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Anna Paquin in a scene from "Margaret" (Myles Aronowitz)
Anna Paquin in a scene from "Margaret" (Myles Aronowitz)

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

How Hollywood's fear of failure can consign a film to purgatory Add to ...

The new New York-set drama Margaret is a recent escapee from what has been called Hollywood’s secret movie purgatory. Viewers may quickly get the sense that there’s something peculiar-looking about its stars – Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo – who all appear as taut and fresh as if they just arrived from the plastic surgery clinic. The real giveaway that it was filmed some time ago is a shot of a movie marquee for Serenity, a sci-fi Western that was in theatres in September, 2005.

Margaret is not so much a “new” release as an artifact from another era, before the Obama presidency, before Facebook became a phenomenon, and before its star Paquin became known as Sookie Stackhouse on the TV series True Blood. The movie was delayed for the past half-dozen years by director Kenneth Lonergan’s inability to produce an edit that satisfied the studio, resulting in revolving editors and lawsuits. At one point, the director reportedly ran out of money and borrowed more than $1-million (U.S.) from his friend, actor Matthew Broderick, to finish the film.

There are many reasons why completed films get shelved, but the most important is the studios’ fear of failure. That’s an issue that has been exacerbated since the 2008 economic downturn, with fewer films being released and more riding on each one. In the past five years, Hollywood studios have cut back their number of releases by about a third, focusing on their sure-fire remakes and franchise films.

Some smaller, riskier projects have been buried, even if it meant humbling major stars and producers.

Next year’s Oscar host, Eddie Murphy, for example, has one of his own films in purgatory. A Thousand Words, made in 2008, is about a man who has a limited allotment of words to say before he dies. Shanghai, a long-time pet project of producer Mike Medavoy starring John Cusack and Gong Li, was held by the Weinstein Co. for four years before being released overseas last year. Take Me Home Tonight, a comedy co-produced by and starring Topher Grace and directed by Canadian Michael Dowse ( Goon, Fubar) was shot in 2007, but didn’t trickle out into theatres until this year.

Occasionally, a star’s rise can help push a movie off the shelf and onto the screen. Last fall, Universal released its 2006 supernatural horror movie, Case 39, starring Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper after The Hangover made Cooper a box office draw. Similarly, 2009’s two-year-old All About Steve was finally aired out, thanks to the rising fortunes of Cooper and post- The Blind Side Sandra Bullock.

A decade ago, the solution to these hard-to-market films would be obvious: Release them directly to DVD. But DVD revenues are in decline (down from $10.3-billion in 2004 to $7-billion last year), and of the 129 Hollywood films released directly to DVD last year, most fall in the niche market of horror and animated films. As well, studios are still reluctant to offend creative talent with the dreaded direct-to-DVD taint, which is undoubtedly why Margaret was finally released in the United States last weekend to predictably poor grosses: $7,496 at two theatres in New York and Los Angeles, amounting to less than 650 people for 24 screenings.

With any theatrical release, there’s at least the chance of salvation. Remember Slumdog Millionaire? Warner Bros. was ready to send it straight to DVD in 2008 but, at the last minute, made a deal giving distribution rights to Fox Searchlight (the same studio that released Margaret). Slumdog went on to earn eight Oscars and more than $377-million in worldwide box office. In business terms, that’s the difference between groaning in purgatory and singing heavenly hosannas.


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