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MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The Trayvon Martin case led to a sci-fi comedy film having to change its title.
In the interval between the completion of a movie and its release, filmmakers can drive themselves crazy wondering whether their projects will succeed or fail (I did tackled a legend a while back about how George Lucas freaked out so much about Star Wars that he made a bizarre wager with Steven Spielberg, essentially betting it would flop, or at least not do as well as Spielberg’s next picture). However, it‘s not just the filmmaker’s psyche at risk during this period. Studio marketing evaluations and audience testing can dramatically alter the way a film is promoted or released. The 2012 film Red Dawn changed the invading nation to North Korea after it was determined the film would lose out of too much revenue from China if the villains had been Chinese. More recently, the Brad Pitt action film World War Z had extensive re-shoots that saw the last third of the movie almost entirely rewritten.
At least those situations are within the control of the studio. The craziest problems are when real-life events suddenly give the film meaning it was never meant to have. Most famously, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 led to a number of films being delayed and edited because of content related to the attacks (the comedy Big Trouble, about a rogue nuclear bomb secretly smuggled onto an airplane, was delayed seven months, and the Gwyneth Paltrow flight-attendant comedy View From the Top was delayed for more than a year. And that was just because it was a film about airplanes!). Rarely has this type of problem been as unpredictable, though, than with the story of how the February 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida led to a science-fiction comedy having to change its name last summer.
The groundwork for what would eventually become known as The Watch began in 2008, when Shawn Levy was hired to produce a film based on a studio executive’s idea about a neighborhood watch that uncovers an alien invasion of their small town. The film went through one screenplay and a couple of directors until Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen took on the project in late 2010. In mid-2011, director Akiva Schaffer was brought in, and filming began in fall 2011. The film stars Ben Stiller as a man in a small town who forms a neighborhood watch after his friend is murdered. The other members of the “team” are Vince Vaughn as a man who just wants to hang out with other guys (while also using the watch to keep an eye on his teenage daughter), Jonah Hill as a slightly disturbed young man who failed the police department’s psych evaluation and is looking for a vigilante group to get out his aggression, and Richard Ayoade as a mysterious newcomer to town. They slowly discover that Stiller’s friend was murdered by aliens and that their small town is ground zero of a possible alien invasion. Comedy, as they say, ensues.
On Feb. 29, 2012, the teaser trailer for the film, then titled The Neighborhood Watch, was released, along with teaser posters.
The initial trailer didn’t make any mention of the sci-fi elements, instead spotlighting the comedy of the four men driving around in a minivan looking tough, with rap music playing along. Hill’s character even pantomimes shooting at people from the car.
The issue, of course, was that just three days before the trailer debuted, an actual neighborhood watch member, George Zimmerman, shot and killed a teenager named Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman is now on trial, charged with second-degree murder. In addition, like Hill’s character in the film, Zimmerman allegedly tried unsuccessfully to become a police officer.
Naturally, 20th Century Fox quickly reacted to the news, first pulling the trailer and teaser posters (including one featuring a bullet-riddled sign) from Florida theaters and then pushing up the next stage of promotion for the film to highlight that it was a sci-fi film. The studio also issued a statement:
We are very sensitive to the Trayvon Martin case, but our film is a broad alien-invasion comedy and bears absolutely no relation to the tragic events in Florida. The movie, which is not scheduled for release for several months, was made and these initial marketing materials were released before this incident ever came to light. The teaser materials were part of an early phase of our marketing and were never planned for long-term use. Above all else, our thoughts go out to the families touched by this terrible event.
Part of their change in marketing happened in May 2012, when Fox officially re-named the film The Watch.
The Watch was released as scheduled in July 2012, and grossed just $68.3 million on an estimated $68 million production budget.
The legend is …
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