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How to Sell 'Zero Dark Thirty's' Torture

Graphic interrogation scenes, including waterboarding, complicate efforts to open Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's thriller in overseas territories.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you live in Qatar or  Lebanon, you might not be able to see Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty anytime soon. The chronicle of the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden was going to open in a few Middle East countries as it rolled out internationally in the new year, but sources tell THR those plans are on hold, underscoring the precarious nature of marketing a movie that could become a political hot potato even as it marches toward likely Oscar nominations.

Bigelow and writer Mark Boal insist Zero is an apolitical thriller that ends with the Navy SEALs raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan. After charges that President Obama's administration turned over information to Boal went nowhere, there's now a growing debate over the film's graphic torture scenes -- including waterboarding, a tactic banned by Obama in 2009. Some, including CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, say Zero glamorizes torture's role in getting bin Laden.

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Those scenes of American brutality certainly could turn off audiences in some territories. "I think it faces more challenges internationally," notes one marketing executive. "There's a reason why Independence Day wasn't called that everywhere."

The film opens Dec. 19 in New York and Los Angeles via Sony but doesn't expand nationwide until Jan. 11 -- one day after Oscar nominations are announced. Universal, which is releasing Zero in most of Europe, will follow suit and begin opening the movie after Jan. 11. And both Universal and independent foreign distributors -- Zero sold around the world, save for China -- are using the same marketing materials that Sony and producer Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures generated: a solid black poster referring only to the "greatest manhunt in history," not to bin Laden by name. In fact, despite promotable action sequences and a ripped-from-the-headlines storyline, the campaign will rely heavily on awards attention and be positioned as a prestige pic, which leverages Bigelow's pedigree (her and Boal's The Hurt Locker nearly doubled its domestic gross overseas thanks to the Oscars) and helps it avoid being attacked as pro-torture or pro-America, in the U.S. as well as abroad. To that end, Sony has hired Washington-based consultants Glover Park to position the film with political tastemakers and will stage a premiere in the nation's capital on Jan. 8.

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But if the debate over torture intensifies, it could be hard to divorce Zero Dark Thirty from real-life geopolitics -- which is why a release in certain territories is still not settled. And the filmmakers have taken one solution off the table: A source says individual distributors are not allowed to make cuts to the movie.