In a key scene halfway through “Hamlet 2,” a downtrodden Arizona high school theater teacher named Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), whose raunchy, quasi-autobiographical play has raised the ire of the local community, gets his confidence boosted by Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), a fiery representative from the American Civil Liberties Union. With a twinge of excitement, Cricket explains that the school’s attempt to suppress his work constitutes a First Amendment violation, and he stands a good chance of winning out. As she leaves, Dana notes that, by the way, the play is going to be really good. Without hesitation, she fires back, “It’s irrelevant.”
Although “Hamlet 2” faces no threat of censorship, Poehler’s brief aside helps explain the underlying appeal of “Hamlet 2” to distributors on the eve of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. That’s not to say it doesn’t work — it has both detractors and defenders — but the movie managed to ride a wave of buzz into Park City this past January on the merits of a genuinely bankable concept alone. In a year when both the industry and the media spoke of the risks involved in buying daring films with indeterminable theatrical prospects, the premise of “Hamlet 2” implied a safe alternative: A blithe comedy with a cast of well-known entertainers. Unsurprisingly, virtually every studio’s specialty division made an offer during the heated all-night bargaining session following the film’s premiere, but by early morning, Focus Features won out, buying worldwide rights to “Hamlet 2” for the palpable sum of $10 million (other distributors had offered as much as $8 million for domestic rights).
“We knew the film had a marketable concept and a great title, and we certainly felt it was well made,” said Micah Green, a Film Finance agent at Creative Artists Agency. Green said that while buzz may have helped fill the premiere with reps from all the major distributors, the warm audience reaction assisted in sealing the deal. “What we did not know, and could not accurately predict, is how ‘playable’ it would be. That’s something you can’t buy with marketing dollars: genuine audience enthusiasm.”
Focus, which brought several members of its team to the bargaining table, became interested in the movie prior to its first screening, just like everyone else. “It was definitely on our hit list, and everybody else’s hit list,” said David Brooks, Focus’ president of marketing. Unlike other buyers, however, Focus’ heated interest in purchasing a Sundance movie was a kind of special occasion. Several years had passed since the last time they had picked up a film there, but “Hamlet 2” seemed to match the company’s marketing strengths. When pitching themselves to the movie’s financier, Eric Eisner, Focus reps highlighted their experience with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Hot Fuzz,” and other offbeat comedies that had found audiences for their particular brands of specialized humor. “You knew they wouldn’t just throw away the film,” Eisner said, recalling that Brooks envisioned a marketing plan based around the comical musical number “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” which emerges in the final act during the riotous performance of Dana’s play. “What we saw with ‘Hamlet 2’ was that there were risks mitigated by the fact that it is a very funny movie,” said Jack Foley, Focus’s president of theatrical distribution. “The actors, director, and writers all worked together to diminish some of the risks you take in the contemporary marketplace.”
The humorous nature of the project and its readymade soundtrack may bolster the commercial viability of “Hamlet 2,” but it has another distinctive ingredient that practically bucks its “independent” moniker: A cast of established performers, including Catherine Keener and David Arquette, in addition to Poehler and Coogan. Focus clearly has high hopes for the combination of the stars and the contemporary appeal of the comedy genre to make “Hamlet 2” succeed. It plans to open “Hamlet 2” this weekend in approximately 100 theaters across roughly 40 markets. The film expands to over 120 markets in the United States and Canada on August 27. A more readymade audience awaits it in the United Kingdom, where it comes out on November 28. While British audiences view Coogan as a major star, he has only begun to gain mainstream recognition in North America as the ill-fated filmmaker in “Tropic Thunder.”
With its high profile cast and relatively strong production values, “Hamlet 2” resembles several other recent entries on the festival circuit, although their mixed receptions suggest that celebrities and financial heft alone aren’t always enough to convince buyers of box office potential. 2929 Productions‘ Robert De Niro vehicle “What Just Happened?” couldn’t generate major studio interest at Sundance, and now it will be released in-house by the company’s Magnolia Pictures. “Henry Poole is Here,” a comedy starring Luke Wilson that was purchased at Sundance by Overture Films, has performed poorly since its release last weekend. “The Wackness,” on the other hand, which featured a pot-smoking Ben Kingsley, landed a strong deal with Sony Pictures Classics — also brokered by CAA‘s Green — and the film did solid business all over the country this summer. Similarly, Green sold “The Great Buck Howard,” a comedy starring Tom Hanks and Emily Blunt, to Magnolia Pictures, where its potential audience lies in the same hypothetical region as the one for “Hamlet 2.”
Whether or not the crowds turn out for the promise of some memorable laughs or the innate appeal of “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” the release of “Hamlet 2” serves to fill in the gaps for Focus, which certainly wasn’t scrambling for a hit when it bought the movie: Shortly after it finalized the deal with Eisner at the break of dawn, the distributers all turned to the television for the announcement of the Academy Award nominations; Focus’s “Atonement” landed seven. “That was an amazing morning,” Foley said. It recalls an early moment in “Hamlet 2,” when the school principal tries to shut down the drama program. “Let’s face it,” he tells Dana, “we’re not producing any Oscar winners here.” But since Focus has possible awards contenders with the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading” and Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” on its slate for later this year, that pronouncement is hardly a problem for the reception of “Hamlet 2.”