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Amused to Death 

How will Hollywood react now that real life is more terrifying than fiction?

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
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On Sept. 13, at 11:30 a.m., Bryce Zabel was to have met with USA Network executives about a miniseries he was pitching to the cable outlet. Zabel, creator of such television shows as Dark Skies and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, had the conference on his calendar for weeks. But, like most who peddle entertainment in Los Angeles, Zabel and USA scrapped their plans following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Plotting future projects seemed so trivial as bodies were being pulled from wreckage on the other side of the country. Besides, the week's events had rendered moot the purpose of Zabel's meeting: He was going to pitch USA a miniseries titled World War III, about how an act of terrorism on United States soil expanded into global conflict.

"My partner and I had worked carefully with the Air Force and some Pentagon war planners to figure out the possible scenarios by which such a conflict could come into being," says Zabel, his voice still shot through with disbelief two days after the attacks. "The irony is that we had sort of rejected something as radical as what just happened as being a little too much. So, interestingly enough, the cautionary tale we hoped to tell in fiction ended up becoming a cautionary tale told on the evening news, and there almost is no need for the wake-up call, because America has been woken up."

Canceling that meeting was the second-easiest decision Zabel had to make last week. As the newly elected chairman and chief executive officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Zabel was largely responsible for postponing the broadcast of the Emmy Awards, which were to have been handed out last Sunday. Television simply could not yield its unblinking, unending images of annihilation to those of actors and writers being applauded by their peers.

When the show finally does take place on Oct. 7, it will be an entirely different broadcast than originally planned. Zabel says the Emmys now will have little to do with TV's "entertainment value"; long gone, in all likelihood, will be the inside jokes and self-satisfied smirks that dominate such award shows. The telecast, Zabel says, instead "will be about being a service to the nation in any way we can in terms of providing a shared experience, in the same way television has always provided Americans and the world a chance to share tragedies and work through them together."

One imagines a somber affair, but what images has television provided in recent days worth celebrating? We've seen too much of Dan Rather to care, for now and for the foreseeable future, who loves Raymond. We are in no mood to laugh, to be distracted, to be entertained. Nor are we prepared at this moment to watch TV shows and movies that use domestic terror to amuse us. As much as the events of Sept. 11 changed the landscape of Manhattan, so, too, did they rumble the foundation of a city on the other side of the country.

It took only hours after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., for Hollywood to respond, as studios began postponing the release dates of films whose plots hinge on acts of terrorism, lax airport security, and, in one instance, romance in New York. Touchstone announced on Sept. 12 it was pushing Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble, due for release this week, to early next year. Disney-owned Touchstone had good reason to hold the movie, which is based on a novel by humorist Dave Barry. It's as frothy as a Starbucks cappuccino -- bumbling hit men, dimwitted cops, loutish millionaires, and failed journalists cross paths so often you'd think Miami was a city of 12. The studio was uncomfortable with a scene near the film's end, in which two petty criminals (played by Tom Sizemore and Jackass Johnny Knoxville) sneak a bomb and two handguns onto a plane bound for the Bahamas.

"When the wounds are so raw, how do you put out a movie that touches the subject at all?" Nina Jacobson, president of Disney's Motion Picture Group, told the Los Angeles Times last week.

Warner Bros. also announced it would no longer release the Arnold Schwarzenegger "political action thriller" Collateral Damage on Oct. 5. Schwarzenegger plays a fireman who witnesses the death of his wife and son when terrorists bomb a building. The studio has also pulled all outdoor, in-theater, television, radio, and Web site advertising, which will cost Warner Bros. millions. Paramount Classics delayed the opening of Edward Burns' romantic comedy Sidewalks of New York from this week to November. And Sony yanked the trailer for Spider-Man, in which a helicopter is snared in a web between the World Trade Center's towers, and pulled its posters from theaters, in which the now-vanished towers are reflected in Spider-Man's left eye.

MGM was planning to start pre-production on Nose Bleed, a Jackie Chan comedy-thriller involving terrorists and a fight on top of the Empire State Building. But that movie and many more like it -- including The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy's novel about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, due for release next year -- are on hold. Studios say they have little interest in using panic to sell popcorn, just as audiences likely will have little interest in seeing the frighteningly familiar projected on the big screen. They've had plenty on the small screen.

"This is real life, not a make-believe story that we've been filming," says Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning director of such films as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. "It's a terrible thing, and I think it does have an impact on how we think about movies. It's wise of the film companies and producers to hold off or delay the release of those films while this is so current. ... What happened in New York and Washington is certainly going to change our way of looking at movies."

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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