At first glance, Ender’s Game seems an obvious choice for a big-budget movie adaptation. The 1985 sci-fi yarn has sold millions of copies, been translated into 29 languages, and is on the “Suggested Reading” list for the U.S. Marine Corps. It spawned a series 11 follow-up novels, meaning major franchise potential for the studio, Summit Entertainment, that snapped up the rights. And with a plot about a boy genius in a futuristic military academy being trained to defend Earth from extraterrestrial hordes it could credibly boast the tagline that it’s “Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games.” Guaranteed box office gold, right?
Not so fast. Several experts say Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card, also credited as a producer on the film, could pose a major problem for Summit as it begins its publicity campaign. Or, rather, his controversial politics do. Card has been at the forefront of the anti-gay marriage movement, acting as a board member of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which campaigned in favor of Proposition 8 in California. He’s said that if the U.S. government in any way allows states to legalize gay marriage, then the government will become his “mortal enemy,” and he will “act to destroy that government and bring it down.” He’s also advocated for sodomy laws to remain in place “to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”
In the past, the largely male, largely young, largely geeky audience for the Ender’s Game movie, directed by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Asa Butterfield, and due to be released Nov. 1, might not have been thought of as being easily offended by such rhetoric. Today, however, with acceptance of gay rights reaching an all-time high among American youth, and geek culture at the most progressive it’s ever been, that is not the case. Summit faces a major challenge in their marketing of the Ender’s Game movie that centers on two questions sci-fi fans will be asking themselves in the months leading up to its release: Is it possible to separate a book or movie from its author’s personal views? And is that compartmentalization morally defensible?
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“The fact of the matter is that we’re already talking about the controversy surrounding the film now, and, for better or worse, the personal views of the story’s creator are going to continue to be a discussion point in the many months leading up to its release,” says Mark Umbach, a public relations and crisis management expert for Macias Media Group, a firm that helps connect entertainment industry clients, including movie studios, to the LGBT consumer base. Umbach hasn't been brought in to consult on Summit's promotion of the Ender's Game movie but notes that the studio faces a major challenge in courting a gay audience for the film. “There is a huge LGBT audience for science fiction, and it’s going to be hard for those fans to separate Card’s comments from his work.”
Ari Karpel, an L.A.-based journalist who writes about movies and gay culture for The New York Times and Fast Company’s Co.Create site agrees. “The gay community has become adept at using social media to spread its opposition to perceived incidents of homophobia and really does have the power to taint the movie,” Karpel says. “While the gay audience itself is not necessarily the core audience for an Ender's Game series of movies, the younger demographic is increasingly sensitive to gay civil rights issues. Moviegoers are savvy. It's going to be hard to avoid making this an issue.”
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As expected, the studio has not responded to Hollywood.com’s repeated requests for comment. Rich Ferraro, Vice President of Communications for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), has released the following statement: "Anti-gay activists like Card can't expect to spread the same hateful and dangerous rhetoric they once did without it negatively impacting how the public views them. As a board-member of NOM, one of the most visible anti-gay organizations, Card is not merely a holder of anti-gay views but someone who has used his own fame and resources to actively make life more difficult for hard-working LGBT people and our families. He might still want the buying public to financially support his creative endeavors, but the public is responding with an affirmative "no." (Important to note: as of this report, the organization is not planning a boycott of the Ender’s Game film.)
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If you just look at the book sales for Ender’s Game, that “no” doesn’t seem as affirmative. As of March 1, it’s ranked as Amazon.com’s #16 bestselling science fiction novel, above George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings and A Feast for Crows and Stephen King’s 11/22/63.
However, it’s another controversy that shows what an uphill battle Summit has on its hands. DC Comics announced Feb. 6 that they'd hired Card to author a new Superman anthology. AllOut.org, a website devoted to LGBT activism, protested the hiring and has already gathered over 16,000 signatures for a petition to DC Comics to fire Card. DC Comics released a statement noting that Card’s “personal views” are not representative of the company’s, but that they “steadfastly support freedom of expression.” However, for those who could be directly affected by Card’s anti-gay marriage agenda, it’s harder to separate the Superman comic — and Ender’s Game —from its maker.
