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VIRGINIA TECH MASSACRE SCARES DISTRIBUTORS

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK
Variety, 4/20/07


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cho Seung-Hui may have had TV news glory on his mind when he embarked on his murderous spree last week. But it seems that two films on the fest circuit had him -- or his ilk -- on their minds.

Neither film has yet found distribution, and the Virginia Tech shootings aren't likely to help.

In news that eerily prefigures the VT shootings, both movies explore alienated students who go on campus shooting sprees.

Discovery Films' docu "The Killer Within," which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, examines Bob Bechtel, who went on a rampage at Swarthmore in the 1950s after he was bullied by other students. In an odd coincidence, the movie was playing to survivors at the Philadelphia Film Festival at the time of the VT incident.

"Dark Matter," which screened at Sundance and will be available in the Cannes market, hits even closer to home: Shi-Zheng Chen's film, which stars Meryl Streep, examines a disaffected Asian student (played by Liu Ye, shown above with Streep) who, in the film's climactic scene, shoots colleagues and professors. The movie is scripted, though Chen based it on a 1991 event.

While the Virginia Tech massacre has brought media attention to the two pics -- filmmakers have given interviews to "Dateline NBC" and other outlets -- distribs are, not surprisingly, reluctant to take the films now.

One potential distrib of "Dark Matter" is contemplating dropping out after the VT shooting, and those that remain interested say they'd have to rethink their release strategy.

The reluctance poses a sharp irony: In the era of 24-hour cable news and instant blogging, Hollywood is criticized for coming too late to news events. But when it weighs in too soon -- or, in the case of these films, even anticipates the event -- it's seen as exploitative.

The filmmakers remain hopeful that their efforts will find distribution. "Obviously we have to be sensitive," says Macky Alston, director of "The Killer Within." "But the film speaks so directly to the Virginia Tech story and vice versa. We have something that can be of use right now."

Says Pam Rodi, an exec at Myriad Pictures, which produced "Dark Matter": "We still believe in the movie and the story that it's telling," "Hopefully a film like "Dark Matter" gets inside the mind of someone with these kinds of issues without glorifying them."

When to release a movie with real-world echoes is a tricky one; very few pics get it right. The release of "The China Syndrome" in 1979 seemed eerily prescient when the Three Mile Island plant sustained a partial core meltdown two weeks later. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, "Collateral Damage" and other films touching on terrorism suddenly seemed woefully out of touch.

The Virginia Tech shootings find the media uncomfortably in the same spotlight as the perpetrator. Cho sent a video manifesto and photos of himself brandishing weapons to NBC. Some saw a resemblance to a scene from Chan-wook Park's 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner "Oldboy," with Wired News wondering in a headline: "Virginia Tech Killer Inspired by 'Oldboy?'"

But the suggestion of causality between film and killer may miss the point, since filmmakers are reacting to real-life characters as much as the other way around.

"Movies and reality are in a complex dance with culture," says Syracuse U. media expert Bob Thompson. "One group responds to alienation by making a movie about it. The other acts it out."