The events of September 11 were a cinema event, the most immediately and extensively documented catastrophe in human history.
In the days following the cataclysm, the Los Angeles Times reported entertainment industry concern that “the public appetite for plots involving disasters and terrorism has vanished.” Thus, Warner Bros. postponed Collateral Damage, and the screenwriters, David and Peter Griffiths, suffered another setback when Fox suspended their top-secret project, Deadline, a hijack drama written for James Cameron. Jerry Bruckheimer decided that the time might not be right for World War III, which called for nuclear attacks on Seattle and San Diego. Even comedies suffered collateral damage. Disney put off the release of the Tim Allen vehicle Big Trouble, which involves a nuclear bomb smuggled aboard a jet plane; MGM shelved Nose Bleed, with Jackie Chan starring as a window washer who foils a terrorist plot to blow up the WTC. Scheduled telecasts of the X-Files movie and Independence Day were canceled, along with a Law and Order episode about bio-terrorism in NYC.
The CBS show The Agency dropped a reference to Osama bin Laden. (Concerned about bin Laden’s charisma, the Bush administration contrived to have his video removed from heavy TV rotation and his subsequent US tele-appearances curtailed—except in the context of the Fox show America’s Most Wanted.) Sex and the City trimmed views of the twin towers; Paramount airbrushed them from the poster for Sidewalks of New York. Sony yanked their Spider Man trailer so as to eliminate images of the WTC and similarly ordered retakes on Men in Black II that would replace the WTC with the Chrysler Building. DreamWorks changed the end of The Time Machine, which rained moon fragments down on New York.
How 9/11 Changed Hollywood
Examples from J. Hoberman's book Film After Film.
A prominent TV executive assured The New York Times that post-9/11 entertainment would be “much more wholesome” and that “we are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time” (presumably 1988 when candidate George H. W. Bush introduced that phrase). A DreamWorks producer explained that the present atmosphere precluded his studio from bankrolling any more movies like The Peacemaker and Deep Impact. What then would movies be about?
Hollywood expected to be punished. Instead, it was drafted. Only days after the terror attacks, the Pentagon-funded Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California convened several meetings with filmmakers—including screenwriter Steven E. De Souza (Die Hard, Die Hard 2), director Joseph Zito (Delta Force One, Missing in Action), and wackier creative types like directors David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Mary Lambert. The proceedings were chaired by Brigadier General Kenneth Bergquist; the idea was for the talent to “brainstorm” possible terrorist scenarios and then offer solutions. (Why not? Did we not live in a country where Steven Spielberg had been called upon by Congress to offer insight into hate crimes and Tom Clancy was interviewed by CNN as an expert on terrorism?)
For the first time since Ronald Reagan left office, it became all but impossible to criticize the movie industry. After George Bush’s late September suggestion that Americans fight terrorism by taking their families to Disney World, Disney chief Michael Eisner sent an email praising the president as “our newest cheerleader.” One leader cheers the other. In Congress, conservative Republican Henry Hyde requested Hollywood’s help in addressing the “hearts and minds” of the Arab world. Unable to ignore the similarity between their religious fundamentalism and ours—thanks to the reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the events of 9/11 might be God’s punishment for America’s sinful behavior—the administration sought to promote the patriotic values of “tolerance” and entertainment.
On the other hand, according to the October 3 Washington Post, video stores were enjoying “huge rentals of heroic combat movies” with Rambo and Die Hard With a Vengeance “flying off Blockbuster shelves.” Four days later, in retaliation for the Afghani Taliban’s refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden, US and British forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The studios moved up military films like Behind Enemy Lines (which tested even better post-9/11) and the Somalia combat film Black Hawk Down. Warner Bros., supposedly out beating the bushes for a new Rambo, could only regret having so hastily yanked Collateral Damage—surely the season’s perfect movie.
In the weeks following September 11, New York saw a number of notable openings, including David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, not to mention the first installments of the Harry Potter saga and Lord of the Rings.
The December 2001 press screening for The Lord of the Rings was the first I ever attended where critics were frisked with a hand-wand metal detector and asked to check their cell phones. Although this was clearly a response to the possibility of the movie being pirated, these precautions were explained as necessary in view of a presumed terrorist threat.