Not Just 'The Interview': Welcome to Movie Purgatory

The comedy starring Seth Rogan and James Franco is not the only film to have been shelved, albeit briefly, for its problematic nature.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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James Franco, left, as Dave and Seth Rogen as Aaron in a scene from 'The Interview.'
James Franco, left, as Dave and Seth Rogen as Aaron in a scene from 'The Interview.' Credit: AP
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

By now, everybody knows what happened to the film “The Interview” – how, after being the target of a cyber attack, Sony Pictures Studios announced that it was shelving the film, and then issued it to a few independent cinemas and streaming sites in a limited release. That is an extreme case. Other films have been shelved in the past, but if North Korea really is responsible for the cyber attack, then it is the first time that one country has forced another to shelve a film.

The incident has already had an effect on the industry: It was reported recently that New Regency Productions had decided to cancel the shooting of a film by Gore Verbinski entitled “Pyongyang,” which was supposed to start in March. Steve Carell had been slated to star in the film, a suspense thriller set in North Korea.

Films have been shelved before in the United States – but this was mostly because neither the production companies nor the distributors knew how to sell them to the public. Most of these films were finally screened in a limited release, and sometimes were sent directly to DVD libraries.

One film that was screened in the end was Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” which waited on the shelves for six years because its producers had demanded that it be no longer than 150 minutes. Lonergan, who gave them a version that was an hour longer than that, refused to shorten the film and even brought a lawsuit against the company. The film was finally released in 2011 to 14 theaters – at one second less than 150 minutes. The complete version, as Lonergan wanted it, can be found in the film’s DVD version.

Here are a few other examples: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” directed by John McNaughton, was produced in 1986, but released only in 1990 because its producers feared that audiences would react badly to the film’s violence and extremism, which McNaughton had refused to tone down. It was only thanks to the struggle by film critic Roger Ebert, who liked the film, that it was finally screened.

Another example is the film “Blue Sky” by the British director Tony Richardson. It was produced in 1991, but Orion, the company that had produced it, went bankrupt and the film waited three years to hit the big screen. Jessica Lange’s performance in “Blue Sky” won her a second Academy Award in 1994.

Along the lines of what happened with “The Interview,” American cinema owners feared to show films for two main reasons. In the 1950s, Hollywood was still under the firm control of the internal censor. Any movie that did not have the censor’s approval, such as Otto Preminger’s 1953 film “The Moon Is Blue” or Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll” (1956), met with hesitation on the part of movie theaters to screen it for fear of gaining a bad reputation or that religious fanatics would demonstrate against it. Incidentally, both “The Moon Is Blue” and “Baby Doll” were big hits.

Another fear was that films dealing with racial issues, such as “Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee (1989) and Mario Van Peebles’ “New Jack City” (1991), might spark race riots (and riots indeed broke out in some places where the films were shown). Even films that might arouse non-racially-based rioting, such as Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” (1979) daunted cinema owners.

Over Hollywood’s history, some films were deliberately not shown in specific parts of the U.S. Classic Hollywood produced all-black films such as the musical “Hallelujah!” directed by King Vidor in 1929, Vincente Minnelli’s “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” directed by Andrew L. Stone, both from 1943, knowing that they would never be shown in the south, but only in movie houses for African-Americans.

In the history of Israeli cinema, the best-known film that was shelved is “Angels of the Wind,” a crime film by Gur Heler from 1992 starring Moshe Ivgy, Anat Atzmon and Uri Gavriel, evidently due to financial troubles. I never saw it, and I am curious to see it. Heler preceded it with an impressive short film called “Night Movie” (1992), and maybe the time has come to release “Angels of the Wind” in a special screening at cinematheques or on DVD. I am sure that Kim Jong-un would not care one bit.

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