By Sandy Cohen
AP Entertainment Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Marketers would describe “A Dog’s Purpose” as a film with “four-quadrant” appeal, meaning it’s likely to draw moviegoers of both genders, young and old. Based on a bestselling book and told from a dog’s perspective, it’s a feel-good story for animal lovers of all kinds.
Which is why a video leaked last week of a frightened dog apparently forced into rushing water during the making of the film is so damaging to its opening box-office prospects this weekend : It alienates, even offends, its very audience.
“Sometimes a controversy can help you, but this isn’t one of those cases,” said Gitesh Pandya, editor of boxofficeguru.com. “As far as videos that can come out for your film, this is definitely not the one you want if you’re the filmmakers, right before the movie opens.”
Since the video surfaced Jan. 18 on TMZ.com and quickly went viral, fallout has been extensive, including:
— People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called for a boycott of “A Dog’s Purpose.”
— Producer Amblin Entertainment and distributor Universal Pictures went into full damage control, complete with a “war room,” canceling a planned press day and starry premiere, but sticking to its plan to open the PG-rated film in more than 3,000 North American theaters on Friday.
— American Humane, the watchdog organization that certifies that “no animals were harmed” during TV and movie productions, suspended an employee and launched a third-party investigation into the incident.
— “A Dog’s Purpose” star Dennis Quaid went on TV’s “Entertainment Tonight” calling the leaked video “a scam.”
— Actor Josh Gad, who lends his voice to a dog in the film, issued a statement on Twitter saying he has asked the studio and production team for an explanation of what he calls “disturbing images.”
— And Gavin Polone, a producer of the film, wrote an editorial in the Hollywood Reporter attacking American Humane and asserting his lifelong love of animals.
“No matter how the film performs this weekend, there is virtually no way to accurately quantify how the ultimate gross receipts for the film may have been impacted by the negative publicity,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker comScore. “Social media chatter has been very strong for this film and so it’s definitely on the radar for more people who might not have otherwise been aware of the movie.”
No one has disputed the authenticity of the leaked video. Quaid, Polone, “A Dog’s Purpose” author W. Bruce Cameron and American Humane, however, have all said that it is misleading. The minute-long clip shows a trainer trying to put a resistant German shepherd named Hercules into a turbulent pool and the dog scrambling out. A subsequent scene shows the dog becoming submerged in the water for several seconds as trainers shout, “Stop!” TMZ says the footage was recorded in November of 2015.
Mark Stubis of American Humane said its investigation should be completed by Friday, but that preliminary findings indicate that the two scenes in the clip were shot at different times and edited together. Stubis said production was stopped after the dog showed signs of stress on the day in question and that Hercules “was not forced to swim in the water during this take.”
Amblin officials have been reviewing dailies and other images taken on set since the video surfaced to determine what actually happened. On Wednesday, the studio shared with reporters more than 10 minutes of raw footage that shows Hercules eagerly jumping into the water from the front and left of the pool, but resisting when the trainer wants him to enter from the right side. It also shows trainers and crew surrounding the pool and platforms just beneath the water’s surface for the stunt dog to stand on.
The studio had no comment beyond sharing the footage Wednesday. Last week, Amblin and Universal released a joint statement when canceling the press day and premiere that read in part, “While we are all disheartened by the appearance of an animal in distress, everyone has assured us that Hercules the German Shepherd was not harmed throughout the filmmaking.”
Polone, who describes himself as a vegan whose closest relationships are with animals, says the actions in the video are “inexcusable and never should have happened,” and blames the American Humane representative on set for not intervening immediately.
Even without the controversy, “A Dog’s Purpose” wasn’t born to be a blockbuster, Pandya said. Original industry estimates had put the film’s opening weekend in the mid-$20 millions domestically.
“January is typically not one of your high-profile times to release the big films,” Pandya said. “This is not a big franchise that needed a huge opening.”
But ironically, the film could still end up No. 1 at the weekend box office.
“Public attitude may be shifting to sympathy for the filmmakers and also producer Gavin Pallone’s strong pro-animal statement,” said comScore’s Dergarabedian. “There may be a lot of people who may have not had the movie on their radar but may now be compelled to support the film by coming out to see it.
“This could wind up being a win for the film since at this point, ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ is now being viewed as the underdog”