“It’s extremely difficult for the LGBT community to compartmentalize a body of work or product from its creator, because the views of the creator, who generally has a pulpit from which to speak, so intimately affect their lives and their families,” Umbach says “It’s a direct attack on the basic liberties being afforded to other Americans.”
A number of comic book writers and artists are protesting Card’s hiring themselves. Phil Jimenez, who co-authored the DC Comics Encyclopedia and has penciled Wonder Woman comics for DC and New X-Men comics for Marvel says, “The messaging readers receive through Superman is really important -- he's a symbol of honesty, fairness, goodness, and justice — and I just feel like attaching someone so virulently bigoted to the character seems to taint him for me a little, and certainly ensures I don't buy the works authored by such an individual.”
Card’s association with Superman is surprising given how much more sensitive the comics world has become regarding gay issues and the inclusion of gay characters. DC itself recently had the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, come out of the closet, and Batwoman has been pursuing lesbian relationships in the pages of her comics. “As a writer, I’d like to say that it’s been the creators driving this [inclusivity], but really, I think it’s been the readership that has demanded more diversity over time,” says Batwoman author W. Haden Blackman. “Readers want to see more characters that reflect who they are, or the people they know and love… I’ve encountered virtually no homophobic response to my work on Batwoman. It’s been exactly the opposite, in fact.”
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There certainly isn’t a 100% overlap between comics readers and the sci-fi audience that would buy a ticket to see the Ender’s Game movie, but the increasing openness in representing gay characters in comics, and the audience’s demand, including the straight audience’s demand, for that openness, is indicative of a larger shift in geek culture. “What has always impressed me about science fiction since I was a kid is that it is a progressive genre, one that explores ideas,” says Brannon Braga, wrtier/producer of the Star Trek series The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise and co-creator of CBS’ Threshold and Fox’s Terra Nova. “In exploring ideas you can’t be closed minded. By definition, science fiction is also humanitarian.”
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One thing that might work in Summit’s favor is the fact that the general audience just doesn’t know much about Card’s homophobia — if they know much about him at all. Aside from his placement on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, he’s expressed most of his anti-gay views to Mormon publications. “I didn’t know Orson Scott Card had some hateful aspects to his personality,” says Braga. “I would assume that if people do find out about the author’s point of view, it would have an impact. It’d be almost like dealing with a Scientology book. It’s a little hard to separate Battlefield Earth from its origin. L. Ron Hubbard may not have written it as a Scientology book per se, but it’s difficult when you’re reading it not to think, ‘Oh yeah, this is by the guy who founded Scientology.’”
Though groups like AllOut.org and GLAAD are trying to raise awareness, Card's past isn't a talking point for the run-0f-the-mill moviegoer. But the web-savvy sci-fi fans who will be the core audience for an Ender’s Game movie are much more in tune. That could be a problem, since those sci-fi fans are going to be responsible for building buzz and creating a consensus about the movie on social media leading up and after Ender’s Game’s release. Not to mention that within geek culture authors and their creations, whether books, movies, or TV shows, have never been more closely linked. Don’t like the Star Wars prequels? Blame George Lucas! Hate Twilight? Bash Stephenie Meyer! Still fuming over that LOST finale? Accost Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on Twitter! Love Harry Potter? Build shrine to J.K. Rowling! It’s harder than ever to separate an author’s personality and priorities from the worldview he or she projects through a work of art. “I loved Apocalypto,” Braga says. “I think it’s a masterwork of filmmaking. But it’s hard to separate it from Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks that he made so near to the release of the film. And when I think of Apocalypto, I definitely do think of that.”
