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Game ender

Movies | A Hollywood franchise in the making falls flat over its author's commitment to traditional marriage

Issue: "American bounty," Nov. 30, 2013

There had to be a lot of relief around the L.A. offices of Lionsgate and OddLot Entertainment when word came in on Nov. 2 that Ender’s Game, the science fiction film the two production companies had co-financed for more than $110 million, would not be a flop. After taking in $28 million in its opening weekend and topping the box office, Ender’s Game looks likely to recoup its investment. What it doesn’t look likely to do is make much money beyond that, and the possibility of a sequel seems increasingly unlikely.

On the surface, Ender had all the makings of a winner, the kind of winner, that is, that spawns two or three more winners just like it. Similar to the behemoth Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games franchises, the fantastical story was based on a best-selling youth novel and stars a cast of high-demand, up-and-coming actors. The two teenage female leads, Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld, have both been nominated for Academy Awards. Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, won rave reviews in 2011 for his turn in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Thanks to a space-age setting and a number of zero-gravity battle school sequences, Ender also boasts special-effects appeal in spades, and though early reviews weren’t exactly raves, they were mostly positive—far more positive than the critical response the first Twilight movie received. But there was one thing those popular wizard/vampire/girl-warrior movies didn’t have, and that was an author (Orson Scott Card) who also happened to be an outspoken advocate for traditional marriage. Despite initial fan buzz at the outset of Ender’s production, when gay rights groups began to drum up controversy in the months leading up to its release, media reports turned decidedly sour.

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The question of whether a boycott launched by Geeks OUT—a group whose mission is to “raise queer visibility within the worlds of comics and gaming,” and promoted by MoveOn.org—has had a direct impact on Ender’s ticket sales remains a matter of considerable debate.

Motley Fool stock analyst Steve Symington dismissed the idea that it could have much impact: “For every person adamantly opposed to seeing Ender’s Game because of their distaste for Card, it seems safe to say there’s probably another on the other end of the spectrum.” And even within the gay community there’s been plenty of disagreement over whether a boycott was a good idea.

Pointing out the severe backfire LGBT activists experienced when they singled out Chick-fil-A, Diane Anderson-Minshall, editor-at-large of leading gay magazine The Advocate, challenged readers whether they similarly avoided works associated with Roman Polanski, Alec Baldwin, or Mel Gibson. She finished by saying of Ender’s Game, “I’ll be in the theater. I’m going to stand in line, eat bonbons and popcorn, and give a thumbs up or down based on what’s on the screen, not who’s behind the book.”

Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of gay rights biopic Milk, similarly posted on his Facebook page, “Boycotting a movie made by 99% LGBT equality folks in an LGBT equality industry is a waste of our collective energy.” Even The New York Times decried Geeks OUT’s efforts against the film as “misguided” and “closer to blacklisting” than boycotting.

Yet looking at Lionsgate’s marketing efforts suggests that the bad press—and there was a lot of it—had a constraining effect on public interest in the film.

J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins were as out front and center as the studios could convince them to be during the launch of movies made from their books, giving interviews, attending conventions, and walking red carpets. Card, however, was nearly invisible during the lead-up to Ender’s release, and the studio and filmmakers have made it clear this was how they wanted it.

To start with, they removed Card’s name from the movie’s Facebook page. Then the film’s trailer alluded only to its being based on a “world-wide bestseller” without making any particular mention of the perennially popular author. Finally, despite being a huge name in the sci-fi world who has attended the event to promote his work before, Card was noticeably absent from a panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con that included star Harrison Ford, director Gavin Hood, and producer Bob Orci. One Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate’s parent company) exec was anonymously quoted in The Hollywood Reporter saying, “I don’t think you take [Card] to any fanboy event.” Another said Summit intended to “keep him out of the limelight as much as possible.”

Lionsgate even went so far as to issue a statement denouncing Card’s views and promising to hold a premiere fundraiser for gay causes. “Lionsgate is proud to have recognized same-sex unions and domestic partnerships within its employee benefits policies for many years, we obviously do not agree with the personal views of Orson Scott Card and those of the National Organization for Marriage.” They further made it clear that not only did Card not have any creative involvement in the film, due to a deal made 10 years before, he would not make any more money on it regardless of how it performed.

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