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Concussion director: New York Times piece hatchet-job, denies appeasing NFL

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Sony is denying a New York Times report that says it softened aspects of Will Smith’s new movie Concussion, so as not to offend the National Football League. The Times cited several internal Sony emails, made available on Wikileaks after last year’s damaging hack, that shine a spotlight on the studio’s concern that its movie, which chronicles a whistleblower’s claims that frequent concussions could cause a deadly brain disease, might antagonize the billion-dollar sports league. 

“Today’s NYT article and headline, written by individuals who have not seen the film, contains many misleading inferences,” Sony responded, in an emailed statement. “As will become immediately clear to anyone actually seeing the movie, nothing with regard to this important story has been ‘softened’ to placate anyone.”

The film’s writer and director Peter Landesman responded in harsher terms, telling Deadline, “It does seem to me like the New York Times is working for the NFL. That’s how it seems to me. It seems like a hatchet job has been done here, and came out of the NFL’s offices, that’s how it seems to me.” 

The emails cited by the Times reveal Sony’s internal deliberations about the delicate task of making a movie critical of the NFL, a powerhouse corporation with multiple tentacles in the entertainment industry, especially television. (Sony is the rare studio that does not have a TV deal with the football league.) Sony executives and lawyers referenced alterations to script scenes that were deemed “unflattering moments for the NFL,” stripping “most of the bite” from the script for legal reasons, and a script note asking, “rather than portray the NFL as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the NFL who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.”

Landesman admited to the Times that Sony lawyers did delete certain scenes from the script, but only to make the film more accurate. “We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie,” he said. “There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL.”

Not mentioned in the Times story is its own article from Sept. 12, 2014, headlined, “Brain Trauma to Affect One in Three Players, N.F.L. Agrees.” That report detailed how the NFL had “stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at ‘notably younger ages’ than in the general population.”

The story is notable because it was immediately circulated around executive offices at Sony. “This is the big one, Michael,” Landesman wrote to Sony’s CEO Michael Lynton. “Game-changer. For us, too. (For the better.)”

“Allan Mayer’s job just got a lot easier,” chimed in Doug Belgrad, Sony’s president. Mayer was the consultant Sony hired specifically to deal with the NFL. Before the Sept. 12 story, there were some doubts that the filmmakers could even depict actual NFL teams in the film at all, and then there had been discussions about a “communications plan with the NFL.” After the Sept. 12 story, Sony shut down a potential meeting with the NFL and instead focused on tweaking the script for accuracy. 

“Doug [Belgrad] and I would like to see the actual clips that these on-camera interviews are based on and we’d like a memo  that specifically details the on-camera speeches in the script showing which lines match the clip and which lines were sourced from other interviews,” emailed Hannah Minghella, the former president of production at Columbia. “Our concern isn’t legal — it’s the degree to which we are taking statements out of context and exposing ourselves to easy criticism that will undermine the credibility of the whole movie.”

As Landesman told EW, “The thing about when you tell the truth is, you’re protected. No one can keep you from telling the truth. So [what if] the NFL gets a hold of our screenplays. At the end of the day, this is a David-versus-Goliath movie about a whistleblower who tells an important truth about an incredibly important thing. We’re not afraid. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

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