Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., after being roundly criticized over its upcoming movie about Middle Eastern terrorists, is undertaking several 11th-hour moves to placate Arab-American and Muslim groups.
The studio said it will arrange a prerelease screening of "The Siege" for Muslim and Arab-American groups. The screening, Fox officials hope, will lead these groups to embrace the film for its purported anti-prejudice theme. It is scheduled to go into general release Nov. 6.
Fox was also set to release a new, longer trailer to replace the teaser that has been in movie theaters. A Fox spokeswoman would not say, however, whether the new trailer takes into account the criticism of the teaser, which intersperses scenes of violence with scenes of Muslims praying.
In addition, Fox agreed to allow representatives of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations to view the film even before post-production work is completed, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the council. Fox officials were expected to contact the council by late last week to schedule a viewing, he said.
"They say by the end of the week they'll let us know about a screening of a rough cut," Hooper said late last week. "They had to re-shoot some scenes at the beginning of September, and they promised they'd let us see the re-cut before it went to final edit."
Ironically, the producer, director and one of the writers of "The Siege" as well as Fox itself all said that the movie is intended to address the very stereotypes it has been criticized for reinforcing.
In the movie, New York is targeted by Middle Eastern terrorists. In response, the U.S. government declares martial law and places Arab Americans in internment camps repeating an action taken against Japanese Americans during World War II.
An Arab-American FBI officer is conflicted by his loyalty to his government and the hostility directed toward Arab Americans including his teen-age son.
In making "The Siege," producers consulted with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The consultations resulted in scenes of the FBI character drinking alcohol and swearing actions a devout Muslim wouldn't do being cut from the film.
But despite the urging of the council, producers would not change the basic plot of Arab terrorists attacking the United States. Furthermore, Hooper said, the film's initial trailer seems to reinforce negative stereotypes about Arab Americans and Muslims, rather than challenge them.
"If their intention was good and they wanted to challenge stereotypes, why would they juxtapose Islamic religious practices with acts of violence prayer beads and then buses blowing up?" asked Hooper, whose organization held a demonstration last month across the street from the Fox lot.
Arab-American and Muslim leaders say the level of input they had in the making of "The Siege" was far less than they had in another potentially controversial film scheduled for release this year: DreamWorks SKG's "The Prince of Egypt," an animated film depicting the life of Moses.
In making that film, DreamWorks consulted a variety of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders, seeking advice on the script. The intention was to keep the film true to the Bible's depiction of Moses' life and make sure the story which deals with an Egyptian pharaoh's enslaving of Jews and others would not be interpreted as criticizing present-day Arabs.
"I would say this is probably the first time in the Hollywood industry that they (have sought) the input of different people and (are) genuinely sensitive," said Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California.
As for Fox, Jack Shaheen, author of the books "The TV Arab" and "Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture," characterized the studio as essentially insensitive.
"I think people at Twentieth Century Fox not necessarily producers and directors, but on the corporate side treat concerns of Arabs and Muslims with yawns of indifference," he said, noting that Fox was also responsible for the film "True Lies," which also was criticized for its depiction of Arabs as terrorists.
"I'm not saying there shouldn't be images on movie screens of Arab terrorists," Shaheen said. "There certainly should be, and there are. The problem is that they are the only images we see."
Controversy surrounding "The Siege" has apparently led Fox to take extra security precautions during the final editing and post-production work. According to one Fox employee, additional scenes for the film have been shot under a fake name, so as not to attract unwanted attention. In addition, identity cards and passes for those entering the lot in Century City, where sound-editing work is being done, have been checked more carefully in recent weeks.
"Basically, they've increased security because of the film," said the employee. "Now we have to have a pass and a photo I.D., while before we didn't."
Fox officials say security on the lot is always tight, and any perceived tightening in recent weeks is more likely due to construction, which has led to a greater number of people entering and leaving the lot, than to controversy surrounding "The Siege."
The controversy may not be bad for ticket sales, said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., which advises theater chains on films. "Studios wouldn't admit it, but this kind of publicity is really good for films," he said.
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