Here’s the story of an Oscar campaign aiming not to be first, but dead last: Academy members have begun receiving what is believed – and intentionally planned – to be the final screener of the season, Peter Weir’s independently produced and distributed adventure epic The Way Back. For those with short memories, the first screeners mailed this awards season were Sony Pictures Classics’ Mother And Child and Animal Kingdom on September 28th. The Way Back is one of four indie dramas making up the final quartet of 2010 contender releases in limited runs beginning today. The others, all in theatres more easily accessed on the Academy voter-centric Westside of Los Angeles are Roadside Attractions’ Biutiful, Sony Pictures Classics’ Another Year and The Weinstein Company’s Blue Valentine. But awards strategists for The Way Back‘s distributor, Newmarket, decided to hold back mailing the DVD screener to Oscar voters until Monday of this holiday week, the same day nominating ballots were also being mailed by the Academy. The thinking was that, rather than getting lost in the pile of hopeful discs, it would be fresh in mind just as members start thinking seriously about filling out their ballot. As one of the film’s strategists told me today, “We think voters will take notice of it coming at the tail end of the screener process and be curious to watch it, particularly since it is a film by Peter Weir who has been nominated …
In my September 3rd post about The Way Back’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, I indicated that Newmarket would likely be scheduling a December Oscar qualifying run before a wider release date on January 21st. It was never locked in stone – until today when it was confirmed that director Peter Weir’s epic story of a group of prisoners who escape a Siberian gulag and walk through five different countries to freedom will indeed platform in Los Angeles on December 29th. The film gets a wider release on 500 screens January 21st shortly before the Academy Awards nominations are announced.
Chris Ball, Newmarket president and co-founder, will leave to form Wrekin Hill Entertainment, a new specialty film production and distribution label. Ball will continue his association with Newmarket’s owner, Exclusive Media Group, getting the new shingle started by releasing the Peter Weir-directed The Way Back, the harrowing period survival tale that stars Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong and Colin Farrell. Wreckin will also release the Billy Joel documentary The Last Play at Shea. Both pictures were financed by Exclusive. Wrekin will also release Hesher, the Sundance Film Festival acquisition Hesher, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson. All three films will be released in tandem by Newmaket and Wrekin Hill, but the latter will be the active shingle.
Ball will be joined at Wrekin Hill by longtime Newmarket colleagues Rene Cogan, who was Newmarket COO-CFO and John Crye, who had been Newmarket’s president of production and acquisitions.
The move comes at a time when Exclusive is building up its US theatrical releasing business. The overall company, funded by Cyrte Investments, is spearheaded by co-chairmen Nigel Sinclair and Guy East. Exclusive’s first production is Weir’s The Way Back, while sister division Hammer Films produced Let Me In, the remake of Let The Right One In. The third production division is Spitfire Pictures, which mostly focuses on documentaries like Last Play at Shea, which focused on Joel’s final concert …
TELLURIDE: Peter Weir’s The Way Back is about an epic journey of survival, an appropriate metaphor for the film’s own treacherous journey through the current wobbly state of the movie industry which just didn’t seem to know what to do with this stunning adventure, the kind of movie Hollywood used to make all the time. Finally yesterday, as many were arriving for the Telluride Film Festival, Newmarket announced it will handle the film for U.S. release just after the first of the year. It coincided with Telluride’s career tribute to Weir today and the World Premiere (the only fall festival slot for the film) tonight. My interview with Weir is below.
Produced under the Exclusive Films label (which owns Newmarket) and co-produced by National Geographic Entertainment and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, Weir’s The Way Back is currently planned for a fairly wide break on over 600 screens on January 21, according to Newmarket’s VP of acquisitions John Crye. It’s a particularly aggressive rollout for the indie company whose past distribution successes have included such award magnets as Memento, Monster, Whale Rider, and Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster The Passion Of The Christ. With this kind of DNA, it would seem natural that part of the master plan would also include a late December Oscar qualifying run. But both Crye and a PR rep for the film would only say that is a distinct possibility even though they acknowledge the film deserves one.
Perhaps Newmarket is waiting for reaction and reviews out of Telluride. But, c’mon, it’s unheard of to open a prestigious film like this from a 6-time Oscar nominee (4 in the directing category) with a cast including Ed Harris (here in Telluride for the premiere), Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) in the middle of January without trying to get some of Oscar’s fairy dust sprinkled on it. At the very least, the breathtaking and challenging cinematography of longtime Weir collaborator Russell Boyd, already an Oscar winner for Weir’s most recent film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2003) would seem a slam dunk. But the film has many other attributes as well, including those actors and Weir’s impeccable direction. Which is why Telluride Fest directors Gary Meyer and Tom Luddy said the film was an obvious choice the minute they saw it.
