LOS ANGELES — In the normal course of things a Hollywood movie about space aliens wouldn’t be affected by newspaper headlines.
But things aren’t entirely normal these days.
In recent weeks executives at 20th Century Fox have been quietly scrambling to distance a summer comedy, “Neighborhood Watch,” starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Mr. Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed on Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, a community watch participant in Sanford, Fla., who has said he acted in self-defense and has not been charged with a crime.
In a phased withdrawal that began late last month Fox pre-emptively withdrew its trailers and advertising materials for the movie, which was filmed in Georgia and features Mr. Stiller, Mr. Vaughn, Mr. Hill and Richard Ayoade as four suburban watch members who save their neighborhood, and the world, from an invasion by space aliens.
But the studio and its filmmaking team — including the movie’s producer, Shawn Levy, who directed “Real Steel” and “Night at the Museum”— are now left to wonder whether a news-media storm and a ferocious public debate over the shooting and its possible legal consequences have spoiled the fun of a movie that cost over $50 million to make and will cost tens of millions more to market.
That “Neighborhood Watch” should be tainted by even a whiff of the vigilantism at issue in the Martin shooting is attributable not just to the film’s name, but also to an unfortunate decision by Fox to release a brief initial teaser trailer that portrayed its stars as a band of dark-clad heavies cruising their suburban turf to a hip-hop theme. Mr. Hill points his fingers as if firing a gun. Yet the trailer, according to a person who was briefed on its background but spoke on condition of anonymity because of studio policy, relies heavily on scenes that were not actually in the film. These were shot separately by the director, Akiva Schaffer, who has been a writer and director for “Saturday Night Live,” as a gag that stepped up the mock tough-guy image of the stars without giving away the movie’s real point — the aliens.
In a statement following the cancellation of the trailer Fox extended sympathy to those touched by the Martin shooting, and said, “Our film is a broad alien invasion comedy and bears absolutely no relation to the tragic events in Florida.” A Fox spokesman late last week declined to elaborate on the studio’s plans for the film.
Um, here’s an idea. Stick it in the can for a year? Release it in France? How is this a hard decision for Fox?