LOS ANGELES -- California police and gang experts have expressed concern that tomorrow's planned release of "Juice," a gritty tale of four Harlem buddies whose minor crime spree leads to murder, could spark a repeat of the violence that accompanied the opening of two similarly themed films last year.
Jay St. John, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who works with gangs, said that the movie's billboards in South Central Los Angeles reminded him of "waving a red flag in front of a bull."
Critics and marketing specialists who have seen "Juice" have said it delivers a strong anti-crime, anti-violence message. What worries some critics of the film is that its brutal action will have an incendiary effect on some members of its young, black target audience.
There was a riot in Westwood on "New Jack City's" opening weekend in March, attributed mainly to the fact that the theater oversold tickets and did not allow some ticket holders in. Numerous violent incidents, some of them deadly, plagued "Boyz N the Hood's" nationwide premiere in July.
Paramount Pictures, "Juice's" distributor, has altered advertising for the film, deleting a prominently displayed handgun held by a black youth. This, in turn, has angered some black filmmakers.
"If Bruce Willis goes around shooting people in the head, it's like, 'Oh, yeah, Bruce, we love you!' " "Boyz" director John Singleton said. "But if Ice Cube has a gun, everybody freaks out." Newspaper ads for Mr. Willis' latest release, "The Last Boy Scout," show Mr. Willis aiming a pistol.
Barry London, Paramount Motion Picture Group president, said that removing the gun from the "Juice" poster was part of the standard refining process all movie-marketing campaigns undergo.
Ernest Dickerson, 40, who makes his directing debut with "Juice" after a career as a cinematographer on all of Spike Lee's films, said, "We're just asking Paramount to impress upon theater owners not to oversell [tickets]. I heard that was the cause of the
violence in both cases. There was a benefit basketball game that was oversold here in New York last month and that resulted in violence. Kids feel disrespected if they buy a ticket and aren't let in."
Mark Gill, senior vice president of publicity for Columbia Pictures, said that while a minority of the incidents associated with that studio's "Boyz" were related to theaters sold beyond capacity, it was not the conscious fault of exhibitors.
"In the instances [of overcrowding] that I heard about, it was the result of people sneaking in through rear exits, creating a fuller house than theater owners thought they had," Mr. Gill said.
Mr. Gill also noted that Columbia offered to pay for extra security at theaters playing "Boyz," an offer that was more enthusiastically received after the opening-night violence.
Paramount has made a similar offer for "Juice."