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Will spy ring story help Jolie's 'Salt'?

By Todd Leopold, CNN
Angelina Jolie plays a woman alleged to be a Russian spy in the film "Salt," set to open July 23.
Angelina Jolie plays a woman alleged to be a Russian spy in the film "Salt," set to open July 23.
  • Forthcoming Angelina Jolie film "Salt" has similarities with real-life spy case
  • Proximity to real-life headlines may not help; accidentally topical films have mixed history
  • "The China Syndrome" came out 12 days before Three Mile Island
  • What will win out is if the movie's entertaining, says marketer, film historian

(CNN) -- Any movie marketer thinking that the forthcoming film about a female Russian sleeper spy might be helped by recent headlines should take those thoughts with a grain of "Salt."

The FBI's arrest of 11 alleged Russian spies this week does have unusual similarities with the Angelina Jolie film, which opens July 23. But being topical is no guarantee of success, says David A. Gross, a former studio marketing executive.

"I think that this intersection between entertainment and a specific current event -- I don't think that's necessarily a plus," says Gross, observing that recent Iraq war-set films have foundered at the box office.

In film history, when art has been in close proximity to life, the result has been a mixed bag for movie marketers. The Arnold Schwarzenegger action film "Collateral Damage," which showed a terrorist attack on the U.S., was originally scheduled for release in October 2001 but was pushed back to February 2002 -- and had a trailer changed -- after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It still performed relatively poorly at the box office.

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On the other hand, "Wag the Dog," the 1997 film about a political consultant who orders a war with Albania to distract the public from a presidential sex scandal, came out just weeks before revelations about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky imbroglio and had a successful run.

In fact, says Gross, who now runs the site, the studio's best strategy might be to stay out of the way.

"There might be a very small segment that thinks ['Salt'] is interesting because it's so timely and looks at the parallels of what's going on," he says. "But for the mass-appeal audience, they want to go see an intensely entertaining thriller with Angelina Jolie."

The model, he observes, is 1979's "The China Syndrome," a film about a nuclear power plant disaster that had the bizarre luck to be released 12 days before the accident at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (In fact, at one point a character observed that a nuclear accident would "render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.") The film's studio -- ironically, Columbia Pictures, the same studio behind "Salt" -- refused to capitalize on the tragedy, with stars Michael Douglas (who also produced) and Jack Lemmon even canceling TV appearances to promote it, according to a contemporaneous account in The New York Times.

Other prescient films, which weren't timed quite so closely with current events, earned greater appreciation in retrospect: 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," about a conspiracy planning an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate, gained notoriety a year later after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; 1976's "Network," a critical and box-office success when it was released, found its extreme TV world looking positively quaint within a few years; 1998's "The Truman Show," about a man who's lived his whole life on television, also turned into real life, a curious irony given its subject matter. And any number of science-fiction films have forecast modern events.

Of course, a film's success is built on a variety of factors, points out Wheeler Winston Dixon, the Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska.

Quality obviously has something to do with it, and so does timing. (And the usual marketing advantages -- big stars and a franchise-friendly concept -- don't hurt.) But making everything mesh is a "crapshoot," Dixon observes.

"People are more interested in if a movie is compelling," he says. "Pop culture right now is shifting so rapidly. ... It's the job, I think, of movies to look beyond the everyday, so if they wind up making speculative situations that click in real life, that's [an accident]."

"Salt" has possibilities, he says, but not necessarily because its plot has some resonance with the headlines. The film features Jolie, Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor -- solid actors all -- and is directed by Phillip Noyce, who has made a number of thrillers, including the box-office hits "Patriot Games" (1992) and "Clear and Present Danger" (1994) as well as the critical successes "Dead Calm" (1989) and "The Quiet American" (2002).

"He is one of the more intriguing directors to me, because he is wildly uneven," says Dixon. Along with the hits, he observes, Noyce also directed "The Saint" (1997), starring Val Kilmer. It was intended to be the start of a series -- as it was decades earlier when the character was created by Leslie Charteris -- but "it managed to kill the whole franchise off," Dixon says.

"Salt," too, might be the beginnings of a franchise, with Jolie a female equivalent to Jason Bourne or James Bond. But that depends on the film's success. The spy scandal parallels can't hurt, says Gross, but in the end the film will have to stand on its own.

"I think this is really all about entertainment. We're in the summer, big stars, big director. I don't know there's much to gain [with the topicality]," he says. "And for the few who think it's a plus, they'll put two and two together, and they'll find it anyway."