When I talked to Peter Weir earlier today in advance of his career tribute and the World Premiere tonight, he thought an Oscar run
The Way Back, Peter Weir’s first film since 2003′s Master and Commander, has come off the board as an acquisition title before it screens in Telluride. Newmarket acquired U.S. rights and will distribute the film next January. It doesn’t exactly count as a real acquisition, since Newmarket is owned by Exclusive Media Group, which financed a film that was shopped for a long time. The cast is strong but the subject matter grueling. Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Saoirse Ronan star in the fact-based tale of prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag and walk all the way to Tibet, and freedom.
It will be very interesting to see such tough subject matter in the hands of an iconic filmmaker like Weir, who has shown mastery on tough subjects in films like Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. Just as it will be interesting to see what Danny Boyle does with 127 Hours, where James Franco plays Aron Ralston, the hiker who was forced to cut off his arm after it was pinned for days under a boulder, and who then walked down the mountain and lived to tell about it.
Newmarket also acquired and will release through early next year prestige festival pickups Agora, Creation and Hesher. The indie community is hoping Newmarket can reestablish itself as a formidable distribution company–its past successes under other regimes include The Passion of the Christ, Memento and The Prestige–and those questions should be answered soon enough.
TELLURIDE: The Emmys may have just ended but that isn’t stopping the Hollywood film awards machine from kicking into gear already. First on Wednesday at the Venice Film Festival with a rapturous reception for opener Black Swan which received a resounding standing ovation for director Darren Aronofsky and stars Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel. And then tomorrow at the 37th annual Telluride Film Festival, which is the first U.S. stop on the long freight train to the Oscars.
The Telluride fest officially begins Friday morning and runs through Labor Day in this remote and rustic Colorado town. This must-stop for cineastes known for its friendly, relaxed vibe and its esoteric mix of indie, foreign, and classics has also in recent years become an early, important cog in the awards industry engine. It’s where such Best Picture winners and nominees like Slumdog Millionaire, Juno and Up In The Air have launched their campaigns even before they hit the much bigger and more publicized Toronto Film Festival (beginning September 9th this year). Telluride’s lineup is always kept a secret until the last minute and was finally revealed today. In addition to such little known entries as Oka! Amerikee, and Pygmies In Paris, there will be a slew of Oscar hopefuls rolling into town jazzing things up. The festival is able to get these films because they don’t advertise them in advance and is happy to let Toronto claim North American or even World Premieres even though technically it’s all happening here this weekend.
Fox Searchlight officially has Never Let Me Go with Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield on the schedule. But it will be “sneaking” the aforementioned Black Swan with Aronofsky and Portman making the trek from Venice pre-Toronto, and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours which will see the director coming back for a good-luck visit to the place that started his march to Oscar glory two years ago with Slumdog. Also here, The Weinstein Company’s period drama, The King’s Speech starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and directed by Tom Hooper (The Damned United), and the genuine “World Premiere” (it’s not even on the Toronto slate) of Peter Weir’s The Way Back, an epic adventure produced by National Geographic that even with this veteran director and a cast that includes Ed Harris and Colin Farrell is still angling for a good distribution deal. [Later Thursday, they announced that they secured a distributor, Newmarket, and plan to release in January.] Last year the Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer film, The Last Station came quietly into Telluride, landed a deal with Sony Pictures Classics and won a couple of major acting Oscar nominations just a few months later. Maybe Telluride will prove just as lucky for Weir, whose last movie was 2003’s Oscar-nominated Master And Commander. Weir is one of three veterans getting tributes here in addition to Firth and Italy’s legendary Claudia Cardinale.
Among Cannes premieres showing up in America for the first time here are Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Stephen Frear’s British comedy Tamara Drewe, the acclaimed financial meltdown documentary Inside Job, and Sylvain Chomet’s animated gem, The Illusionist, all from Sony Pictures Classics which has a big presence as usual. That also includes Cannes Grand Prize winner Of Gods And Men, the stirring drama almost certain to be France’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar this year. Other Cannes titles making the journey are France’s Princess Of Montpensier, Korea’s Poetry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stirring Biutiful that won Best Actor for Javier Bardem in Cannes and has been picked up domestically by Roadside Attractions, and IFC’s Carlos, the 3-part biopic of terrorist Carlos The Jackal that premieres stateside in October. Cannes Fest director Thierry Fremaux is here, too, justifiably proud that so many of his cinematic discoveries were chosen.
Coming in together on the one and only festival charter today was a spirited group including Fremaux, Firth, Rush, Hooper, Weir, Harris, Mulligan (who was here last year with An Education), Inarritu, and many others including a gaggle of producers, directors, agents, studio execs, media types (yes, including me) and publicists. Former Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Sid Ganis was on board (the Academy is a loyal sponsor) as was last year’s guest “curator” Alexander Payne (Sideways) who told me he was coming back this time as a fan just to “see movies”. I told Firth I had just gotten an early look at his (terrific) King’s Speech last night in a Beverly Hills screening room, and he said it must have been hot off the presses as Hooper just finished it two days ago. He hasn’t even seen the finished product yet. Waiting at the Montrose airport for his suitcase to be unloaded, Geoffrey Rush spotted Ed Harris and told him he had a script the actor should look at.