The Out-of-Control Negative Publicity for Zero Dark Thirty Might Cost Sony Oscars


The most important thing any Hollywood studio can do to promote a movie is to prepare a branding strategy.  The message and the method of which information is delivered is key for the goal of enticing public intrigue, which typically leads to ticket sales. For Awards Season, a studio is under pressure to deliver these awards and I’ve learned that The Weinstein Company is the most disciplined and most calculating with regard to successfully pulling this off. Sometimes unexpected chaos can erupt and failure to respond can cause damage in the eyes on the public. Once public perception and reputation among the Academy is solidified, its difficult to reverse course or put the can in the worms, per say. As long as I have been following films, nothing has been generated more pseudo-intellectual emotional driven chatter then Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Not since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has elitist, left leaning coastal dwellers been upset over the depiction of on screen torture. And “Crucify [Her],” they did. This rage came out of nowhere and I haven’t figured out why this happened? I didn’t know how to approach this controversy until box office has settled down and the awards season seems to hit its finally gear. Since both have happened, I can speak freely with confidence.


After watching it twice, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was a stunning display of masterful filmmaking. She has become the definitive director capturing the essence of the early dawn of the 21st Century’s convoluted War on Terror. The dialogue heavy drama teases viewers down a maze as tension boils over leading to a spellbinding third act where a viewer could hear a pin drop. Mark Boal’s screenplay balances the procedure of facts and historical events while interlacing the human drama for the capture of Al Quaida leaders including Bin Laden. Its the perfect mix of ping pong dialogue and heart racing action. As Maya, Jessica Chastain was captivating and a marvel to behold as the strong will woman taking on the men who talk down to her.


What might distract viewers from the masterful story telling is the overblown controversy. Lets take a look back at what has happened and the uncomfortable position this places Sony:


This all started back in August 2011 when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd implied, “The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history…”. She mad this claim without providing any significant evidence, and appeared to be merely based on speculation and gossip used to fuel drama. Fearing a Capra-style propaganda piece just in time for President Obama’s re-election, conservative leaning bloggers and Congressman Peter King set their partisan battle toward Sony and Bigelow while demanding answers. Since America has larger, more important, fiscal and economic problems to fight over, traction of a Congressional investigation hasn’t happened. Right wing bloggers insisted that Zero Dark Thirty would be an Obama campaign commercial and, obviously, these conservatives got The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow confused with the Act of Valor filmmakers. This isn’t a good way to introduce a highly anticipated movie to the public by having half your audience become suspicious.


This was the off again on again drama floating around Zero Dark Thirty, but the critics groups got it going again. When multiple critics groups in various cities were allowed access to Sony’s Top Secret Picture, it won them all over; the New York critics and the National Broadcast Review among others and momentum was finally building in Sony’s favor. It looked like the Oscar front runner and yet an unintended consequence few predicted was spawned from the high minded critics that populate these groups discussing; the depiction of torture. Many film critics and political pundits chimed in their thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty and the claims it made on torture which are muddled at best.


Andrew Sullivan of “The Daily Beast” described the premise as a “grotesque lie” and questioned if director Bigelow was a “Torture Apologist.”





Peter Maass of The Atlantic wrote: “It represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking…an already problematic practice – giving special access to vetted journalists – is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA).”


The Oscar winning director of the War on Terror documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side” Alex Gibney called it “irresponsible and inaccurate.”





Journalist Michael Wolff negatively critiqued Zero Dark Thirty as a “nasty piece of pulp and propaganda” and director Bigelow as a “fetishist and sadist”





NPR Fresh Air contributor David Edelstein said that “[a]s a moral statement, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is borderline fascistic” and claimed Dick Cheney would love this movie. That might have been the final straw.




The worst comments came earlier this month when outspoken author Naomi Wolf lived up to that description when she for The Guardian directly to director Bigelow: “By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist of torture…Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden.”