The box office track record of movies with these kinds of controversies isn’t exactly stellar. Gibson’s rant certainly didn’t help Apocalypto, and it grossed only $50 million in 2006, though, anti-Semitic comments or not, the ancient Mayan epic was never going to be a hit. More tellingly, Brett Ratner compounded the already bad buzz surrounding his 2011 film Tower Heist when he infamous said “rehearsals are for f**s,” the comment that forced him to resign from producing the Oscars, the weekend of his film’s release. Making only $78 million, it became his lowest grossing comedy in 11 years. And Ron Howard’s The Dilemma flat-out bombed in January 2011 following a backlash over Vince Vaughn’s pejorative use of “gay” in a trailer.
It’s impossible to know whether the controversies surrounding these filmmakers negatively affected their movies, especially given that those films were of questionable quality to begin with. But let’s put it this way: the controversies certainly didn’t help. What happens, though, if unlike The Dilemma, Tower Heist, and Apocalypto, the Ender’s Game movie turns out to be really good? “If the movie is great all else will fall away,” Karpel says. Braga agrees. “If Card’s vision is powerful enough and unique enough, the work can stand for itself.”
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That’s why Summit’s approach in addressing Card’s inflammatory views will likely be to just ignore them outright.
“That might be possible,” Karpel says. “Summit is the studio that managed to maintain Twilight's cultural dominance amidst a scandal that could have toppled it: the revelation that Kristen Stewart had cheated on Robert Pattinson with Rupert Sanders, her Snow White and the Huntsman director. Summit expertly maneuvered through that one, but the controversy does seem to have had lingering effects for Stewart, who is not as beloved as she once was.” Hollywood studios have mastered the ability at circling the wagons and preventing controversial discussions from even starting, and that cone of silence doesn’t only extend to employees on their payroll. Several crisis management experts were approached to comment on this piece, and, other than Mark Umbach, all declined to contribute. Braga himself candidly admits, “It’s better in Hollywood to just lay low on issues like this. The only reason I’m giving [this interview], honestly, is because I really think there is something terrible and ultimately corruptible about hate and judging people as a group rather than considering them as individuals. It’s disgusting when people express the kinds of views this author has expressed and I felt a moral obligation to at least chime in.”
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Likewise, the studio isn’t commenting at all on its strategy for promoting the film and, eight months before its release, it’s possible that they themselves haven’t hammered out their strategy. However, if they follow the template they used to market the final Twilight film in the wake of Kristen Stewart cheating scandal, that means one thing in particular could happen: Card could be left out of the film’s publicity. It seems almost unthinkable. It’d be like marketing the Harry Potter movies without J.K. Rowling. But leaving him out of the discussion may be preferable to putting him on a panel before a crowd of thousands in Hall H at Comic Con, where he might face questions that will distract from the film. “We have a whole younger generation who may not understand why marriage equality is even a debate topic,” Umbach says. “And those are people that are going to be in the audience at Comic Con. Putting Card in front of a huge audience may draw attention away from the film and put the focus on his personal ideologies, which could distract from the purpose of taking the principles to the convention…to support the film.”
Even if we can say that it is indeed possible to separate an author from his work, it seems undeniable that purchasing a ticket to the Ender’s Game movie is in fact funding Card’s politics. “I’d say that’s case,” Braga says. “If an author’s political views are so pronounced and have been articulated vocally enough that you are aware of them, I think there is a social responsibility behind your choice to buy a ticket.” Which is also to say that you can support Card’s right to “freedom of expression” without having to endorse those views with your dollars. Adds Blackman, “I shouldn’t somehow feel compelled to buy something created by someone who will use that money to persecute or restrict the rights of my loved ones.”
But in Hollywood, money is king, and the fact that some people feel that way can’t be good news to Summit. They’ll need a strategist like Ender himself to play this game.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credits: Richard Foreman Jr./Summit Entertainment, DC Comics]
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.