Today Sony Pictures is doing the unthinkable. It is breaking, on a wide release of 2500+ screens, a dialogue-driven adult comedy/drama about the sex life (or lack of it) of a long-married couple both in their 60′s. And in the middle of August no less!
Sure it stars Meryl Streep, a bona fide box office draw even at her age, but it’s highly unusual and somewhat risky business to go this wide with a movie that is clearly aimed at the much older audience who is slow to show up no matter what the attraction. The studio is opening on a Wednesday in order to build some good word of mouth and reviews for its first weekend where it must face more typical summer flicks like Universal’s The Bourne Legacy and Warner Bros. The Campaign. Currently it stands at a decent 77% fresh for reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, a good sign for a movie that would seem like it would be more indie-oriented fodder than summertime major studio fare.
With the August release though Sony is also getting a jump on awards season as this cast includes such Oscar favorites as 17- time nominee and 3- time winner Streep (most recently in February for The Iron Lady) as well as Supporting Actor winner Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), along with a deadpan Steve Carell as their couples therapist who counsels them at a week-long retreat on how to put the sexual spark back into their marriage. Of course Streep tends to get Oscar noms for just showing up on the set, while Jones was last nominated for Best Actor for 2007′s In The Valley Of Elah, a bit of a surprise then since his film was a boxoffice non-starter that had largely been written off at that point indicating the Academy likes him, they really like him. Both stars are getting strong reviews so far. Whether the strategy works at the boxoffice for this very Academy-friendly fare (official Los Angeles Academy member screening is Sunday night at the Goldwyn) remains to be seen but producers Todd Black and Guymon Casady told me they are just hoping the audience turns out, and happy they decided to go the studio route even though that wasn’t initially the plan.
“It wasn’t always at a studio,” says Casady, a founding partner of Mangagement 360 whose credits include The Expendables and its upcoming sequel and is Co-Executive Producer of HBO’s Game Of Thrones. He first discovered the script by Vanessa Taylor who later became one of his clients and now works on Thrones. “Sony has been incredibly supportive of the movie but it had a journey before it came to Sony. With Mandate’s help – they backed an offer to Meryl early in the process - it really was the catalyst for the project coming together”. He explained his wife had stumbled on to a copy of the script, read it, and insisted he read it too that same night before going to bed. He did and knew immediately he had to produce the movie. At that point he found a producing partner in Black (Antwone Fisher, The Taking Of Pelham 123, The Pursuit Of Happyness).
“Someone in my company had read it and said ‘you love good writing and this is really good writing. I read it immediately , put it down and was knocked out. Then I re-read it again which I never do. It was one of the best scripts I have seen in years”, said Black of the screenplay that actually was on Hollywood’s famous “blacklist” of the hottest unproduced scripts before being rescued by this pair. “I knew they were talking to other producers but I said if you allow me to, I will get Meryl Streep and get this movie made the way Guyman and Vanessa wanted it to be made”.
At one point another financier/ producer was involved but it would have been made earlier for $4 million with different, more indie-centric actors. Casady and Black believed it could be a bigger project with superstar actors despite the unconventional subject matter.
“It’s hard material and we knew if we didn’t get Meryl it would have a lot of trouble getting made, even with a very good actress in her age range – and there are a number of them -but to make it a mainstream movie for bigger audiences Meryl is the biggest draw around for actresses today and we knew a studio like Sony, which happens to be my home studio, would really respond to that and see it as a bigger movie vs. trying to do it independently”, said Black. He said they had to wait a year for Streep until she was finished with her committment to It’s Complicated. But she sparked to the script and eventually her agent called and said she was in. Once that happened it came together quickly since Streep was a lightning rod for other actors and even suggested Jones as the perfect co-star (at one time Jeff Bridges was discussed and Mike Nichols was mentioned as director until Streep’s final choice of her Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel came on board).
As for the subject matter which is clearly targeted at an older audience Black says he thinks it is for anybody. “You don’t have to be married. You don’t have to be a senior to understand yourself and the person you’re with. We all know that’s complicated and it has highs and lows at any age. It affects you physically and mentally and for me that’s as relatable as it gets, ” he says.
Casady agrees saying “It’s about intimacy and whether you have been married for two weeks or 30 years the same thing applies. Obviously we hope it is a piece of entertainment. We hope people enjoy the movie but if what comes out of it is that people leave the theatre and talk about their relationships and it becomes a catalyst for people talking about the institution of marriage in a broader way, great,” he said.
So why not release this in Fall when these kind of adult-skewing, Oscar bait movies are generally found in theatres? “There was a lot of debate and conversation about the date,” said Casady. “There was talk about December until the smart guys in marketing at Sony decided to move it up to the middle of August,” and as the producers like to point out adult-skewing titles like The Help, Julie And Julia and Eat Pray Love were all released to good results around the same spot on the calendar. “The thinking behind that was kind of August- going- into- Fall the comic book and kid movies are over and adults can enjoy themselves as we head towards Fall. That’s the thinking and hopefully they are right”, adds Black.
The trailer has emphasized the comedic, lighter aspects of the film on purpose but TV spots are now broadening the scope of the film which veers from comedy to drama, sometimes in the same scene. The producers hope the TV spots, combined with the trailer and reading reviews (since older audiences actually still read them) will help take the onus off the fact that the trailer was funny while the movie is more than that. “Hopefully people don’t feel mislead but feel it exceeded expectations”, says Casady.
“We really went for comedy and drama. I think the movie can live in that”, Black says. But whether it can live in the heat of summer – and beyond into the heart of Oscar season - is a question that is about to be answered.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.