‘Richard Jewell’ Opens Amid Controversy Fit for #MeToo Era

(Bloomberg) -- “Richard Jewell,” a Clint Eastwood film based on the true story of an Atlanta security guard who was unfairly pilloried by the media, opens Friday in the midst of its own media controversy.

In one scene, a reporter fashioned after real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs, appears to sleep with an FBI agent in order to coax out the name of the suspect in the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In real life, there’s no evidence Scruggs, who died in 2001, did trade sex for the news tip. That’s prompted outrage on social media and accusations that the portrayal is sexist.

Warner Bros., the studio behind the movie, will be watching whether that buzz repels audiences or draws them in. The film is expected to open in fourth place this weekend, behind “Jumanji: The Next Level,” “Frozen II” and “Black Christmas,” according to data from Box Office Pro.

“Regardless of the content of a controversy, popping up into news feeds is never a bad thing,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. But “Richard Jewell” was “not expected to open very big, anyway,” he said.

The market has been particularly tough for adult dramas, Bock said. Instead, cinemagoers have stuck to comic-book movies and nostalgic hits like the remake of “Lion King.” “Richard Jewell” may attract $10.9 million in sales its opening weekend, compared with $42 million for “Jumanji.”

The scene in the film, directed by Eastwood, has been most hotly contested by Scruggs’s former paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Earlier this week, the paper’s attorneys sent a seven-page letter to Eastwood’s production company and Warner Bros. demanding that they attach a disclaimer that some events have been fictionalized.

Warner Bros. has defended the film, while Olivia Wilde, the actress that portrays Scruggs, has said on Twitter that she doesn’t believe the journalist “traded sex for tips.” She did say she believed the character and the FBI agent were in a preexisting romantic relationship.

The film draws on a book by Kevin Salwen and Kent Alexander called “The Suspect,” and the authors acted as consultants on the movie. They say they uncovered no evidence that Scruggs traded sex for the story that Jewell, the security guard who saved lives by discovering the bomb at the Olympics, was a suspect.

Sales of the book, which was released last month, have gotten a “bump,” Salwen said in an interview. But he’s unsure if it was from the controversy around the scene or just the fact that a film based on the book is going to be released. He declined to give figures.

Salwen said he wasn’t concerned about the scene with Scruggs and the FBI agent because parts of the movie are “fictionalized” and “dramatized.”

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