Universal walks fine line for 'United 93'

United 93 debut prompts concerns about how films about real-life tragedy should be promoted

United 93 debut prompts concerns about how films about real-life tragedy should be promoted

The challenges Universal has had to face around the film United 93 transcend potential criticism of the "thumbs up, thumbs down" variety. The issues will extend beyond the prelaunch efforts, as well.

Rachel Weingarten, a trends expert and president of GTK Marketing, was one of the people who saw a trailer for the film.

"The first preview started out with a lot of tension, and then before I could process the familiar scenario, I heard the anxious voices, realized what the promo was for, and bolted. Waiting in the hallway was another older gentleman who was gasping for air and who kept asking me if it was over yet, and a woman who looked to be in her early 50s, weeping quietly."

Weingarten disclosed that she had lost a friend on 9/11.

Indeed, Universal, nearly hobbled itself by taking a traditional route that led to choruses of "Too soon!" and prompted some theaters to actually pull the trailer altogether. Still, since its premiere at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, critics have praised United 93, and the film came in at number two behind RV and made $11.5 million for its opening weekend.

"Films that are based on real life can't be marketed the same way," says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a firm that specializes in crisis communications and that is not associated with the movie. "It will always be too soon for some people."

Dr. Joshua Estrin, a psychotherapist who is a client of Strategic Vision and an expert on the psychopathology of traumatic stress, said the film might cause a vicarious stress disorder, in which the bombardment of images upon viewers can make them feel as if they lived through the event themselves.

"I think they should have taken more steps to be sensitive to the people from New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania," says Weingarten. "It would have made it more palatable to have a warning before the trailer appeared."

A source close to the project said Universal sought to deal honestly with the movie's content and send the message that consumers shouldn't see the film if they had any trepidation.

"You can't have the same media outreach for a film of this subject matter. People aren't going to see this because of what stars are in the movie," adds Johnson. "You have to let the movie speak for itself."

A source close to the project said the PR team also made sure to stay away from talking about the film's budget or revenue expectations. And the passengers' families were in the audience for the premiere. David Beamer, father of United 93 passenger Todd Beamer, extolled the film in an editorial in the April 28 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

"When promoting a film like this, you want to include the families [of the victims]," said Johnson. The source said Universal involved victims' families in every step of the movie's development and production. Some members of the families have appeared on talk shows and talked with the press about the making of the film, all expressing their overwhelming enthusiasm for the project. Universal would not comment on whether they were pushing this effort.

But not everyone believes that it is appropriate to use the families of passengers in any way.

"I heard the authentic-sounding voices of family members of victims of 9/11, saying that they felt that the film should be made, that it wasn't too soon, too slick, or too painful," says Weingarten. "Using the families of 9/11 victims to sell a film is reprehensible to say the least. It's a story that must be told; I'm just not sure how I feel about the commercialization thereof."

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