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On Nov. 11, Rogue One writer Chris Weitz launched a barrage of anti-Donald Trump tweets that mirrored what many in Hollywood had posted on social media in the wake of the presidential election.
But several messages took the crusade further, injecting the new Star Wars film into a divisive political debate: “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization,” wrote Weitz. Added fellow Rogue One scribe Gary Whitta, “Opposed by a multicultural group led by brave women.” Both men changed their avatars to a Rebel insignia with a safety pin, a reference to the symbol of solidarity with persecuted groups that has spread following the election.
Responses offered a predictable split between cheers for the activism and jeers toward Hollywood liberals. What Disney and Lucasfilm might not be thrilled about is that a Trump “Empire” versus Hillary Clinton “Resistance” narrative might alienate the 61 million-plus voters who backed the real estate mogul — a group too large to ignore when a company is in the tentpole business. By wading into polarizing waters, might the Rogue One writers hurt its box office? That’s a question being asked all over Hollywood.
“When you’re trying to get a big movie out, you want to be as agnostic as possible. You want to be able to appeal to everyone irrespective of their political beliefs,” says comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “If it’s a Michael Moore movie, go for it. Or Dinesh D’Souza. Then your currency is controversy. But if you’re producing something for the masses, your currency is not controversy. It’s get the movie out to the broadest possible audience.”
The ensuing backlash caused Weitz to respond: “Wow. The trolling is getting pretty heavy.” Within 24 hours, both writers took down the tweets and Weitz apologized. But the damage was done. (Disney declined comment.)
In the Trump Age, if the right-leaning media can help tip a presidential election, it’s reasonable to assume it can impact grosses. Just ask the makers of the all-female Ghostbusters, which was attacked online, prompting director Paul Feig and the studio to engage in the name-calling. The tentpole had been turned into a social hot potato before eventually disappointing at the box office.
“It comes down to how it is perceived. If Bill O’Reilly, Drudge and Breitbart collectively decide to take this on as this year’s version of the war on Christmas, it can have an impact,” says Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group. “Any time someone treads down a political path, there is commercial risk.”
The Rogue One writers aren’t alone in politicizing an upcoming tentpole. J.K. Rowling was less strident but perhaps offended a broader audience when she credited the “rise in populism around the world,” which she dubbed “a very dark force,” as providing inspiration for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Though Warner Bros. doesn’t believe her comments hurt Fantastic Beasts, the message to Trump and Brexit voters might be their movements are at odds with the film (as opposed to just Rowling’s politics).
“With any business, it’s better to leave politics out of a product you’re trying to sell to consumers,” says Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible. “You have to separate your product from personal opinions. If you err, social media just becomes an amplifier of the message.”
Indeed, ESPN, another Disney division, recently advised senior editors not “to express political views on social media accounts, even if your account is private.”
Of course, for those who say Hollywood should never self-censor in the face of authoritarianism, there’s ample evidence it has been doing so with regularity for China, recutting movies like the Total Recall remake or reconceiving a Red Dawn redo to gain access to the lucrative market. If Weitz had tweeted a similar sentiment like: “The Empire is an authoritarian state led by Xi Jinping,” he would have been committing box-office suicide.
“You will never see Richard Gere cast in a Marvel movie or a major tentpole,” notes one producer of the actor, whose denouncement of the Chinese government for its treatment of Tibetans still reverberates more two decades later.
After all, in an industry that places nine-figure bets on tentpoles, there’s little room for offending anyone.
“We’re talking about a lot at stake,” Dergarabedian adds. “You could just say nothing. When you wrap a particular political idea around your movie, that’s not a good idea.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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