Studio execs grapple with the notion of ''good'' action vs. ''bad''

Sept. 12 turned out to be the easy part. After a day spent in front of their televisions, studio executives, producers, and screenwriters were clear on at least one thing when it came to their projects: The World Trade Center had to go.

A shot of the towers in Miramax’s Serendipity? Out. The ending of Sony’s Men in Black II, which was to take place at the site? Rewritten. And producer Marco Weber knew with absolute certainty that he would have to part with one of his favorite scenes in MGM’s family drama Igby Goes Down, starring Kieran Culkin and Susan Sarandon. ”There’s a starting shot on the Twin Towers, where we see Kieran’s character running through the streets, and we watched it and we were shocked,” recalls Weber, who is in postproduction on the film. ”We said, ‘We can’t leave it in the movie.’ It felt horrible.”

But now, Weber is having second — and third thoughts. ”It is a part of New York, so maybe…” He pauses. ”We haven’t made a final decision yet. For me, it’s just the beginning.” As it is for an entire community that is trying to forecast the always mercurial and newly uncertain tastes of the moviegoing public not just next week, but as far ahead as the summer of 2003. It’s no longer going to be as easy as a cut here and a snip there.

Understandably, the first reaction in Hollywood corridors was a collective guess that what audiences needed — and would need months from now — was a good laugh. ”Lately, we’ve sold a family drama, a comedy, a broad comedy, and a children’s comedy,” says manager and producer J.C. Spink (Cats & Dogs). ”It’s less that these kinds of films are easier to sell now than that others are harder.”

That may have been true two weeks ago, but now even that sentiment seems to be changing. ”I think that first week, everyone was thinking comedies, Buster Keaton, goofy comedies,” agrees New Line’s president of production, Toby Emmerich. But only days later, New Line tested its dark action picture Diablo, starring Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious). ”It’s about a drug dealer so evil they call him the devil, and in the focus group one of the highest-rated elements was the ‘action,’ ” says Emmerich, ”which is a code word for violence.”

In fact, although moviegoers say they’re interested in seeing comedies, when they let their wallets do the talking, ”action” still wins. Since the attacks, the box office throne has been held successively by kidnappers threatening a New York City child in Don’t Say a Word, Denzel Washington playing a corrupt cop in Training Day, and Johnny Depp chasing Jack the Ripper in From Hell. But only recently have studio executives and producers quietly started to push new action films forward — a move that’s tempered by a new realization that terrorism is no longer a viable subject for cinematic fantasy.

”On a very practical level, there’s certain imagery that’s very tainted now,” says DreamWorks production cochief Walter Parkes, who is overseeing the studio’s Time Machine remake. The movie had featured a scene in which a meteor shower falls on New York, but that will be rewritten. ”Even if it’s not in a political context, or a movie about terrorism, [there are things] one no longer feels is appropriate.”