Be Prepared

I don’t know what exhibitors and distributors felt about Terrence Malick‘s Badlands or Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line or The New World when they first saw them, but I’ll guess they weren’t swooning. Exhibitor and distributor types are always bitching about art films, and that’s the only kind of movie Malick makes so he and they are natural-born adversaries. Industry guys have always hated ambitious cinema — Francis Coppola once told me about exhibitors complaining about how dark and gloomy The Godfather was — so their views need to be taken with a grain.

I was reminded of this mindset by a producer pal when I told him yesterday that a journalist friend, quoting a US distribution source, had told me that a group of foreign distributor-investors saw Malick’s The Tree of Life almost exactly a year ago (i.e., March 2010) and felt that it was commercially catastrophic — a movie ostensibly costarring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt “and they’re not even in it,” according to one complainer. (Possible translation: the source felt that Penn and Pitt aren’t in it enough.)

On top of which a second journalist friend told me two or three months ago that he happened to be sitting near a table of distributor types at last September’s Toronto Film Festival “and they had a furious, angry attitude about the movie,” my friend says. “It was really a sense they had that it was beyond repair…they didn’t want anything to do with it, and they couldn’t imagine what any legitimate distributor could do with it.”

Again — that’s par for the course when guys whose main goal in life is to sell popcorn are talking about an art film. It doesn’t mean The Tree of Life doesn’t have value in and of itself. Knowing Malick and his abilities and inclinations as I do, it seems unlikely if not inconceivable that he could create a film utterly lacking in artistic/spiritual value.

It was reported in May 2009 that The Tree of Life had been sold to a number of international distributors, including Europacorp in France, TriPictures in Spain, and Icon in the UK and Australia, but that it lacked a US distributor. In August 2009 it was announced that the film would be released in the US through Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad‘s Apparition. There had been speculation in Screen Daily and elsewhere that Tree might be ready for Oscar contention release in late 2009, but nope. Then came talk of its possible debut at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and the subsequent squashing of that dream due to “it’s not ready.” And yet it’s believed that Tree of Life was “absolutely finished” in the spring of 2010, and that it had been seen by European distribs who bought pre-sales rights, and they “were shocked and appalled and rejected it” after that alleged March 2010 screening.

Summit Entertainment sold distribution rights to EuropaCorp in France, Icon (UK and Australia), TeleMuenchen Group (Germany), Svensk (Scandinavia), O1 (Italy,) Belga (Benelux) and TriPictures (Spain). Journalist friend #1 “was told by two more people in the Euro biz” that the appalled or angered reactions about a supposed catastrophe “were absolutely true, but I was not told this by anyone with one of the rejecting companies. That’s where I got stuck. Three sources, but none direct.”

“This is like the 9/11 conspiracy theory,” journalist #1 concludes. “How could so many people be keeping this secret?”

  • Eloi Wrath

    I bet these distributors are looking forward to The Green Lantern.

  • The Thing

    They’re looking for a movie that will sell a lot of tickets. A preachy art-house film won’t in their eyes. Which is what you said multiple times.

    The only thing to take from this is that it’s not Eloi material, so hipsters everywhere can celebrate

  • J. Ho

    I don’t understand Jeff’s negative viewpoint on this film. This distributor stuff feels like a crock of shit. And judging by the trailer and the images on the new poster art the film looks ethereal and otherworldly. If Malick has successfully pulled this off then its probably a masterpiece. And so far there’s nothing substantial to Jeffrey’s claims that he didn’t. For fucks sake, this looks amazing, what is wrong with you???

  • Rashad

    There’s nothing substantial to the premature masterpiece talk either.

  • Eloi Wrath

    Rashad’s right: we shouldn’t spunk our pants too early, either. Maybe it isn’t good after all. But I’d trust the track record of Malick over the word of some exhibitors for now.

  • Jeff and/or Danny Is Always Wrong

    I was reminded of this mindset by a producer pal when I told him yesterday that a journalist friend, quoting a US distribution source, had told me that a group of foreign distributor-investors saw Malick’s The Tree of Life almost exactly a year ago (i.e., March 2010) and felt that it was commercially catastrophic

    … but you were first reminded of this mindset on your own blog, in this thread, by your readers.

  • Jeff and/or Danny Is Always Wrong

    This is a stupid, bullshit complaint. What these distributors are complaining about is that they can’t *lie* to the audience to sell a Malick film. Which I don’t recall them ever being able to do in the past. I don’t recall the trailers for either Thin Red Line or The New World being fraudulent in any way– they sold those movies for exactly what they were, really polished art house “emotional” deals.

    Gee, the distributors sure had trouble selling those movies to the average moviegoer as Michael Bay productions, didn’t they? They TOTALLY disguised that Malick influence for the audience, I for one was COMPLETELY fooled.

