me I agree with you on the problems with using media violence as a scapegoat for a much more complicated set of issues that lead to the sort of events that bring this debate to national attention every now and then. I actually wrote a 12 page paper for a communications paper on the subject last year so I recognize how complicated an issue it is, I just didn’t think there’d be enough space to break into that particular debate. Like I said, I’m not talking about censoring violence I’m talking about the more specific changes into the ways that violence is framed. I honestly don’t have an answer over whether that sort of censorship is the morally right thing to do, but I do fully understand the reasons for it from the film makers and producers’ standpoints

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