Does Controversy Help or Hurt a Movie?

The Zero Dark Thirty torture debate broke out before you'd even seen it yet, right? Which led us to wonder, as everyone flocks to the theater over the holidays: Do tough conversations help or hurt at the box office? Do they make seeing a movie any more enjoyable? Or, in the case of Django Unchained, is immersion in controversy actually sort of the point?

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If you were paying attention to movie news just before the holiday, you may have noticed that the backlash against Zero Dark Thirty — specifically against the bin Laden hunt movie's depiction of torture, which had already made for fodder among movie critics — reached a fever pitch. The CIA condemned Kathryn Bigelow's movie, the Senate scolded its studio, and MSNBC's Chris Hayes called the film "objectively pro-torture." The film, already beloved by and debated amongst critics (including this one), was subject to this second round of controversy as politicians and the political punditocracy all got their private screenings, but nobody out in the American viewing public had really seen Zero Dark Thirty yet. You hadn't, right? Which led us to wonder, as everyone flocks to the theater over the holidays: Does controversy help or hurt at the box office? Does it make seeing a movie any more enjoyable? Or, in the case of Django Unchained, is immersion in controversy actually sort of the point?

Your initial reaction is probably that yes, of course, any buzz about a film that encourages people to make their own judgments is probably going to be good for that movie's financial success. An enticement for audiences to "see it for themselves" is a movie marketer's dream — it perpetuates the conversation, which puts more butts in seats, which perpetuates the conversation some more, and so on and so on. Word of mouth is a powerful tool, even when that word of mouth is that, potentially, the movie contains a chillingly misleading depiction of the efficacy of torture. The unyielding torture critic Glenn Grennwald, before seeing Zero Dark Thirty, said the film will be "huge no matter what" — although we're not so sure he was really taking the box-office performance of previous dramas about our current wars into account with that prediction. (They don't tend to do well: see In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, and Bigelow's own The Hurt Locker.)

The reality is, this is a pretty gnarly, knotty, difficult conversation people are attempting to have about this movie. For every perhaps willfully obtuse supporter of the film there's a pedantic, nitpicking detractor also muddying up the conversation. (I'm not sure that Chris Hayes's pointy-headedness was the best medium to discuss this particular topic, for example.) The whole topic is maybe too alienatingly complex and current even for an engaged moviegoer, and we'd think that means people will avoid Bigelow's film, even if that means they can't participate in the conversation. The conversation has become loud enough and, frankly, irksome enough at this point that we can easily see moviegoers, flooded with options in the next couple of post-holiday weeks, saying, "Eh, forget it, I've heard too much about it already," and going to see something else. Add to that the fact that the movie's pre-controversy target demo is probably not that much different than the ones having, or at least paying attention to, the current discussion, and the movie might be in for a small-ish audience despite all the noise. A film like Zero Dark Thirty, that could, with its three-hour length and touchy subject matter, be easily labeled "difficult," is ultimately not helped by all this additional political chatter, we don't think. But we'll see when it opens to wide release — Washington included — on January 11.

With something like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, the slavery exploitation pic (yeah, sigh) that tore up the box office this weekend, however, a little controversy is likely not only a good thing, but the complete point. Rattling about Django has not been quite as loud as it has for Zero Dark Thirty, but it has certainly not been without criticism. The biggest volley lobbed at the movie so far is a sight-unseen condemnation from director Spike Lee, who told Vibe magazine: "I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film." So, he's not saying you should go see the movie and judge for yourself so you can weigh in on the debate, as with Zero Dark Thirty. He's simply saying don't see the movie. Or do, but know that Spike Lee thinks it's disrespectful of his ancestors, so it just might be disrespectful to go see the movie yourself. And while his statement certainly isn't a call to boycott, if prominent people like Spike Lee are tacitly telling people to not see the movie, that could be cause for studio concern.

But of course in the case of Quentin Tarantino, this is likely great news. Django Unchained, perhaps more than any of his other films, was designed to court controversy. He's not really trying to incite serious debate here — the film isn't really that intellectually ambitious — but a good pooh-poohing from Spike Lee and people like Matt Drudge will, if paid attention to, likely do nothing but pique audiences' interest. People will want to see what all the fuss is about — and while the same thing could be said about Zero Dark Thirty, the truth is that American moviegoers are bound to be way more interested in satisfying their curiosity about gruesome titillation than they are about murky political quandaries. Zero Dark Thirty is a serious, sober film that is being called out not only for its credibility issues but for the far-reaching implications of those inaccuracies — that history is being written for the first time, by this movie, incorrectly. Django Unchained, on the other hand, might simply be riotously offensive. Though we're talking about two abjectly bad things here, slavery and torture, which one of those movies sounds more fun to you?

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