NYT Calls Nelson Mandela’s Death a Promo ‘Assist’ for New Biopic

We’ll watch Idris Elba in pretty much anything; we even tolerated his weird Texan accent in the absolutely awful Prometheus. But the actor himself is not the primary reason millions will buy tickets to see the new Weinstein Company film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

A New York Times story published this weekend calls the civil rights icon’s death a coincidental “assist” for the biopic, which will undoubtedly attract even more interest from holiday filmgoers in the immediate wake of his passing. As reporter Brooks Barnes put it, “This time the PR came to [Harvey Weinstein].”

In fact, Barnes even went so far as to speculate on whether the producer’s initial interest in the script stemmed, at least in part, from Mandela’s failing health.

The point is that the studio must at all costs avoid creating the impression that it is capitalizing on the man’s death in order to sell a movie based on his life. Nikki Finke didn’t hesitate to link the two, but Weinstein has taken a few steps to downplay any appearance of impropriety:

  • Adamantly denying that the choice to buy the rights to the movie had anything to do with the belief that Mandela was nearing the end of his life
  • Resisting calls to push the release date forward after news of his death
  • Insisting that marketing campaigns will continue to run completely unchanged
  • Taking every opportunity to remind reporters that the film is a tribute to Mandela

Of course this isn’t the first time a studio has had to deal with an untimely death while promoting a movie: Ray Charles died several months before his biopic came out in theaters, Heath Ledger’s death increased the intense public interest in The Dark Knight, and Universal Studios recently dealt with its own PR challenges by announcing plans to delay the production of the next Fast and Furious movie after star Paul Walker died in a car wreck.

We feel like Weinstein has handled this case well, but we certainly wouldn’t put anything past him.