When news broke about the massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, the USA cable channel jumped into action. Using key words like “shooting,” “school” and “children,” executives identified problematic episodes of shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “NCIS” that were about to run.
Jane Blaney, the executive vice president of programming, thought the episodes should be removed and made that recommendation to Chris McCumber, a co-president of USA, who agreed. Substitutes were shown instead.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to have a process like this in place because of the recent history,” Mr. McCumber said.
USA was following established procedures for a quandary that has become all too common for Hollywood: how to react with compassion to horrific acts of violence while also protecting a business that often capitalizes on violent and crude entertainment.
Movie studios and television networks used to confront this balancing act a couple times a decade. But this year alone there have been three incidents that have required a crisis response — the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida last spring; the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater shooting over the summer; and now the Newtown school massacre.
The February shooting of an unarmed Mr. Martin by a community watch participant sent 20th Century Fox racing to retool the title of a comedy unfortunately called “Neighborhood Watch.” (It was called just “The Watch” at its July release.) The July deaths at a Colorado multiplex initiated a major show business scramble, particularly at Warner Brothers, which released the Batman movie that had been playing in the theater. Newtown is proving to be even more problematic.
The national grief and outrage at the massacre — 27 people killed, most of them young children — has been so strong that many movie studios and television networks have been forced to make more changes to their publicity campaigns and nightly lineups than first anticipated. Typically, industry executives say, the fallout is contained within the first day or two and then everyone moves on. But not this time.
And even though the Connecticut massacre has no direct connection to the movie industry, as Colorado did, executives are finding that the need for sensitivity crosses into all genres, even comedies, and extends to the lavish premieres the studios orchestrate, which they now fear will appear excessive and celebratory.
On Tuesday, studios were still weighing what to do with plans for coming movies, like “Not Fade Away,” an intimate drama, and the violent period thriller “Gangster Squad.” Paramount had decided by midday to press on with a premiere for “Not Fade Away” Tuesday night. Warner said in a statement that it had reviewed “Gangster Squad” materials “to ensure we are being sensitive when horrifying events such as these occur,” but added, “we intend to go forward with our plans for its release,” set for Jan. 11.
But other movie events scheduled for Tuesday were canceled or scaled back, including a planned red carpet spectacle in Los Angeles for Quentin Tarantino’s coming “Django Unchained,” a bloody period tale of an ex-slave in the Deep South. The Film Society of Lincoln Center on Tuesday sent out an e-mail announcing refunds for people who had purchased tickets for a canceled advance screening of “Jack Reacher,” which opens with a sniper scene and arrives in theaters on Friday. (Paramount also canceled a Pittsburgh premiere for “Jack Reacher,” which stars Tom Cruise, and removed from TV commercials images of Mr. Cruise firing a gun.)
Newtown has also prompted soul searching of a more personal kind in the entertainment capital. Hollywood’s power lunches have been filled in recent days with conversations about hypocrisy, according to people in the industry: Many of those who are liberal leaning and support gun control also make their livings selling violent images.
There is also a creeping dread in Hollywood that the entertainment industry will be drawn into a governmental crackdown on violent imagery. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday said that President Barack Obama — beyond hinting at new gun-control measures — planned to look at “other ways” to address this kind of violence. While he did not elaborate, Mr. Carney mentioned mental health, education and “perhaps” cultural issues as possibly contributing to gun violence
Mr. Carney also embraced a call by David M. Axelrod, the president’s election strategist, to rethink violent video games. “Every expert on this issue would, I think, agree with that, that there are cultural issues that contribute to the broader problem,” Mr. Carney said.
But there were already pockets of people in Hollywood pushing back on Tuesday — executives who maintain that, while tragic, the Newtown massacre had nothing to do with entertainment.
“What you hear from the industry is this: violence has always been a part of entertainment, back to Sophocles and Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe,” said Martin Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the University of Southern California. “Why should modern entertainment deprive itself of a universal and timeless element of storytelling?’”
Mr. Kaplan continued, “Violence is both a moneymaker — audiences love it — and an artist’s tool. Of course, it can be gratuitous. For every Scorcese or Peckinpah, there’s a schlockmeister who’s only in it for the dough. But who do we want to empower to decide whether Quentin Tarantino or a Grand Theft Auto goes over the line? The government? The industry? Or the audience, which is where Hollywood wants to put the control.”
Networks and studios approach their crisis control in wake of an event like Newtown in a methodical way, first starting with what’s on TV, either programs or trailers, and what is planned for theaters. They then look at publicity events like red carpets and, in the case of major movie studios, dispatch marketing staff members to conference rooms to sift through hundreds of pieces of promotional material for releases planned for the months ahead.
Does “Warm Bodies,” a zombie movie coming in February, expose Lionsgate to any consumer backlash? What about “A Good Day to Die Hard,” a crime thriller coming from 20th Century Fox on Valentine’s Day?
All of this takes time, even when procedures are in place. On Friday, several experienced executives at the Fox network reacted quickly to initiate a review of programs about to be broadcast that weekend. Two episodes stood out, both from Sunday night comedies, “Family Guy” and “American Dad.” In “Family Guy,” the talking baby, Stewie, was shown in a spaceship shooting down at adults on horses; “American Dad” depicted gunplay that surely would have invited criticism.
The scheduling executives called the episodes to the attention of the marketing department, whose executives reviewed them and decided each would likely have to be pulled. Those executives then brought the issue to Kevin Reilly, the chairman of entertainment for Fox, who agreed and ordered up repeats to fill the holes.
Brook Barnes and Bill Carter
Fox’s concern then turned to extensive promotions for an upcoming series, “The Following,” which deals with a police officer’s hunt of a ruthless serial killer who recruits an army of followers. The marketing executives, aware that some of the promotional images could be a problem, decided to alter the campaign using a backup plan already in place. The plan substituted more basic messages about the show — its title, its stars — for some that had images more suggestive of violence.
Because many billboards are now digital, Fox could replace those in one day, at the same time it was altering all of the promotional ads running on its network. But it also had to inform local stations affiliated with the network to replace the ads planned for their cities.
The decision on when to resume the campaign has become day to day, Fox executives said, depending on how long Newton remains in the front of people’s minds.