Mission Illogical: Movie Promotion Puts Lives ‘at Risk’

Movie News | May 5th, 2006

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(CNSNews.com) – The management of The Los Angeles Times said a musical promotion for Paramount Pictures’ upcoming movie, “Mission: Impossible III” was designed to turn the “everyday news rack experience” into an “extraordinary mission.” But the stunt created a real mission for federal law enforcement officers who had to evacuate patients and staff at an area veterans’ medical facility last week.

The plan was to conceal digital audio players in 4,500 randomly selected newspaper boxes around Los Angeles and Ventura County. When newspaper buyers opened the racks, the six inch long, two-and-a-half inch wide red plastic boxes — connected to activator switches on the news rack doors — would play the easily-recognizable “Mission: Impossible” theme song.

A photo of the movie’s star, Tom Cruise, adorned a promotional poster on the front of the racks, although there was no warning that the doors had been rigged to play music.

Despite the simplicity of the plan, the digital audio players and the red, white and black wires leading to their activator switches did not stay concealed. One newspaper buyer saw the device and switch, thought it was a bomb and called authorities. After an inspection of the newspaper rack could not determine whether the device was explosive, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad blew up the newspaper rack.

Veterans Affairs spokeswoman: ‘Lives were at risk’

Authorities received numerous reports of other L.A. Times news racks containing what callers believed to be bombs. Perhaps the most serious was in West Los Angeles, where as many as 300 people, including some 50 patients, were evacuated from the Veterans Affairs Administration’s Ambulatory Care Center. A newspaper buyer had reported a suspicious object in the news rack inside the main hospital building.

Darryl Blackwell, the chief of police for the V.A.’s Greater Los Angeles Health Care System, said two floors of the building’s west wing were closed for almost two hours, which “severely disrupted” patient care.

“In today’s society, after 9/11 everyone is really concerned about their protection, particularly on federal property,” Blackwell said. “We have a bunch of warriors here, former warriors, who are being treated and we’re concerned about their safety as well as that of the employees.”

Travel on the 405 Freeway — the busiest highway in the nation, which runs through the West Los Angeles V.A. campus — was also disrupted as traffic was stopped to make way for emergency vehicles.

“Overall, it was a pretty difficult time for V.A. Medical Center,” Blackwell said.

Nikki Baker, public affairs specialist for the V.A. in Los Angeles, was more direct.

“Lives were at risk. Doctors could not get into the building. The evening shift personnel, also, could not get into the building,” Baker said. “There were operations that needed to be performed and people were really at a standstill because of this.”

Calls to Paramount Pictures and The Los Angeles Times were not returned prior to the filing deadline for publication of this article. In a previously released statement, John O’Loughlin, the newspaper’s senior vice president for planning, said the boxes were supposed to be hidden from customers.

“This was the least intended outcome,” O’Loughlin said. “We weren’t expecting anything like this.”

But the newspaper’s own security director, who is a retired L.A. County Sheriff’s sergeant, acknowledged in the newspaper’s report on the incidents that the assumptions made by the customer who called the sheriff’s office and by the deputies on the bomb squad were logical.

“With the wires leading to the micro-switch on the news rack doors,” Mike LaPerruque told reporters, “I can easily see how someone might have misconstrued it as an improvised explosive device.”

While there were no reports of injuries or negative consequences to patients as a result of the evacuation at the V.A. facility, Baker is still not happy with the newspaper or the movie studio.

“The Los Angeles Times and Paramount Pictures had the financial means and human resources to install these 4,500 small music boxes all over the city,” Baker said. “But, they didn’t think about us. They didn’t think about our patients.

“The lack of foresight and the absolute failure to adequately communicate this information to us,” she continued, “was just really uncalled for.”

Despite the problems caused by the digital audio players, they will remain in news racks until two days after the movie’s May 5 opening.