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When Real-Life Tragedy Impacts the Movies

Naming movies is a tough business. You have to be at least a little clever. You want to tease certain themes, individuals, or unique qualities and you have to balance the very fine line between too broad (John Carter) and too specific (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). 

This weekend, moviegoers are getting a horribly titled movie called The Watch. Is it a heist movie about the world’s most expensive Rolex? How about an indie film about someone trying to break the world record for most consecutive hours watching television? Or mabye it’s a Pulp Fiction prequel following Christopher Walken’s unforgettable character who, while in Vietnam, shoves a dead soldier’s watch up his ass to keep it out of enemy hands.


No, no and no. Obviously, The Watch is about a neighborhood watch team going rogue after an alien invasion …

Truthfully, it was originally titled “Neighborhood Watch” (much better), but after the tragic shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, it was changed so as not to repel those uninterested in revisiting such feelings at the movies. 

And it’s definitely not the first time such a change has taken place. Cinema history (especially over the last decade) is full of examples of titles getting changed, movies getting delayed, or scenes and stories being edited to shield a fragile public from reliving sad and frightening world events. Here are some of the biggest examples:


Collateral Damage

Actually, dozens of movies went through changes after the 9/11 attacks. Serendipity, Zoolander, and Kissing Jessica Stein (among others) had shots of the World Trade Center towers digitally removed before theatrical release. Collateral Damage makes the list because it’s probably the film that was most effected, at least in the immediate aftermath. 

This Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, which featured plots about an airplane hijacker and bombings at a major U.S. building, was scheduled for release in October 2001. That got changed to February of the following year. And both the trailer (which showed these buildings under attack) and the plot about the hijack (which believe it or not featured Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara as the main hijacker) were scrapped.


Phone Booth

A movie about a guy with the scope of a sniper’s rifle aimed squarely between his eyes wasn’t something the people of Virginia and Washington, D.C. were clamoring for in the fall of 2002. This was right in the midst of the horrible series of sniper shootings by John Allen Muhammad impacting the area. 20th Century Fox elected to move the film back almost six months to April 2003, which was a smart move, considering it made back almost ten times its production budget.


The Hangover Part II

This one’s a bit different. Changes were made during production, and the reasons for them related to the cast’s objections, not the public’s. It’s been a while since Mel Gibson was a popular, beloved guy (was he ever?), but his image reached its nadir during the second half of 2010. During those months, taped phone conversations and messages between Gibson and his soon-to-be-ex wife were released to the public, and Gibson’s behavior was just totally unexceptable by any standard. 

It was around this time that Todd Phillips and co. were preparing for the sequel to the wildly successful 2009 comedy The Hangover. Gibson had apparently agreed to a cameo in the film, but many of the film’s other cast members (especially Zach Galifianakis, apparently) just did not want him around. They collectively put their foot down, and Gibson was swiftly replaced by Liam Neeson (who was, in turn, replaced by Nick Cassavetes due to scheduling conflicts). Now, Gibson’s movies are going direct to video (Get the Gringo, anyone?)


Gangster Squad

Yes, The Watch, sadly, is no longer the most recent case of true events forcing a film to be changed. Last weekend’s tragedy in Aurora, Colo. was a devastating blow to anyone who frequents the multiplex, and those who went out and saw The Dark Knight Rises that Friday got a little more than they bargained for when the trailer for Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad showed a group of Prohibition Era-thugs shooting up a movie theater.

Warner Bros. almost immediately yanked the trailer from theaters, and reports this week say the scene in question will likely be cut, and the film’s release date will be moved from September to January

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