    I sense nothing different in the trailers for Tree of Life– they sell the movie perfectly to the particular audience that enjoys Malick’s films.

    There’s no story here, at all– to insist on one is bullshit.

  • Gaydos

    Before “Inception,” hit theaters, Variety’s Peter Bart wrote a piece about the big gamble it represented for WB, ie $165 million budget for a non-franchise, non-sequel, non-remake, very cerebral and intellectually challenging movie.

    No one in the world of “Inception” seemed very happy about the piece, but I thought it raised fair questions because it wasn’t saying anyone was wrong for bankrolling Nolan’s vision, but only that it was hard to find another movie in recent memory that represented such a radical departure from modern Studio Rules for Filmmaking.

    We know how that turned out. Win. Win. Win.

    There was tons of speculation about “Titanic,” lots of it wrong and please go back and read the pieces posted about “Avatar.” Remember the “Hitler’s shock at ‘Avatar’ trailer viral vid?

    Score Cameron, two for two.

    Anyway, people (including journalists) are fascinated by high-stakes mysteries/tales of artistic aspiration and sometimes folly, sometimes ecstasy.

    Malick is a major filmmaker and this looks on paper to be a film of major creative ambition. So it doesn’t seem out of line to ask questions, or maybe laugh or even, God forbid speculate.

    We do it about religion and politics, why not art?

    For instance:

    Online reports of the Malick film’s budget range from $32-150 million. That’s slightly bizarre. But production companies sometimes treat this information like Pentagon military black ops. That’s ok, but it’s also ok to question, right?

    No one knows exactly what changed in the film from the time Malick reportedly showed the film to the Cannes Fest topper Thierry Fremaux, who was reported by Anne Thompson as eager to screen the film LAST YEAR, and now.

    Has he tinkered for a year?

    Or did he turn to this new film and simply wait for a better time to put this in the marketplace?

    Malick is known for his methodical and lengthy time in the editing room. Will there be a director’s cut, if, in fact, this represents a trim of one hour from last year’s version as some reports suggest?

    When Malick made “Thin Red Line,” he eliminated the lead character (Adrien Brody) from the film and built a very different film in the editing room and one that featured a virtual unknown (Jim Caviezel) in the lead. Are Pitt and Penn susceptible to this kind of change? Is that what supposedly startled the investors?


  • Ponderer

    I find it impossible to believe that Malick hasn’t been screwing around with the film in the last year, big time. That’s his methodology.

  • Homie Cat

    I don’t get the point of this attempted take down of the film. It’s Malick FFS, not the Strause Brothers! I just don’t get this.

  • thatmovieguy

    Exhibitors are motivated almost entirely by money, not by quality. In the mid-1990s, when I was operating a couple of theaters, I had supposedly well-informed people in my company beg me not to book films like “The English Patient,” “Trainspotting,” “Evita” and other pictures that were “too arty” for my market. I cleaned up on every one of them. But if a movie is not like something else that made oodles of money in recent years or if it doesn’t have allegedly hot stars attached to it, a lot of people in exhibition write it off automatically. I remember calling my film buyer in June 1994 and begging for “Forrest Gump” after seeing it at the trade screening; my buyer responded that it was about mental retardation, which is a “downer” and “never sells, no matter who’s in it.” He hadn’t seen the film. When it opened a few weeks later and became a sensation, he did at least have the good manners to apologize.

  • Gaydos

    Thatmovieguy: couldn’t agree more on that point. This year’s Oscar race was filled with wildly successful films that were of the type the Studios were saying couldn’t be successful.

    But curiosity about the Malick film as a business story shouldn’t be forbidden, even though its importance as a cinematic cultural event is undisputed.

    Is it a good, great or inferior film? I agree with everyone here who says let’s skip that discussion til someone has seen it!

  • reverent and free

    I agree with most of the above. What’s the big deal? The trailer that’s out for Tree of Life is just fine: an arty emotional piece with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn with elements of fantasy, and period nostalgia. For the middle aged people who go to art house movies it’s a bullseye.

    Furthermore, the marketing for Black Swan did just fine presenting it as exactly what it was.

  • Dan Revill

    Malick is Malick. In this all or nothing pop culture, you will either already know about this film or you’ll never hear about it. Guaranteed people who see the trailer before whatever they’re watching this coming weekend will barely remember it. Then again, that goes for the Green Lantern trailer too I guess.

  • It’s maddening that the major studios/distributors/exhibitors have all given up making, selling and showing quality films that tell a story despite plenty of evidence that people will GO to a good movie with a well told story that is successfully marketed in favor of remakes, sequels, tentpoles, and movies based on comic books, amusement park rides and video games. (Oops! left out vampires and zombies!) It would be nice if someone with power at one of the big corporations realized, adults will go see a “King’s Speech” or a “Black Swan” if it’s properly marketed and not everything they produce needs to star a 22 year old in Spandex flying around in front of a green screen…

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