A day after its trailer debuted online and months before it hits theatres, the Will Smith football head-trauma film Concussion is already sparking controversy.
Citing studio e-mails leaked in the hack of Sony Pictures, The New York Times reported Tuesday that Concussion was altered to avoid antagonizing the NFL. The Times quoted one e-mail that discusses a top Sony lawyer taking "most of the bite" out of the film "for legal reasons with the NFL."
In a statement to The Associated Press, Concussion director Peter Landesman disputed that report. He called his film, in which Smith plays the forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu who discovered that chronic brain damage factored in the deaths of NFL players, "a David and Goliath story."
"We always intended to make an entertaining, hard-hitting film about Dr. Omalu's David-and-Goliath story, which played out like a Hollywood thriller," said Landesman. "Anyone who sees the movie will know that it never once compromises the integrity and the power of the real story."
Sony Pictures and the NFL declined to comment on the report.
Months after the e-mail leaks made by hackers over the release of The Interview, Sony again finds itself in the awkward position of having the private e-mails of its own executives yielding a window into the studio lot decision-making usually invisible to moviegoers.
At issue with Concussion is whether the film was shaped by direct negotiation with the NFL, an organization known for aggressive image protection, or if the film was tweaked because of the kind of legal concerns that regularly play a part in any release by a major studio.
Landesman told the Times: "We're just being smart because any large corporation will design a response to something it considers to be a threat to its existence. We don't want to give the NFL a toehold to say, 'They are making it up,' and damage the credibility of the movie."
Concussion — a high-profile release starring one of Hollywood's top actors — was already seen as an enormous public relations threat to the NFL, one that will land in theatres during the heart of its upcoming season.
In a statement Monday after the film's trailer was released, Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice-president of health and safety policy, said the league is "encouraged by the ongoing focus" on player safety.
"We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago," said Miller. "As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer."
In 2013, ESPN dropped out of a documentary co-produced with Frontline, League of Denial, after complaints from the NFL. The film, about the NFL's response to the dangers of head trauma, was still broadcast by Frontline. Omalu was heavily featured in the documentary.
But unlike ESPN, which broadcasts NFL games, Sony Pictures has no direct ties with the NFL.