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The police boycotts of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, explained

The brouhaha is probably just giving the Pulp Fiction director's upcoming film free publicity.

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino marches in a rally protesting police brutality on October 24, 2015.
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino marches in a rally protesting police brutality on October 24, 2015.
Kena Betancur/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

On Thursday, November 5, Jim Pasco, executive director for the Fraternal Order of Police, made a promise to writer and director Quentin Tarantino (of Pulp Fiction fame) — a promise so over-the-top that it was easy to interpret it as an overt threat.

Pasco told the Hollywood Reporter:

Tarantino has made a good living out of violence and surprise. Our officers make a living trying to stop violence, but surprise is not out of the question.

He later added:

Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element. Something could happen anytime between now and [the premiere]. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable. The right time and place will come up and we'll try to hurt him in the only way that seems to matter to him, and that's economically.

But why would the leader of a police organization make a seemingly implicit threat against a two-time Oscar winner? It all has to do with a statement Tarantino made last month.

Tarantino gave a speech at a rally protesting police brutality

The Rise Up October rally, held in New York on Saturday, October 24, featured Tarantino as a speaker. The event aimed to call attention to police brutality and its victims. While there, Tarantino said the following:

I’m a human being with a conscience. And when I see murder I cannot stand by. And I have to call the murdered the murdered, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.

Tarantino's remarks begin about 20 seconds into the video below.

The quote first received major exposure via the New York Post on the day of the protest. The next day, Patrick J. Lynch, president of New York's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a labor union representing police, called for a boycott of Tarantino's films, including the upcoming Western The Hateful Eight, which comes out Christmas Day. In a statement (which you can read in full at Entertainment Weekly), Lynch said:

It’s no surprise that someone who makes a living glorifying crime and violence is a cop-hater, too. The police officers that Quentin Tarantino calls "murderers" aren’t living in one of his depraved big screen fantasies — they’re risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives to protect communities from real crime and mayhem.

From there, numerous other police groups — including, most notably, the largest union for Hollywood's own Los Angeles Police Department — joined the boycott.

Tarantino pushed back against the boycotts in a Los Angeles Times interview

After the calls for boycotts continued for several days, Tarantino spoke publicly to the LA Times's Glenn Whipp on November 3, clarifying his remarks. "All cops are not murderers," Tarantino said, adding, "I never said that. I never even implied that."

Tarantino went even further in later remarks to Whipp:

Instead of dealing with the incidents of police brutality that those people were bringing up, instead of examining the problem of police brutality in this country, better they single me out. And their message is very clear. It’s to shut me down. It’s to discredit me. It is to intimidate me. It is to shut my mouth, and even more important than that, it is to send a message out to any other prominent person that might feel the need to join that side of the argument.

That led to the November 5 statement from Pasco that Tarantino should be ready for a "surprise."

It seems unlikely the boycott will affect The Hateful Eight's success

For one thing, the film's December 25 release date is still several weeks away — and even then, it will debut in a relatively small number of theaters, ones that will show it in 70-millimeter projection. (It's a format that allows for a big, crisp image, but few theaters can project in true 70mm. Tarantino talks more about the format and the distribution challenges surrounding it here.)

It will then be released in digital projection throughout the country in January 2016. By that time, the likelihood that Tarantino will still be in the news for these remarks is virtually nonexistent.

But more importantly, these sorts of boycotts rarely have much of an affect on a film's box office. Sure, there have been a few situations where protests against a movie have doomed it, usually via convincing theater owners not to show the film, as happened with The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 (and even that movie saw robust sales in the handful of theaters that decided to show it). But for the most part, the old maxim that all publicity is good publicity applies.

As Forbes box office analyst Scott Mendelson observes:

The national outcry over the director’s participation in an anti-police brutality march in New York City on October 24, and his inflammatory commentary, has perhaps had the opposite effect. In a world where all publicity is good publicity and staying in the news cycle is of grand importance, the continuing outrage over Tarantino’s statements have done little more than to inflate the importance of both the director and the film he is releasing this year.

The irony here is that Tarantino was already courting controversy — over racially charged statements he made in an interview

In a much-picked-over interview with novelist Bret Easton Ellis in the New York Times Magazine, Tarantino addressed the fact that his films — which in the past have frequently used racial slurs to refer to black characters — have come under criticism for that very quality. He said:

When the black critics came out with savage think pieces about Django [Unchained, the 2012 movie for which he won a screenwriting Oscar], I couldn’t have cared less. If people don’t like my movies, they don’t like my movies, and if they don’t get it, it doesn’t matter. The bad taste that was left in my mouth had to do with this: It’s been a long time since the subject of a writer’s skin was mentioned as often as mine. You wouldn’t think the color of a writer’s skin should have any effect on the words themselves. In a lot of the more ugly pieces my motives were really brought to bear in the most negative way. It’s like I’m some supervillain coming up with this stuff.

That article — in which Tarantino also appears to dismiss the Martin Luther King docudrama Selma as only worthy of an Emmy (something he disputes having said in the context presented in the article) — became the central hub of the internet outrage cycle for a couple of days, largely thanks to the "writer's skin" quote above.

Certainly, Tarantino has been criticized for being a white director and screenwriter who employs racial slurs, but saying he's the director who's most examined in the context of his skin color seems ... hyperbolic. Of course, Tarantino is a man who seems to speak almost exclusively in hyperbole, and to court controversy almost every time he opens his mouth.

As such, his participation in the Rise Up October rally — which focused, not coincidentally, on issues that disproportionately affect black Americans — wasn't just a chance to make a political statement. It was also a chance to combat a wave of bad publicity, one that resulted in even more bad publicity in the end.

But it's the kind of bad publicity that could help him in the long run. The Hateful Eight is a tougher sell than some of Tarantino's recent hits, like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which featured big-name actors (Brad Pitt in the former; Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in the latter) and weighty historical themes (World War II and slavery, respectively). The Hateful Eight, by contrast, is a slow-burn Western that's largely set in one location and whose biggest star is Samuel L. Jackson.

Ultimately, though, the biggest draw to Quentin Tarantino's movies is Tarantino himself. And if nothing else, the various police groups boycotting The Hateful Eight are calling attention to one thing: the fact that Quentin Tarantino has a new movie coming out soon, and if you're a fan of his films, you'll probably want to see it.