Hollywood gets cold feet over disaster movies

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The Independent Culture

The cultural critic Theodor Adorno once wondered if poetry was still possible after Auschwitz. After Tuesday's horrific real-life destruction in New York and Washington, Hollywood will have to start wondering if it can ever make a disaster movie again.

For the past three days, the entertainment industry has been in a state of protracted shock as the television has played and replayed images uncannily similar to those dreamt up – solely for the escapist entertainment of teenagers – by its own producers, directors and special- effects wizards.

Film and television production has in effect ground to a halt – initially because the studios sent everyone home and, in the past two days, because everybody is too busy watching television and calling their friends in New York to do any real work.

What work there has been – and at the New York end of the industry there has been precisely none – has involved cancelling, rescheduling and perhaps rethinking the entire approach to mindless screen violence, death and destruction in the wake of the terrible events of 11 September.

The first things to be censored are materials – trailers and print adverts as well as films themselves – featuring imagery of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Sony and Amblin Entertainment announced they would change the ending of Men in Black 2, due for release next summer, because it included sequences shot at the World Trade Centre.

Sony's subsidiary Columbia Pictures pulled a trailer already in circulation for next summer's Spiderman, in which bank robbers are caught in a spider web between the twin towers. The studio insists the sequence does not appear in the final movie, although one wonders if that statement is the after-the-fact reflection of a hastily made editing decision.

The calamity is also playing havoc with the autumn line-up of films and television dramas. Disney has decided to postpone the 21 September release of Barry Sonnenfeld's comedy Big Trouble, because it involves a bomb smuggled on to a plane. Warner Bros is similarly shelving the Arnold Schwarzenegger drama Collateral Damage, due out in October, in which Schwarzenegger avenges the death of his wife at the hands of terrorists.

The big networks, meanwhile, have made no decisions about the fate of television series with names such as The Agency and 24, which deal with crime-fighting and include scenes of terrorism, plane hijacking and more culturally unfortunate themes. For the moment, only the promotional advertising has been pulled.

The video game market has also been affected, with at least one new game called "Majestic" being pulled by Electronic Arts because it involves sending players seeking to solve a murder plot a series of threatening phone calls and e-mails including pre-recorded screams.

The studios are likely to rethink their entire autumn schedules, not just because of the content of their supposedly crowd-pleasing material but also because of the difficulty of getting audiences into cinemas at the moment.

There are other niggling problems, too, like the fact that the logo for Miramax, the independent production house turned Disney subsidiary, includes an image of the World Trade Centre.

There are also much broader concerns. It seems impossible that the hijackers could have conceived of their plot to smash commercial planes into major landmark buildings without at least a working knowledge of Independence Day, the 1996 thriller in which alien spaceships zap the White House and New York's Empire State Building, or any number of other popcorn disaster films such as Godzilla or the Die Hard series.

What will the studios do now to entertain teenagers? Most executives were too stunned even to address the question yesterday.

Sherry Lansing, the head of Paramount Studios, told the Hollywood Reporter: "At this early moment, I can't even begin to predict the impact it will have on the movie business, but I know nobody's life will ever be the same.

"It's just much too soon, and we're still too raw to begin to predict the future."