LOS ANGELES—For many people, the images of commercial airliners hitting the Twin Towers, and of Manhattan engulfed in a huge dust cloud as they collapsed, looked like a Hollywood apocalypse-style movie.
But despite that — or maybe in part because of it — 9/11 has not generated as large a number of movies as previous epochal events such as World War II or Vietnam.
Industry insiders say experience shows that 9/11 movies just don’t work at the box office — adding that the attacks may even have pushed Tinsel Town to produce even more escapist movies than it normally would.
In the decade since, only two Hollywood studios have produced films directly inspired by the most deadly attacks ever on US soil: Universal with “United 93” by Paul Greengrass and Paramount with Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”
This despite an initial surge of Hollywood interest following the September 11, 2001 attacks in Washington and New York.
“There was certainly an enormous amount of interest in 9/11 and the wars that happened afterwards,” said producer Bonnie Curtis, who has worked on films including Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
“I think that creatively, a lot of people started working on a material that normally wouldn’t even exist without the event itself,” she told AFP.
But there were also fairly quickly doubts about public appetite for films about such a traumatic event.
“There was a lot of conversation between all of us, like ‘Is it too soon’ to make a film about the events, will audiences have any interest in going and seeing that?,” Curtis said.
The answer was clear: “United 93” and “World Trade Center” were both relative box office failures when they came out in 2006. The first made $74 million worldwide, the second $161 million, modest numbers for Hollywood.
“That was a signal also for management to sort of reconsider the subject at the light of day,” said Jason Squire, a professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
“You know, it’s tough enough to make movies on any subject, and even more when the subject is sensitive.”
Curtis said: “The audiences didn’t really want to go the theater and see that. And Hollywood is a business; so after the first rush of a handful of films on the topic, no one was greenlighting those types of projects.”
Disney producer Don Hahn said people did not want to see “traumatizing” films.
“I was traumatized and I think most of us were. So we don’t want to look at that again. We’d rather be entertained and movies can take us away from that and have us escape from that.”
Smiling, he added: “Maybe that’s why we are seeing so many super-hero movies, so many ‘Captain America’, ‘Iron Man,’ because those characters can defeat bad guys and that’s really a great story for us.”
For Squire, there is little doubt: “The 9/11 attacks pointed out the value of entertainment in society as escapist.”
That view is not shared by Richard Walter, a screenwriter and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who said: “To say that Hollywood films are escapist is like saying that Barack Obama is a Democrat.
“There is nothing new about that… I don’t think that the things really changed. Hollywood is doing what it has always done,” he added.
Curtis insists however that there has been a clear appetite for more lightweight movies since 9/11.
“You want to just completely escape into fantasy, special effects, superheroes, a complete escapist entertainment. I think there was a contingency of filmmakers here in Hollywood who went to that direction,” she said.
But she added: “Completely opposite to that, were the filmmakers who wanted to go deeper into the tragedy at hand and show the effects that it had on our country and our planet.
Films like Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker” are a testament to that.
“To me, the series of films made the last 10 years in and around the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, obviously has to do with how deeply, in our heart, 9/11 hit us,” said Curtis.
The 9/11 attacks “punched us in the stomach and certainly drew our focus towards the aftermath, which we are still dealing with.”