By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009
It happens every year around this time. No sooner are last year's Oscar nominees announced than the last cinematic year officially comes to a close, with a new batch already rushing out of the gate and into theaters.
Meanwhile, out in the cold, a few choice gems seen on festival circuit the year before are left dangling -- having never garnered all-important buzz, opened in theaters or otherwise gained purchase in the moviegoing consciousness.
So as one movie year ceremonially draws to a close, let us pause to consider those cinematic orphans that, by virtue of fate, economic disaster or just plain bad karma, will not be playing at a theater near you (but, Netflix gods willing, will at least eventually end up in a red envelope in your mailbox).
Take "Nothing but the Truth." The political thriller, starring Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga in a story loosely based on the Valerie Plame case, enjoyed a promising debut at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. With strong performances, of-the-moment topicality and assured direction from Rod Lurie ("The Contender," "The Last Castle"), it seemed poised to fit right into holiday season prestige programming and maybe even earn a few award nominations.
But in late December, the film's distributor declared bankruptcy and "Nothing but the Truth" evaporated. "It was like a drive-by shooting," Lurie said in a telephone interview. "Life was going well, the film was extremely well reviewed out of Toronto, it was the best-reviewed movie I've ever done, there were [Broadcast Film Critics Association] nominations for the actresses, and then out of nowhere, my partner Marc Friedman gets a phone call from the Hollywood Reporter asking his opinion on the Chapter 11 of Yari Film Group. And that's it. It's gone. Now we're lying with bullet holes in us." (As it happens, Lurie produced another casualty of the Yari meltdown -- the crime thriller "What Doesn't Kill You," starring Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke.)
The vagaries of the film business also caught Michael Winterbottom in their vortex. "Genova," Winterbottom's affecting family drama set in Genoa, Italy, has everything going for it: Colin Firth and Catherine Keener in lead roles, eye-catching Italian locations, Winterbottom's spontaneous, observant style. But last year it was purchased by ThinkFilm, which suffered numerous setbacks, including lawsuits brought by filmmakers who claimed they hadn't been paid (the company is now known as Capitol Films).
"We're a little bit unclear at the moment," says Winterbottom's co-producer, Andrew Eaton. "There's a new head of the company and they claim that they're resurrecting themselves, but we're caught in a bit of limbo." Foreign rights to "Genova" have been purchased by distributors in Mexico, Spain, Greece, Russia and the United Kingdom, where it opens in theaters next month. "We're hoping maybe that will help," Eaton says. "But we have no legal recourse. Really, we can only stamp our feet on the sidelines." (In an e-mail, a spokesman for Capitol Films said that a release date for "Genova" has not been set, but it will be released in the United States.)
Both "Nothing but the Truth" and "Genova" were intended for mainstream theatrical release. But every year, one or two independent films appear on the scene that, while maybe challenging in tone or subject matter, evince such artistry that they deserve more fanfare than just the love of critics and festival programmers. One such film in 2008 was "Wellness," an experimental vérité-style drama by Jake Mahaffy.
The movie, about a beleaguered salesman of a product that goes by the cryptic name Wellness, has been a favorite on the circuit since making its debut at the Rotterdam Film Festival a year ago. But although it possesses uncommon adroitness and sensitivity, startling performances (including from Mahaffy's own father) and a prescient grasp of the current economic crisis, it hasn't appealed to distributors -- even when films like "Frozen River" and "Wendy and Lucy" have managed to make their way to big screens.
"Wellness" is still being shown at festivals, according to Mahaffy. Once he has finished adding original music, he says, the DVD will be available on his Web site, http://HandCrankedFilm.com. Even though "Wellness" hasn't had the exposure its cadre of fans would have hoped, Mahaffy himself isn't bitter. "I'm not disappointed," he says. "It was never my expectation to have any kind of wide theatrical distribution, or any theatrical distribution for that matter. I made it cheaply, I can afford to do this, I have a day job [Mahaffy teaches at Wheaton College in Massachusetts]. It's the film I wanted to make."
Mike Plante, who programs the CineVegas Film Festival and advises Sundance, was also a big fan of "Wellness," which he speculates was a victim of the no-stars, no-sale mentality of even the most daring art-film distributors. "But 'Frownland' is the big lost one of the last two years for me," Plante says. The comedy-drama, by New York filmmaker Ronald Bronstein, played the South by Southwest festival and won a Gotham award for "best film not playing in a theater near you" but never made it out of festivals and one-off screenings. "I was literally shocked to see the [copyright] date of 2007 in the end credits, because you'd think it was a 1970s movie," Plante says. "It has really good dialogue, really good characters, it's just a really cool little movie. People say, 'Oh, if only we had 1970s cinema again.' Well, here it is. I guess distributors feel more comfortable talking about how great something was if it's from 25 years ago."
Plante says that CineVegas is trying to help filmmakers find distribution on the Web. He's also optimistic that as video projection becomes better and more accessible, small film clubs will open throughout the country, giving orphan films a chance at finding audiences. "Sure, they're rough around the edges," he says of microcinema venues, "but you get to see something on the big screen with a crowd." And for most filmmakers, he adds, "if they made something and 5,000 people saw it, that would be pretty incredible."
Meanwhile, Lurie is convinced that if "Nothing but the Truth" had opened as planned at the end of last year, "Kate would be wearing a gown" at next week's Oscars. For now, he's holding out hope for a distribution deal, while taking the film to festivals, including Santa Barbara last month and the Boulder International Film Festival last week. "If they invite me," he said, "I will come."
Meanwhile, another festival hit, Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," is taking its time getting to audiences. The Iraq war thriller about an elite bomb squad earned awards at the Venice Film Festival last year and was a favorite coming out of Toronto. Actors Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie have been nominated for Spirit Awards, and the film will make its U.S. premiere during South by Southwest in Austin next month. Its distributor, Summit Entertainment, says it will release "The Hurt Locker" next summer, when it has potential to stand out as a tough, sophisticated alternative to the more lightweight fare of the season. With luck, that plan will hold, and Bigelow's film won't be consigned to cinematic limbo. If that's where "The Hurt Locker" ends up, it will be in distressingly good company.