On Christmas Day 2009, WBOC reported the horrible news that Sarah Foxwell, the 11-year-old girl who went missing that week from her home in Salisbury, Md., was found dead. That same day, Paramount Pictures had intended to release The Lovely Bones, the adaptation of the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, which is similarly about a young girl who is raped and murdered.
Paramount didn't open the movie that day. It delayed the nationwide release by three weeks. Paramount's decision to do that had nothing to do with the Foxwell case. Irrespective of the movie's subject matter, Paramount wanted to change the marketing strategy. Yet, even if the Foxwell incident never happened, the idea of opening a major motion picture about a pedophiliac killer on Christmas Day probably wouldn't have been a good one.
However, the Foxwell death did happen, and it's something that affected a lot of people, especially people in the Salisbury area. Yes, it's been just a few weeks since it happened, but I'm sure the whole ordeal will haunt the area for awhile, if not in perpetuity. For people in Salisbury as well as around Delmarva, it's a wonder if the ordeal will influence them about this particular movie or in fact change their minds about seeing it at all.
The conceit is that movies are escapist fantasy. People don't go to see real-life. They go to get away from real-life. If a movie unintentionally echoes a real-life, recent tragedy, the typical reaction is that people won't want to see it. Yet, if a movie is already made, the studio can't shelve it forever. Eventually, they'll have to put it out there. Usually, they'll wait and give the tragedy some time to subside.
After Sept. 11, 2001, about a half-dozen films, which dealt with terrorist attacks or attacks on New York City, were pushed back anywhere from three to six months. They included Collateral Damage and The Time Machine (2002). Matt Singer and Alison Willmore commented on this in their article for IFC.com called "When Films Fall Victim to Bad Timing." Tragedies like the L.A. riots and the Columbine school shootings have all delayed the release of movies.
Singer and Willmore mentioned one particular tragedy that hit close to Delmarva. Phone Booth starring Colin Farrell was set to be released on Nov. 15, 2002. That film was about a man who becomes terrorized by a sniper in Manhattan. However, the Beltway sniper murders in October of that year pushed the film to April 2003. People in and around the DC-area, of which Delmarva is only a hour's drive, were killed by the Beltway sniper. It made national news, much like the Foxwell case, and people were scared and sad leading up to that movie's initial release day. Therefore, it was believed that nobody wanted to pay to see that same scenario played out on a huge screen.
Phone Booth was pushed back five months. It was done out of respect and out of that conceit that the movie wouldn't do well, if released so close to the time of that tragedy. It's interesting to note that when Phone Booth did open in April 2003, it was the number one movie that weekend. Clearly, the delay was a good move for 20th Century Fox, the distributor of that film.
But, was it because enough time had passed since the tragedy or was it some other reason? Prior to The Lovely Bones opening here in Salisbury, I asked people about it. I asked them about how they might react being that the film's subject matter involved a recent tragedy that's still on people's minds. One woman said that she didn't even make the connection between the film and the tragedy. She was interested in seeing the movie but only because of the popularity of Sebold's book.
It made me wonder if anybody in the area made the connection. It made me wonder if my concerns as to whether Foxwell's death would affect The Lovely Bones was a valid concern at all. It made me question if films that echo recent tragedies would really have the negative impact that movie studios feared, if the films were released in the wake of the tragedy.
I remember the concern back in 2006 when Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center premiered just prior to the fifth anniversary of 9/11. At the time, there was much criticism even five years after the incident that the movie was "too soon." That film didn't just echo a tragedy. It directly addressed it. Yet, according to an article by Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo, the "too soon" effect wasn't really a factor. The movie met studio expectations in terms of revenue on opening weekend and got a CinemaScore of "A-."
The CinemaScore is a more accurate analysis of audience reactions to films. It's like exit polling. While World Trade Center wasn't a blockbuster, Paramount certainly didn't feel any backlash from those thinking that the wake of the tragedy was still an influence over moviegoers.
For The Lovely Bones, the same lack of backlash might also be in play. Nationally, the film opened strongly over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in 2010. It made about $20 million in its first three days in wide release. It averaged about $7000 per theater across the country, but, based on a report from a theater here on Delmarva, The Lovely Bones made at least $9,000. In an article by Pamela McClintock, reporter for Variety, the film hit its targeted demographic, pulling in 72 percent of female moviegoers and earning a "B" for its CinemaScore.
If I had to give the film a letter grade, it would be a "B" as well, maybe lower. It's not without its imperfections, but Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winner for his adaptation The Lord of the Rings, directs this film with aplomb.
Ashley Morelock, a co-worker of mine who read the book and saw the movie, said a significant amount was left out the film that was in the book. I agree that while Jackson has a great visual sense, he loses much in the way of character development. Certain individuals are short-changed, and while he does create some tense, almost chilling moments, he loses the connectivity and interactivity that you got from a movie like Ghost with Patrick Swayze. This film is more a superficial metaphor than a substantive statement.
But, I went to see this film on a rainy Sunday and the theater I was in was nearly full capacity. The theater manager to whom I talked the next day said that all weekend the theater had sell-out shows for that movie. The girl sitting next to me seemed to be really into it and enjoyed it. Even though I went into the movie with all these preconceptions, I have to admit that never did a thought of Sarah Foxwell enter my brain. I suppose if a movie is good enough, it can put real-life tragedies out of your mind even as it depicts them.
My conclusion can only be that maybe the initial conceit is wrong. Maybe films that echo real-life tragedies don't need to have a shelf period. Schedule shifts or cooling periods may not be necessary. The next few weeks will decide the fate of The Lovely Bones. But, initial reports figure no effect from Foxwell.