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When I walked into the press screening for Step Up Revolution, I expected 90 minutes of pleasant dance routines and the usual cookie-cutter storyline. Lions Gate (NYSE: LGF ) division Summit Entertainment gave me that, thanks to brilliant choreography by the Emmy-winning talent of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance crew.
But they also gave me a red-hot helping of controversy.
You see, there's this scene where a pack of dancers feel let down by their maverick leader, so they stage a hip-hop assault on an important business meeting. And when the first smoke grenade landed, I started worrying about this film's future.
In a show of absolutely miserable timing, that scene features dancers in gas masks and metallic suits, trampling all over expensive presentations amid grenade-powered smoke clouds. There are no real weapons involved, and nobody gets hurt, but the scene steps dangerously close to the tragic shootings at last Thursday's Dark Knight Rises presentation in Aurora, Colorado.
It's bad luck of epic proportions. Summit obviously couldn't know that somebody was staging a real and extremely violent attack that so closely resembled that dance routine. But Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood Daily reports that Summit's top brass met on Wednesday to discuss what to do about the situation. Next morning, Summit yanked TV ads featuring the scene, but refused to edit the movie itself.
"Having taken these steps, Summit will open this inspirational, nonviolent film in theatres nationwide this weekend as originally edited," Summit said in an official statement.
I don't think that's good enough.
Aurora didn't scare many viewers away from The Dark Knight Rises itself: The Batman film scraped together a very respectable $169 million this weekend, for the third-richest debut in movie history. Only The Avengers and the final chapter of the Harry Potter saga did better. Producer and distributor Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) can breathe a sigh of relief.
That's them -- this is you
But Summit isn't Warner. The studio can't afford to look insensitive, because there's big money at stake for this relatively small studio. Low-budget movies like these can multiply your investment many times over. For a frame of reference, forerunner Step Up 3-D took a $30 million production budget, and turned it into a $160 million global ticket bonanza. In that light, I expect Summit to do whatever is necessary to keep Step Up Revolution alive.
The studio could probably have recut the offending scene without delaying the premiere. Movies aren't shipped out on 50-pound rolls of celluloid these days. Thanks to the pioneering work of Cinedigm Digital Cinema and the major theater chains, film distribution is now mostly digital. Summit could quickly cut down the offending scene -- though I'm not sure exactly how this could be done without obliterating the already shaky storyline -- and push out the new copy via satellite-powered download overnight.
You can't afford to make it all about the money
Lions Gate bought Summit to tap into its vibrant Twilight franchise. Lesser lights, like the Step Up series, may get short shrift if things get uncomfortable. Previous films in this series were produced and distributed jointly by Summit and Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) , but the Twilight studio isn't sharing the risk and potential rewards this time.
And thanks to the decision to stick with the original script, there's more risk than reward on the horizon.
Summit could have handled this with more grace. Remove at least the worst elements of the nerve-rattling act; then add it back for a second run, or for a director's cut DVD. Ship the full version to Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) when the movie hits that release window. Reap the rewards of doing the right thing. Save your artistic integrity with the follow-on version. Everybody wins.
We'll see how this gamble works out, and how far Summit and Lions Gate are willing to go with this controversy. Bending over backwards, like a contemporary dancer, wouldn't have been too much to ask.
Keep an eye on this tense situation by adding Lions Gate to your Foolish watchlist.