As the U.S. military prepares for an increasingly probable engagement with Iraq, Hollywood is tentatively taking a business-as-usual approach.
Many political pundits are pointing to the first week in March as a likely start date for military action. Yet, the major studios have done little shifting of release dates around that time, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is continuing plans to present the Oscars on March 23.
Zeitgeist Films, an independent distributor with two foreign films scheduled for release in early March -- 10 from Iran and Nowhere in Africa from Germany -- has no plans to alter its schedule, either.
"We're going ahead and praying for the best," says Emily Russo, a co-president of Zeitgeist. "We hope [war] doesn't happen, but if it does, we hope the small little niche we're in will not be devastated."
While actors Sean Penn and Bianca Jagger have made fact-finding trips to Iraq, and other celebrities, including Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon, have voiced opposition to the impending war, the studios have kept mum.
"They've been cautious about addressing this issue because they don't know what's going to happen," says Jeanine Basinger, who chairs the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "The country is not necessarily getting behind the war. Hollywood needs to be with the audience, and they don't know where the audience is on this. They don't yet know what kind of stories the audience wants."
The Hollywood studios probably assume that no matter what's happening on the world stage, audiences will crave the escapist fare that they have slated for release. Especially films of the fantasy and comic-book variety.
After 9 / 11, films with realistic portrayals of terrorism, such as Collateral Damage, or even a comedic handling of bombs, such as Big Trouble, were temporarily shelved and ended up fizzling upon release.
Set to open in the coming months are movies versions of comic-book heroes, such as Daredevil, The Hulk, X-Men 2 and Tomb Raider 2.
Such films, says Basinger, will give audiences explosions "in a safe context."
One exception is Tears of the Sun, a Bruce Willis vehicle due out March 7. Willis stars as a Navy SEAL leading his unit into the jungles of Nigeria to rescue a stranded doctor. While in production, the film had a series of title changes, each progressively less macho: Man of War, Hostile Act, Hostile Rescue, and now its current title. Sony Pictures, which is releasing Tears, declined to comment on the changes.
How Tears fares with audiences could be a barometer in gauging the country's mood as well as its appetite for realistic war drama.
Ironically, in the past, wartime has often been a boon for box office. The day after the Gulf War began on Jan. 17, 1991, Home Alone was No. 1 at the box office for the 10th week in a row, taking in $11.1 million on its road to $281.5 million. That weekend, overall box-office business was up nearly 30 percent over the same period in 1990.