A fact-based story starring Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie was supposed to hit theatres last week. Then a complaint by a relative of the film's hero gave Apple second thoughts.
Apple has struggled to find its footing as it tries to go Hollywood. Critics were lukewarm at best about The Morning Show, the star-studded, big-budget flagship series on Apple TV Plus, the streaming platform that went live November 1. And now one of Apple's first films, The Banker, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie, is in limbo after the company pulled it from a theatrical run that was scheduled to start Friday.
It seemed like just the right project for Apple to introduce itself as a player in the movie business. With two stars from the Avengers series leading the cast, The Banker is based on the real-life story of two black entrepreneurs who triumphed over the racist business practices of mid-20th-century America. Apple had announced a theatrical release and started an awards push, only to halt the plan after a daughter of one of the film's protagonists raised allegations of sexual abuse involving her family.
It's an inopportune stumble for the company, which has pitted itself against Netflix and Amazon, not to mention The Walt Disney Co., as it tries to make headway in a business that has nothing to do with the selling of iPhones and MacBook Pros.
On November 20, Apple pulled The Banker from the prestigious closing-night slot at the American Film Institute's annual festival in Los Angeles. The company said it and the filmmakers needed time to look into the accusations by Cynthia Garrett, whose father was the basis for Bernard Garrett, the character played by Mackie.
Two days later, Apple scrapped the December release. Since then, the company has declined to comment on whether it will put The Banker in theatres or make it available on Apple TV Plus. Under the original plan, the movie was scheduled for a January debut on the platform.
Cynthia Garrett, a television personality who runs a ministry in Los Angeles, accused her half brother, Bernard Garrett Jr., a son of the man played by Mackie and one of the film's co-producers, of sexually abusing her and her younger sister when they were children in the 1970s. Apple removed his name from publicity materials, and he no longer appears as a producer of The Banker on the website IMDB, which lists film credits.
Garrett Jr. denied the accusations, saying in an email, "These allegations against me simply are not true."
Adapting true stories for the screen has long been a fraught endeavour, with films like Oliver Stone's J.F.K. and Norman Jewison's The Hurricane drawing criticism for mixing fact and fiction. Universal Pictures faced complaints this year over Green Book, a fact-based film centered on the relationship between a black concert pianist, Donald Shirley, and his white chauffeur in mid century America. Although the Shirley family condemned the portrayal, Universal backed the film through awards-campaign season, and it won the Oscar for best picture.
Cynthia Garrett, who was a VJ at VH1 in the 1990s and the host of the NBC talk show Later in 2000, said Apple was right to shelve The Banker.
Charlize Theron on Bombshell, Fox News and Harvey Weinstein
The true story of Scorsese's new gangster film The Irishman
"I applaud Apple for doing the right thing and choosing to stand with women and children," she said. "As a woman of color, I feel pretty vindicated by the fact that Apple recognised us."
But some people in Hollywood have questioned whether Apple was overly cautious.
"When you are in the business of distributing content, unless you have an indefensible claim against you, you don't let issues and protests get in the way," said Blair Westlake, a media strategist and a former media executive at Universal Studios and Microsoft. "In this case, it's regrettable that Apple would let the displeasure and concerns of a small group of people, which may be justified and fact based, change their business plans.
"Once you open that door, any other topic or film could run the same risk," Westlake continued. "It will likely have a chilling effect on those wishing to produce content for them."
Tim Bajarin, the president of Creative Strategies, a Silicon Valley market research firm, said the company was right to tread carefully.
"Like Disney, Apple has a relatively squeaky-clean position with consumers, and they are known for protecting their customers, guarding their privacy and their security," he said. "I think Apple's position of cautiousness is important at this early stage in their streaming business. They don't need the negative criticism on a particular movie. They need to prove their capabilities, and that their quality and their content is acceptable."
The botched rollout is a blow to Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, film-industry veterans who run Apple's streaming service. The company's move into Hollywood has emphasised the television shows it has created with a group of name producers including Oprah Winfrey and J.J. Abrams. But Apple is making a side-bet that it can succeed with movies.
In an interview last month, Van Amburg and Erlicht described the company's film strategy as modest and carefully considered — no more than 12 movies a year, each given a tailor-made promotional push. They contrasted the strategy with that of Netflix, a company that spends billions on content and makes roughly 90 feature-length movies annually, including documentaries and animated films.
"Netflix has chosen to be in the volume business," Erlicht said. "But you can't event-ize 80 movies a year. Each and every one of our movies will be special."
With its largely positive message and strong performances by its two stars, The Banker had the potential to be a box-office and streaming hit while generating some Oscar buzz.
"You have an incredibly exciting and entertaining story with an A-plus cast, but it's also saying something about the world we used to live in and the world we still live in today," Matt Dentler, the head of Apple's film division, said in an interview before the original release plan was canceled.
The film's journey to almost making it to the screen goes back to 1995, when the original screenwriter, David Lewis Smith, conducted eight hours of taped interviews with the elder Garrett. He described his rise as an entrepreneur in California decades ago, his efforts to buy banks in Texas and how he and his business partner, Joseph Morris, wound up drawing the attention of the federal authorities. Both served time at Terminal Island prison in Los Angeles and testified before Congress in 1965.
The tapes made by Smith, along with more than 1,000 pages of the congressional transcript, became source material for the script. In 1996, Garrett signed a deal giving the rights to his life story to New Day, a production company he formed with Bernard Garrett Jr. and Smith. (The New York Times reviewed a copy of the contract.) The project languished until 2012, when the producer Joel Viertel bought the rights from New Day.
As part of that deal, Viertel acquired the life rights of Bernard Garrett Jr. and his mother, Eunice Garrett, played in the film by Nia Long. The producer enlisted the screenwriter and director George Nolfi in 2015, along with the screenwriter Niceole R. Levy.
According to two people close to the project, the filmmakers met with the younger Garrett only once — for dinner in Los Angeles, at Nolfi's request — before filming started in September 2018. The shoot wrapped in November 2018, and Apple bought the worldwide rights in June for US$20 million based on an 8-minute sizzle reel. Before his half sister made the filmmakers aware of her accusations, Garrett was set to have a role in promoting The Banker. He took part in a panel discussion hosted by the film site IndieWire on November. 5.
There is no character in the film based on Cynthia Garrett's mother, Linda Garrett, the second of Bernard Garrett's three wives. Married in 1962, the two stayed together for more than a decade, Cynthia Garrett said. In her telling of events, it was her mother, not Eunice, who helped the elder Garrett make the business deals central to "The Banker."
The filmmakers learned of Cynthia Garrett's objections on November 8, when she posted them in the YouTube comment section beneath a trailer for The Banker. In her comment, she accused the filmmakers of stealing her mother's story without permission.
On Monday, the filmmakers issued a statement signed by 53 members of the cast and crew. It read in part, "Though we have no way of knowing what may have transpired between Mr. Garrett's children in the 1970s, including the allegations of abuse we have recently been made aware of, our hearts go out to anyone who has suffered."
Interviewed on Thursday, Cynthia Garrett, who said she had not seen the movie, held firm.
"My sister and I spoke up about our sexual abuse because we don't feel that a predator should profit off of stealing our mom's and our life story with our father," she said. "It's pretty simple to me. All the rest of this, the chain of title and the movie rights, all these other arguments, they are just cloud cover."
Written by: Nicole Sperling
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES