This week’s entertainment buzz…

Connecticut Shooting Impacts TV/Film

Sunday night, before the finale of Showtime’s “Homeland” (note: there are no spoilers in this post), there was a disclaimer warning that images in the episode may be disturbing on the heels of the horrific shootings at the Sandy Brook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Anyone who’s watching the finale of “Homeland” is poised for potential violence– we’ve seen torture, bombings and the usual gunshots that are part of any law enforcement-related TV show– but this was different. Not so much the violence in the episode but the real life violence that has been the top news story for days.

The sensitivity to the tragedy from the entertainment business has come in various forms. The film studios Paramount and Fox canceled red carpet festivities around the movie premieres of Tom Cruise’s “Jack Reacher” and the Billy Crystal/Bette Midler comedy “Parental Guidance” respectively. The Weinstein Company also canceled red carpet festivities around Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Fox network replaced Sunday’s episodes of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” out of concern that content could be offensive now that we have images of the Connecticut shootings in and on our minds. And Saturday night’s episode of SNL began simply with The New York Children’s Chorus singing their rendition of “Silent Night.”

Then during the Sunday night football game between the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49er’s the first quarter was preempted to bring viewers President Obama’s speech to Newtown, Conn. residents. This comes only two weeks after the testosterone-fueled NFL community had faced the reality that one of their own– Jovan Belcher who played for the Kansas City Chiefs– shot and killed his girlfriend and then killed himself.

The entertainment community whose output is both influential and omnipresent has often had to negotiate how to be sensitive in the wake of tragedies yet still bring the laughs, the spectacle… the entertainment.

Zero Dark Thirty & The Torture Debate

The movie “Zero Dark Thirty” directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal– the Oscar-winning team who made “The Hurt Locker“– hasn’t even opened yet but it’s already generating a lot of chatter. And it’s not the kind of chatter that the CIA agents in the movie tracked in order to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. It’s the kind of chatter that could eclipse talk of the movie and turn it into a political football about torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”The movie depicts waterboarding and methods presumably used by CIA agents over the years that they were pursuing the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. And it’s no spoiler to say that in May 2011, that man was found, shot and killed. Some have speculated that Zero Dark Thirty, while it’s not a documentary, does give the impression that torture works.

In the New York Times last weekend, Frank Bruni wrote: “I’m betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty.'” This may not be the kind of thumbs-up review the filmmakers were hoping for but it’s the kind of conversation this movie– which opens only in New York and Los Angeles Wednesday and then goes wider in January, may not want to have. Or do they? After all, some in Hollywood do say that all publicity is good publicity. And it’s possible that this debate will drive people to go see it. Still, there’s something to the point that Kim Masters makes in this week’s Hollywood News Banter section of The Business in terms of how the voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences who decides who gets the Oscar will respond. In a competitive year, “Zero Dark Thirty” is already emerging as a potential front runner but can this dark film about our country’s recent past trauma and recovery compete with the likes of our more distant path’s heroic trauma and recovery as seen in “Lincoln?” We shall see.

Monday morning the NPR news program Morning Edition ran a story called: No 1 At the Box Office? Four Reasons Why That Doesn’t Matter.

Riffing off of “The Hobbit’s” weekend box office take in the U.S., NPR reporter Sami Yenigun noted how the latest Peter Jackson output from the world of Tolkien broke previous December weekends with $84.4 million, but it was below expectations and it didn’t meant it would go on to “win the war” between Hollywood movies. He cited other weekend winners that have gone on to poor results domestically– such as last year’s “New Years Eve” and “Paranormal Activity 4.” Essentially, he was saying that winning the opening weekend box office race is false news. Two points he makes imply a third and forth: the importance of budget, and word of mouth

1. He says that a movie can finish out of the top ten and still make money such as Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which made barely $5 million in it’s relatively wide, but still limited, domestic release. However, this movie has gone on to make over $45.5 million in the U.S. and over $65 million globally without ever winning a weekend. And this makes it a success because the budget according to Box Office Mojo was $16 million. There’s no way to know if that was the final figure taking in the cost of marketing the film but even if we made it twice that much it’s still a win for Anderson and his financial backers.

2. NPR reporter Sami Yenigun also stresses the value of foreign ticket sales and how the hoopla over domestic opening weekend numbers don’t account for those. To that end, the case of “The Hobbit” is one for the Kiwi filmmakers to celebrate. Again, according to Box Office Mojo that movie has made over $138 million globally so far. It’s unclear what the exact budget is on this film given that Jackson, et al. are essentially making three movies at once — mimicking what they did on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Given this cost-sharing strategy the expenditures are spread out over the three films, but the truth is that this first film must sufficiently reignite an appetite for Tolkien in order for all three to do well. And in that respect the first weekend’s ability to not just generate ticket sales, but more importantly, to generate the kind of word of mouth that can take a trilogy to financial success is key.