News

Big theater chains shut out Bush-assassination movie

Bruce Newman
San Jose Mercury News

When Regal Entertainment Group, the largest movie theater operator in the United States, decided it would not show a controversial new film that depicts the assassination of President Bush on any of its 6,300 screens, the chain didn't stop there. Even if "Death of a President" is a hit for other theaters, a company representative insisted, Regal would never allow its customers to see the film.

Ever.

"We do not feel it is appropriate to portray the future assassination of a president," said Regal's Dick Westerling.

With AMC, the nation's second-largest chain, and Cinemark, which owns Century Theatres, also lining up against "Death of a President," the film has effectively been banned from at least 16,300 American movie screens.

"That's a really striking statement," said Gabriel Range, the director and co-writer of the faux documentary, which opened Friday on fewer than 120 screens nationwide. The Bay Area is one of the movie's biggest potential markets, with openings today in Los Gatos, Menlo Park, San Francisco and Berkeley. By contrast, in the nation's capital the film is showing at only one theater.

"I think some of the theater chains have decided that it's an opportunity for them to take a moral stance," Range said. "And I find that questionable."

CNN and National Public Radio announced this week that neither network would accept ads for the film (NPR calls them program sponsorships). CNN, which has given extensive editorial coverage to the film, cited "the extreme nature of the movie's subject matter" as its reason for rejecting the commercials of distributor Newmarket.

"To refuse to accept ads for a movie is tantamount to saying it shouldn't be seen," said Chris Ball, an executive at Newmarket, "and this runs counter to everything we are supposed to believe in as a free society." Two years ago, Newmarket released "The Passion of the Christ," which depicted the gruesome torture and crucifixion of Jesus, and grossed more than $600 million worldwide.

"We're a news organization, so our goal is to cover it as a news story," said Andi Sporkin, NPR's vice president of communications. "And there have been a lot of concerns about the film's subject matter from across the spectrum. We felt that a sponsorship was inconsistent with what our listeners expect of us."

NPR did, however, accept advertising for "Munich" last year, a film whose controversial premise -- the systematic assassination of suspected Palestinian terrorists -- NPR's news programs also covered as a story.

Range's film -- set in the near future -- attempts to address what he refers to as "the landscape of fear" brought on by Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the war in Iraq and the effect that measures such as the Patriot Act have had on civil liberties. Though the controversy has centered on the fictional assassination of a very real U.S. president, the broader theme the film examines is the repression that often follows such shattering events. For that, "Death of a President" won the International Critics' Prize at this year's Toronto Film Festival.

"I think there have been times in the last five years when it has been very hard to level criticism of any kind at the current administration -- specifically on the grounds of Iraq and security -- without being labeled anti-American or unpatriotic," Range said during a telephone interview from New York. "A defining characteristic of America is that it is a democracy, and a defining characteristic of democracy is that one should be able to have a debate about the administration's policies."

In the current political discourse, debate doesn't always have to be informed, and the movie's Web site (http://www.deathofapresident.com/index.php) acknowledges that with "reviews from people who have not seen the film." One of those comes from New York's Democratic junior senator, Hillary Clinton, who says of the picture "I think it's despicable. I think it's absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick."

"It would be naive for anyone to think that politics don't play a role" in the furor surrounding the film, Range says. "I don't think there's any question about that." That may even be true for filmmakers: The national midterm elections, in which Bush will be one of the central issues, are less than two weeks away.

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