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The Reel World

Banned films: Box-office gold?

About the author

Tom Brook is a New York-based journalist who has reported on film and the movie industry for BBC News since 1985. He has presented Talking Movies on BBC World News since 1999.

(Cohen Media Group,Virgil Films,Palisades Tartan,GathrFilms)

(Cohen Media Group,Virgil Films,Palisades Tartan,GathrFilms)

This year has been a busy one for movie censors. But is blacklisting a hindrance – or a help? Tom Brook reports.

This month several countries in the Middle East banned the biblical epic Noah amid complaints that the picture contradicted Islam and the Bible. Turkey banned Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit Nymphomaniac, categorising the movie as pornographic. Documentaries have been targeted too. The Oscar-nominated The Square, which follows individuals caught up in the turmoil in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo, wasn’t able to secure a commercial release in Egypt − although the Egyptian authorities have maintained this was because of administrative reasons.

Is having a movie banned nothing but bad news for filmmakers or can it work wonders at the box office?

“I think a ban is free advertising and if the media picks up on that and depicts the film as controversial then that can only help spark interest in people to see what all the fuss is about,” says Noah Gittell, of the Atlantic.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln agrees. “I think if a film is banned in many ways it might be the best thing that happened to it because you have to break through an enormous wall of noise these days where everyone is clamouring for attention, and that kind of stuff will help a film stand out.”

It’s fair to say that low-budget movies which have limited publicity budgets have more to gain. Nymphomaniac may have benefitted more by being banned − and from the controversy over its sexual content − than a film like Noah, which has the full backing of a major studio marketing campaign. The fact that Noah won’t play in countries in the Middle East will not do much to help its fortunes in North America.

“I don’t really think that’s going to have an enormous effect on the US box office because the banning is so remote to US audiences,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon.

Attention seeking

There are some films that are defined by the very fact that they’ve been banned or suppressed. It can give them a certain marketable cachet. This was the case with Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s 2011 This Is Not a Film, his personal account of life under house arrest in Tehran. It was allegedly smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake so it could be shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

A ban can also bring international attention to a little known filmmaker, as Singapore director Ken Kwek discovered in 2012 when his comedy Sex.Violence.FamilyValues. was banned. It features a character who goes on a racist tirade, that the director maintains is part of a satirical commentary on racial prejudice −and not in any way designed to inflame racial tensions. The ban backfired because it made international headlines which cast Singapore as a censorious nanny state at a time when the country had been trying to promote a more liberal image. It also brought dividends for the small picture which was subsequently screened and made available on DVD.

But Kwek isn’t sure how much difference the ban made to the film’s profile. “I think the controversy to some extent helped the film because there was media coverage and it got some people’s curiosities piqued,” he explains.

The ban − and ensuing controversy − certainly raised the profile of the hitherto little known Kwek, who became for a time one of Singapore’s most quoted filmmakers. It also emboldened him. “Whether it’s had a positive effect on my career as a filmmaker I don’t really know” he says, “but I won’t be steering clear of sensitive issues just because I’ve been poked in the eye once.”

Distributors are not hesitant in exploiting the fact that a film has been banned for publicity purposes, often mentioning it in promotional press releases, posters and DVD packaging. Wheeler Winston Dixon sees the film companies as being extremely pro-active in this case: “Their motto is to do anything at all to get the film out in the marketplace and any banning, they’re going to look at it and if the potential is there for using it to boost the box office they will do that.”

Unwanted publicity

Although distributors and publicists may become energised when a film is banned, it can often leave a filmmaker dismayed. Last year’s boycott by much of the Arab world of the suicide bomber-themed The Attack, from Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, generated numerous news stories that helped the film gain publicity in the West. The director maintains the picture was banned because, as a Lebanese citizen, shooting in Israel with Israeli actors, he violated a 1955 Lebanese Anti-Israel Boycott Law.

The ban may have brought the film attention but he was disheartened. At the time he said: “This is not the publicity that I want − I can assure you that. Controversy is a double-edged sword. Sometimes people might interpret as if we’re using the controversy to market the film which is not what it is. The film should speak for itself.”

This was a case in which a ban had the potential to boost box office in the West − but had quite the opposite effect closer to home − resulting in financial losses.

Doueiri, when asked about the ban last year, said: “The Arab producers who financed the movie will not be able to recuperate their cost. It does not hurt me financially because I’m not part of that but you have Arab investors who will not be able to recover their money.”

There are certain types of film that just can’t be helped by a ban, regardless of how much publicity is generated. Wheeler Winston Dixon points out that different kinds of films fall into this category: “I would say films which are so incredibly violent or films which are just so incredibly sexual in their content can’t be helped by that or films which are just so poorly made that nobody wants to see them no matter how much they’re banned.”

On balance it appears that blacklisting a film − far from suppressing it − generally heightens its profile.  It’s a reality that politicians and regulatory officials seem very reluctant to accept. But that’s often because the aim of censoring a movie isn’t to prevent it from being seen, but to appease or rally political or religious groups − and in that respect banning a movie can be very effective.

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