Instantly, the set-up of 30 Minutes, which looked like a heightened version of Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times, took on a new light when the family of Brian Wells, a late Pennsylvania pizza man who met his fate after being coerced to rob a bank as a bomb hostage, revealed that the 30 Minutes filmmakers were satirizing their real tragedy. Who knew that the film was even remotely associated with actual events? Director Ruben Fleischer insists that there's no connection between Well’s death and 30 Minutes, while Sony’s defense is that the screenwriters were only “vaguely” familiar with the tragedy. “You don’t look to make trouble with your core audience,” says one distribution executive of studio efforts to sidestep controversial properties. “That’s stupid. You look to make money.”
How does this small tornado bode for 30 Minutes' box office? Much to the chagrin of the Wells family, their dust-up only raises the profile of 30 Minutes even more. The news about the unfortunate pizza man hit days before the 30 Minutes bow; it might have had more impact earlier in its production cycle. The comedy’s biggest obstacle this weekend isn’t the Wells family or any kind of national headlines they generate, but Warner Bros./New Line’s latest sequel, Final Destination 5, which looks to clear $25-$30 million while 30 Minutes will be lucky to reach $15-$20 million.
Although the 30 Minutes scenario isn’t offending an entire sub-group of the population, it’s a reminder that any controversy, more often than not, only fuels a film’s box office. Only when controversy completely alienates the majority of a movie's core audience will it capsize a film such as Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, which triggered a global uproar from Christian groups. Theater chains wouldn’t even touch its film prints back in 1988, when Temptation would up playing in no more than 123 theaters, with a final domestic of $8.3 million.
30 Minutes would need to clock a ridiculous distance in order to fully sideline its core 20-30 something male demo, a group that is more likely to gripe about the authenticity of Anne Hathaway’s Cat Woman suit in The Dark Knight Rises.
In the case of Jewish groups protesting Mel Gibson's reverently violent The Passion of the Christ ($370.8 million domestic) or GLAAD’s objections over the gay knock in Ron Howard’s The Dilemma ($48.5 million) trailer, these folks arguably had no plans to watch these films. Thus their ticket sales weren’t impacted by their noise. If The Dilemma fell short at the B.O., it was due to its lackluster reception.
“Studios package their slates to avoid controversy," says Charles Lyons, who chronicles the history of media watch dogs’ cinematic protests in The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars. "They don’t want to deal with the headache. They are part of multinationals and do not want to anger the parent companies. If an indie distributor happens to release a controversial film, they know how to market it and play the press to get articles.”
That said, it’s easy to buy Sony’s defense, because it would be financially suicidal for them to develop a potential sleeper hit comedy that would offend summer moviegoers, even if the comedy genre allows filmmakers to cross lines. The Wells family cry came from out of the blue. “You never know when one group is going to get upset,” says one distribution executive, “and when it does, you just stick to your story in the marketing.”
Even so, studio executives tend to be more prudent than they were 20 years ago in developing hot topic properties. Paramount and Oliver Stone were cautious not to offend anyone when it came to World Trade Center ($70.3 million domestic, $163 million worldwide).
Although the whirlwind of controversy surrounding 30 Minutes is not at the fevered pitch of say, Passion of the Christ, gone are the days when street protests would erupt over such controversial films as 1980's Women Against Pornography rallies against Brian DePalma’s violently erotic Dressed to Kill. Gay and Lesbian groups formed the Catherine Did It coalition to protest their portrayal in Basic Instinct, designed to spoil the film’s shocker ending. Again, neither outrage damaged the B.O. :Dressed to Kill grossed $32 million -- $84 million by today’s inflation – and Basic Instinct hooked $117.7 million.
“Because of the internet and the way social media can work campaigns, it’s rare for these groups to go protest in front of a theater today,” observes Lyons. And though box office may be unstirred by such public outcry, “it’s arguable that these groups’ fights against cultural imagery have affected changes in the real world." Case in point: In the wake of Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct, portrayals of homosexuals as serial killers are, thankfully, not acceptable.