These are absurd quotes from people who clearly misunderstood the movie. Besides numerous critical awards, these comments were some of the highest profile forms of publicity Zero Dark Thirty has received! No one really knew anything else about the film except that “the Bin Laden movie upset people”. Since Sony decided not to open the movie with a wide release, as originally intended, on December 21st and cited a ‘crowded market’ as the cause, the debate of torture became the fuel for the publicity of Zero Dark Thirty. And as Zero Dark Thirty was labeled ‘pro-torture,’ this cemented into the public mind as very few people were able to see the movie as the hot controversy raged on. A lot of the criticism from both the left and right were blind assumptions made by misunderstandings and exaggeration with little substance. Many critics weren’t able to see it until right up until the release date when the minds had been made up for most.


Enraging movie critics or confusing the public is one thing. Upsetting politicians on a bi-partisan level who can summon you to a Congressional investigation is a whole other issue. Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin wrote a letter to the head of Sony Pictures stating the following: “We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama Bin Laden.” Maybe we can expect a Congressional investigation after all! The pundits and politicians aren’t the only individuals Sony ticked off.


The top news story of 2011, the killing of Bin Laden, became the most debated movie of 2012, and in 2013, the rest of the American public was finally were able watch it. This hasn’t ruined Zero Dark Thirty at the box office and it’s gone on to gross over $70 million in just three weekends into wide release, and it also maintained a super high critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, as well as earning an “A-” CinemaScore rating. $100 million seems likely.


In the context of Oscar, it certainly hasn’t done it any favors. I think the snubbing of Kathryn Bigelow for a Best Director Oscar was the causality in this PR debacle. The Academy wants to give it a few minor technical nominations, honor Jessica Chastain, and it appears that enough members liked it enough for it to score a BP nomination. I have a feeling that with all the controversy, the Academy wanted to keep a relatively safe distance from the film. Zero Dark Thirty is an exceptional masterpiece that should’ve received 8 or 9 Oscar nods instead of just 5. Without addressing the torture issues directly head on, the controversy kept growing at an out of control rate becoming its own negative connotation which affected its reputation with awards. In an Oscar race, perception is everything.
Ed Asner and Martin Sheen are urging Academy voters to not vote for Zero Dark Thirty in any category. A few other members have taken out ads in publications urging the same.  Both the conservative and liberal Huffington Post compared this campaign to a McCarthy Blacklisting, which I concur. Awards must be given out based on artistic merit and shouldn’t be hindered when the industry doesn’t like the facts.  The debate is so intense with this film and the awards field so crowded, we could expect ZERO Oscars which is my current prediction



Everything Sony has tried to do to change the conversation of Zero Dark Thirty is too little, too late. When all is said and done, the PR department for Sony made some missteps and can teach other studios about how not to promote a movie during awards season. Make few friends (primarily hand selected high profile critics) while not allowing all critics a chance to review the movie for their Top Ten lists, upset a lot of political pundits/outspoken celebrities (the more liberal, the angrier), and make sure no one is allowed to actually see your movie until the nastiest things can be said about it thus tarnishing public perception. And in the end, maybe all this drama might have worked in Sony’s favor? For box office, maybe. Many people would have seen a critically acclaimed hunt for Bin Laden movie anyway so that’s an unknown. However, for Oscars, probably not. The Academy is upset and maybe its best to not give Zero Dark Thirty a single Oscar. If so, too bad. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure: this was a wild ride few could foresee the journey.

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About Kenny Miles

Whether something is overlooked by Hollywood or whatever business trend has captured the Entertainment Industry’s attention, Kenny Miles loves to talk about movies (especially the cultural impact of a film). He covers various aspects of movies including specialty genre films, limited release, independent, foreign language, documentary features, and THE much infamous "awards season." Also, he likes to offer his opinion on the business of film, marketing strategy, and branding. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado and is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society critics group. You can follow him on Twitter @kmiles723.

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