We've seen it happen again and again. A horrific and devastating tragedy occurs, and in the aftermath, the community struggles to make sense of it all and searches for strength to cope. Politicians, psychologists, and celebrities speak out, while people from across the world send flowers, offer condolences, and keep the victims in their prayers. One group that rarely comes to mind when considering those affected by tragedies is the movie industry.
In response to a tragic event, film companies will often alter or delay the release of violent movies. After the July 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting, Warner Bros. Pictures pushed back the release date of Gangster Squad, an action film that follows the members of the Los Angeles Police Department as they combat crime during the 1940s and 1950s. The movie, starring Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling, was set to open on September 7, 2012, but Warner Bros. moved the date to January 11, 2013, following the shooting.
The content of the film, itself, was also subject to controversy. The original May 9 trailer, which was quickly pulled from theaters and television, featured a clip of several characters popping through the screen of a theater and shooting the audience. Reportedly, the theater scene played a significant role in the film, which required redoing several scenes to supplement the edits. The reshoot of Gangster Squad now features a standoff between the gang and the LAPD in Chinatown, instead of in the theater.
The original May 9 Trailer, including the theater-shooting clip:
It's important to note that this is not the first time a film company decides to make changes to its films after horrific events. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, the December 15 premiere of Paramount Pictures' Jack Reacher was delayed until December 21. After Trayvon Martin's death in February, Twentieth Century Fox rebranded Neighborhood Watch as simply The Watch. Another one of the companies' movies, Phone Booth, was also postponed six months after the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks for including a sniper as the antagonist. After 9/11, many movies, such as Collateral Damage, were postponed and edited to remove controversial scenes, including ones with plane hijackings or bombings of buildings. One film, Nosebleed, was completely cancelled because the script featured the World Trade Center and a terrorist plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty.
Though it makes sense for companies, following a tragedy, to postpone movie releases out of respect, self-censorship, in response to cases similar to Sandy Hook and Aurora specifically, seems counterintuitive. The difference between Aurora and, say, 9/11 is intent. If the people who look to commit such acts in order to get attention, doesn't changing scripts (and, thus, upsetting excited moviegoers) generate even more buzz?
Some may argue that simply postponing movies without removing scenes that stir nightmares is detrimental to those who are trying to heal. But does removing the theater-shooting scene in Gangster Squad actually help the healing process? One of the movie's stars, Josh Brolin, even makes good points about the reshoots. The new scenes, after all, are just as violent as the original ones; they simply take place in a different location. "It's still a violent replacement. It just happens in Chinatown. It's just as violent," Brolin said.
But this violence, and the frenzy over the changes, will continue to remind moviegoers, noted Brolin. "It just doesn't remind you of this thing that happened," he said. "It's probably going to anyway because everyone knows it's been replaced."
Well, let's just tone down the violence entirely, some may suggest, because violent movies desensitize us. However, if we were to censor scenes of shootings in theaters, schools, etc. from all present films, it would only make sense that we would have to apply this policy to (potential) future tragedies in other locations. Malls, parks, playgrounds, and office buildings – where will we draw the line and who gets to determine its placement? I fear that we would end up banning all forms of entertainment and expression that feature violence.
There is a fair and legitimate concern for public sensitivity, but ultimately, it is also a question of censorship. Should real-life events affect the intent of one's art? Or should sensitivity towards others take precedence over freedom of expression?