Epix, the multi-platform (premium cable, satellite and streaming) movie company co-owned by Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate, is promoting carefully-crafted spots for its initial showings of Alexander Payne’s acclaimed "Nebraska" premiering this Sunday night. To the surprise of Payne and his team, some of these will be in color.
The audio of these spots reads:
"Nominated for six Academy awards, including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Cinematography, experience Alexander Payne’s masterful black and white vision, and for the first time, Epix brings you the full color version for a limited time showing. See Nebraska in two totally different states. Sunday at 8 p.m., followed by the world premiere of the color version, exclusively on Epix. We get big movies."
In recent years, with the decline of black-and-white film stock and the lack of processing facilities, and the move to near-universal use of digital methods to shoot and exhibit films, it has become routine for distributors to make color versions of black-and-white films available. Studios often want color alternatives for ancillary markets (particularly foreign TV). In at least one case, John Boorman’s "The General" (1998), the DVD release included both the black-and-white release version and a color one (described as "desaturated") for sale and rent. So having a color version in reserve is not unusual.
Albert Berger, who along with Ron Yerxa produced "Nebraska," told me he was unaware that Epix was going to show the color version. To his knowledge Payne was also unaware. He said that their contract with Paramount — which financed and released the film — precluded most major showings, including theatrical and DVD/Blu-Ray – from being anything other than the black-and-white original version. When asked about the color version, Payne in interviews last fall explained that the studio was contractually required because of some foreign TV deals to deliver a color version, but that his expectation was minimal exposure in such countries as Moldova, Sierra Leone and Laos. He hoped that the color version would never be seen. Clearly Payne and his producers never anticipated any domestic showings of the color version.
Though it is hard to imagine "Nebraska" as anything other than a black-and-white film, Payne had to cut the budget to $12 million because of anticipated smaller ultimate revenues. With $17 million in domestic box office and as much in marketing (including expensive awards ads), the roughly $8 million returned in domestic film rental means that other sources would need to fill the deficit gap. The foreign theatrical gross total is unpublished, but is likely to have been less than domestic. It is unclear what benefit an alternative color version brings to Epix, which is a subscriber service as opposed to a single-time buy (where arguably a color version might draw some additional appeal; their VOD and other streaming outlets arguably might get a few additional sales).
The color conversion process is not remotely the same as the abysmal attempts some decades ago in the early days of video when Ted Turner and others tried to "colorize" classic black-and-white films to attract more contemporary audiences, which always looked ugly and unappealing. Payne, who is meticulous about his films as much as any top director, did personally supervise the post-production of the color version, according to Berger, despite hoping it never would be seen. In the new digital era, similar to classic black-and-white cinematography, the craftspeople design the entire film to look its best, from sets, costumes, hair design to repainted buildings that work in black-and-white but would look inappropriate in their actual hues. Payne did present a color version which was reprocessed digitally to look more reasonable than what it might have if untouched, but again against his stated wishes and hoping it would have limited or no exposure.
In the meantime, in checking Epix’ website schedule as well as TiVo’s listings, no distinction is made (other than in the spot for Sunday) as to which are in black-and-white or color. Until Sunday, we won’t know for sure if they will alert some viewers that the color version is not the original or that other black-and-white showings are available, meaning that some will never realize they are seeing something the director never meant to be shown.