Probably the biggest controversy of the week (despite the efforts of Disney and Jennifer Garner) has come over “The Tree of Life,” the latest film from Terrence Malick that has been whipping up near-religious levels of anticipation in film fans everywhere, ourselves included. The film was all-but-confirmed to be playing Cannes last week, something that’s been rumored ever since Fox Searchlight announced they’d be opening it in the U.S. at the end of May. But a spanner was thrown into the works by Empire‘s story on Monday that Icon, the distribution company originally founded by Mel Gibson, and who have the rights to the film in a number of territories, were planning to release it in the U.K. on Wednesday May 4th — a week before Cannes gets underway, and over three weeks before the film opens in the States.
Almost instantaneously, the Internet erupted. British film fans (this writer included) rejoiced, while those elsewhere were less enthusiastic, upset that they wouldn’t be the first to see the film on the Croisette, and doubts began to circle about the story itself. And indeed, Fox Searchlight, who have Malick’s film in the U.S, swiftly told Anne Thompson that the story was “not true,” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Some even laid into Empire, and the reporter Helen O’Hara, for running a false story — Twitter’s resident Cannes expert On The Croisette doing so in a particularly unpleasant and ungentlemanly manner (since deleted).
Except the story was true. Icon re-confirmed their planned release date to Empire, Time Out London and a number of other sources the next day, and the film’s now landed on the official release schedule of the Film Distributors’ Association — hitting theaters on May 4th and going head-to-head with the Robert Pattinson/Reese Witherspoon circus romance “Water For Elephants.” Solid proof that Empire had not made the story up, and that Icon had not made a mistake. But now, Anne Thompson suggests that the film will still premiere at Cannes, and that the U.K. release will be moved back. So what’s happening, exactly?
Essentially, it’s a case of the right hand not talking to the left hand. If one studio is releasing a film worldwide, then the timing of its release can be perfectly synchronized, but for an independently produced project like “The Tree of Life,” which will be released by dozens of different distributors worldwide, it doesn’t work in the same way. Once a final print has been delivered, generally speaking, only good faith and mutual interest keep the companies in sync. Whether they were seeking publicity by being the first territory to release the picture, or simply decided it was the most effective date for the film, Icon genuinely picked the May 4th date, and as of the moment of writing, intend to release it then.
Is it a good idea? Possibly. Coming a week after blockbuster season opens with “Thor” (which also opens early in the U.K., and most other territories except the States, although no-one seems to care in that case…), it could serve as decent counter-programming, and IMAX slots may be a factor as well — there are far fewer large-format screens in the U.K., and this gives the film a few weeks breathing room before “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” The publicity that the film loses by jumping the gun on Cannes is probably made up for by the publicity resulting from the release change, and the possibility of a World Premiere in London, assuming Pitt, Penn & co can be lured over (although that chance is slim).
But it also comes at the cost of screwing over their fellow distributors — a Cannes premiere seems to have been key to Fox Searchlight’s strategy for the film, and, should the date stick, they’ve now got less than two months to rejig their campaign. There’s no doubt that the studio would have been furious when they heard the news — in fact, considering their initial denial, they may have found out about it through Empire’s story, rather than being notified by Icon, and initially disbelieved it.
Does this mean that Brits will be able to head to their local Cineworld on May 4th and buy a ticket for “The Tree of Life?” Possibly not. In fact, probably not. As Anne Thompson pointed out, Summit International, who acted as the sales agent for the film, have major relationships with both Icon and the Cannes Film Festival — if Icon’s hand gets forced, it’s likely to be by Summit. It’s not even the first time that “The Tree of Life” has appeared on U.K. release schedules — for some time, the film was on the calendar for December 2010, but was removed once Fox announced that they’d picked the film up, and would release it in the States in May 2011. Furthermore, this isn’t even the first time it’s happened with a film in the last few months — eyebrows were raised when Jodie Foster‘s “The Beaver” was set, at the end of last year, for a U.K. release on February 11th, long before a U.S. date for the film was announced. The U.K. rights holders for “The Beaver?” Icon. The film was swiftly moved off the date, and is now expected to be released in June.
The fact is that U.K. release dates are more malleable than those in the U.S. Other than tentpoles, films are rarely set in stone on the calendar, and can appear, disappear or shift with relatively short notice, particularly when it comes to one of the smaller, independent distributors — Optimum, Entertainment, Momentum, Icon. If the story hadn’t exploded in quite the same way, it’s likely it would have quietly moved later into May or June. Now, it’s an international story.
A British opening doesn’t rule the film out of Cannes — last year’s out-of-competition opening film, “Robin Hood,” started screening for the public in the U.K. on the morning of its bow on the Croisette, while Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces” was in competition in 2009, despite going on general release in Spain two months earlier. But it’s almost certain that Icon will have more to lose, reputation-wise, if they stick to their guns, and they’ll likely defer to Fox Searchlight. We just hope that they’ll stick to it long enough for them to screen it in the next few weeks…