Will he be back?

Will he be back?

Could audiences turn against the Governator, Willis and Stallone after Newtown?

By Carl Kozlowski 01/17/2013

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He played a robot assassin, killed off alien predators and became the world’s first pregnant man during more than 20 years of superstardom. Off screen, however, former California Gov.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has been anything but super, failing at turning around the state’s flagging economy as well as at his marriage to Maria Shriver, after fathering a son with his housekeeper.

Now the 65-year-old Governator is hoping for a comeback with his new film, “The Last Stand,” in which he plays a desert-town sheriff who has to rally his townspeople against a ruthless gang of drug dealers on his last day on the job. But in the wake of the shocking Newtown, Conn., school massacre, it remains to be seen whether audiences are still eager to see the cinematic return of 1980s-era heroes like Schwarzenegger, who mix callous wisecracks with hyper-violence.

In an amazing coincidence, the ex-governor isn’t facing this dilemma alone. On Feb. 1, his former box-office archrival, Sylvester Stallone, 66, will make his own solo-starring return with “Bullet to the Head,” and on Valentine’s Day Bruce Willis, 57, returns with the fifth film in the really hard to kill “Die Hard” series.

The three of them have teamed up twice already in the last three years for “The Expendables” film series, bringing cinematic Nirvana to action-film fans worldwide. But even as that was a brilliant marketing ploy of cinematic wish-fulfillment, which racked up impressive returns on a global scale, the movies fell short of expectations domestically by grossing just $103 million and $80 million, respectively.  
Could all this signal a sea change in the American movie-going public’s appetites? According to Paul Dergerabedian of Hollywood.com, the movie industry’s top box-office analyst, it may be too soon to tell.

“Right after the Newtown shootings, I was wondering if it would have a chilling effect on the types of films made, how they’re marketed, or whether audiences would turn away from movies packed with guns and extreme violence, and I haven’t seen any evidence that moviegoers have changed their appetites at all,” says Dergerabedian. “If you look at the success of ‘Django Unchained,’ that was the one I was afraid would bear the brunt of a backlash. But it was huge on Christmas Day, the day it opened, and it was [writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s] biggest movie ever. ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D’ surprisingly topped the box office last week, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ topped this weekend while all top four films were rated R.”

Dergerabedian recalls that similar questions were raised more than a decade ago, after the 9/11 attacks, as well as after last summer’s movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo. But since the same kind of films keep coming down the pipeline and are doing well¸ he feels that enough people see violence as a form of escapism to keep these films’ grosses solid.

“‘Gangster Squad’ did less than expected last weekend, but I don’t think it had anything to do with Tommy guns, because ‘Zero’ has plenty of machine guns and was No. 1 by a mile,” says Dergerabedian. “Audiences find escapism in comedies, but also in violent content. For most well-adjusted people, they will not take away being violent themselves.”

While there are certain behaviors that Dergerabedian believes would offend audiences outright, such as gunplay involving children, he admits that even he cringed upon hearing that Stallone’s new movie was titled “Bullet to the Head.” He also expressed surprise that, after landing a PG-13 rating for the fourth “Die Hard” film in 2007 and seeing that result in the biggest hit yet in that series, the new Willis bloodbath pursued an R rating like the first three films in the series.  

“When you run numbers on box office, PG-13 has the greatest potential for a blockbuster because it’s the biggest draw since no one is barred from attending, and the teen date crowd can go,” says Dergerabedian. “But an R rating denotes something exciting to audiences. R-rated horror movies do very well because audiences know they’ll get extreme violence and language.

“For certain movies, an R is essential — making a PG13 ‘Scarface’ remake would make me bummed out,” Dergerabedian continues. “Sometimes, you need the intensity and if you water it down, it doesn’t always work in the creative process. You want the filmmakers to continue what makes franchises work. The higher selling DVD and BluRays are the unrated ones, rather than the theatrical version. Why? People want that stuff; they want to see the violence and intensity, unless it’s Pixar.”

With audiences not voting for more restraint with their film-going choices, it appears that we’ll keep seeing the envelope pushed on the nation’s film screens — especially since many films are made a year or more before their release, and the marketplace can’t adjust immediately to outside factors like the massacres. The only thing that might make things change is if these three new films, and others like Jason Statham’s Jan. 25 shoot-em-up “Parker,” tank in theaters, or if more producers and studio executives grow a conscience.
“There could be some self-censorship going on, as if you’re a sensitive human being you might consider what you would put in a film after Newtown,” says Dergerabedian. “But that’s organic, not government abridgement of the creative freedoms of filmmakers.
“The criminal wins if the creative process is chilled by the reaction to these crazed maniacs who commit these heinous crimes,” Dergerabedian concludes. “That’s the cost of living in a free society, but we have the right to consume or not consume it. If consumers showed they didn’t want this content any more, Hollywood would make a lot less of it.”

For reviews of this weekend’s new movies “Broken City’ and “The Last Stand,” visit pasadenaweekly.com.

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