Hollywood’s profit from 9/11
Hardball opened on Sept. 14, 2001, and within three days, it grossed 9.3 million dollars. Impressive, considering it opened three days after the World Trade Center fell. If nothing else, the film’s success is a testament to Hollywood’s overarching presence and power, but it also marked the emergence of a new set of needs displayed by the American public: The need to laugh, the need to escape, and the need to be saved in the wake of 9/11.
Directly following 9/11, the only product to come out of Hollywood was a short piece entitled The Spirit of America. It was meant to epitomize American patriotism, according to Ithaca College professor Jack Powers, and was intended to inspire and encourage American citizens still reeling from the attacks.
Other than The Spirit of America, 2001 saw the release of Shrek and Harry Potter, rather than heavy, pathos-toting films. The silver screen, however, grappled with terrorism-inspired content.
“[In] the early aftermath of 9/11, several TV shows like The West Wing and Law & Order tried to directly incorporate terrorist attacks into their story lines, with mixed results,” Powers said.
Not only were viewers not responding to the content exactly how the executives had hoped, but in many revenue was actually lost in days following the attacks.
“For many days, all the networks showed nonstop coverage of the event,” Dan O’Shannon, co-executive producer of Modern Family, said. “The networks lost millions of dollars that would otherwise have been generated in ad revenue from the shows that were supposed to be airing.”
Eventually, networks found a happy medium in government-focused shows like Criminal Minds and NCIS — shows that allowed the American public to watch as criminals faced the wrath of the United States legal system—and what Powers refers to as “escapist fare,” television rooted either so deeply in comedy or impractically that it allowed viewers to mentally detach from the present.
But even as network executives successfully introduced characters like Criminal Minds’ Aaron Hotchner — strong, masculine and stoic to a fault — into the public discourse, the big screen continued to progressively avoid 9/11.
According to Powers, no one was “chomping at the bit to commercialize 9/11. Everyone [was] aware of how that might come across,” and thus the screens stayed black. Clint O’Connor, a media critic with The Cleveland Plain Dealer, agreed.
“Major studios are often willing to exploit anything and anyone,” O’Connor said. “But such an incredibly tragedy carried past the bottom line.”
Fast forward five years.
As time passed, the taboo surrounding 9/11 lessened; the first two films directly depicting 9/11 were released in 2006. United 93 came out in April, and World Trade Center followed in August.
“[Studios] made an effort to be respectful and realistic,” O’Connor said. “We all watched the horror live.”
The films didn’t need classic Hollywood gimmicks, but that hardly means they weren’t profitable. World Trade Center, starring Nicolas Cage and Maggie Gyllenhaal, eventually grossed 70 million dollars.
Americans needed closure. They wanted a new perspective on a moment that, in retrospect, defined the world they lived in. They were curious. Pretending that executives at Paramount Pictures — the production company responsible for World Trade Center — weren’t aware of 9/11’s selling power is simply naïve.
World Trade Center director Oliver Stone used 9/11 in the same way network executives use A-list actors and television producers use cliffhangers: As a hook to draw in viewers. The decision to green-light the production was at its very core, a business decision, made with profit in mind.
Remember Me, a 2010 romantic drama, was free of fallacies, but that hardly left it free from criticism. The film premiered just a little more than eight years after the fall of the World Trade Center. To most viewers who’d been hoping for two hours of Robert Pattinson and formulaic romance, that was irrelevant. It was at least, until the final moments of the film, which used 9/11 as a plot twist, hoping for a cheep cry and a lasting impression. And therein lies the ethical crux.
“The immediate effect was monetary,” O’Shannon said of 9/11’s effect on network programming. Ten years later, that hardly seems to have changed. The weeks leading up to the tenth anniversary saw countless hours of programming dedicated to 9/11, every second of which made someone money. But in the case of media post 9/11 it’s possible that “profit” and “exploitation” aren’t synonymous.
The true judge of whether or not Hollywood’s exploiting national tragedy lays not in box office revenue, but in the role of 9/11 in the piece. It lies in whether it serves to commemorate and memorialize or it’s simply a plot twist. Over the past ten years, Hollywood’s produced examples of both. Critics have argued and debated, but the choice isn’t truly theirs.
The choice belongs to the people, to the students, to the parents, to the teenagers, to the public. It belongs to everyone else.
Kaitlin Hulbert is a freshman IMC major who really just wanted to ruin Remember Me for you. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.