Paul Greengrass sounded reflective on a warm January day on the Newark set of United 93, his real-time drama about the hijacked jet that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. ”There were days when it was grueling and shattering,” said the director, who would wrap the movie in just a couple of days. ”But I don’t think a single person involved in the film didn’t find the experience inspirational. If we [felt that way] making it, hopefully an audience will watching it.”
Universal Pictures hopes so too. Regardless of the quality of Greengrass’ film, the studio has to solve a major marketing puzzle: How do you persuade people to pay to watch a re-creation of one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. history? With the April 28 release date fast approaching, the studio has launched a publicity campaign that marketing president Adam Fogelson claims will show ”the utmost respect for those who were personally affected by 9/11.” (Certain to be watching closely is Paramount, which releases Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center in August.) But as anyone who has seen the poster or sat through the deeply disturbing 93 trailer — which features a hijacker flashing a bomb strapped to his torso, and terrified passengers in tears?knows, there is a real danger that the first feature to dramatize 9/11 might be coming too soon, nearly five years after the actual event.
Sensitive to that concern, Universal is moving to insulate itself from criticism, securing the blessing of all the families of Flight 93 victims and scoring the opening slot at the Tribeca Film Festival — an event specifically created to aid in the rebuilding of downtown New York after 9/11. In certain theaters, the studio is even running a making-of featurette, in which some family members express their support for Greengrass’ vision. ”I’m not going to mislead anyone about what this movie is,” Fogelson says of the $15 million film. ”Nobody’s telling me to figure out a way to sell one more ticket. The pressure is to do justice to the story and make sure the families are comfortable. If that has been accomplished and the movie makes 5 cents, I will be okay.” The real question is, will audiences?