It was baffling when distributor Broad Green Pictures pulled Lucy Walker’s “Untitled Buena Vista Social Club Documentary” from the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, the same day as its intended premiere, with a press release that said the “post production process has taken longer than expected.”
Nearly a month later, Broad Green has made no further comment on the film’s status, but its homepage still boasts that “Lucy Walker’s Buena Vista Social Club documentary will have it’s [sic] official world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival!”
That disconnect (and typo) could be a matter of sloppy site maintenance, but multiple IndieWire interviews with people familiar with Walker’s film and Broad Green suggest more complex issues dog the three-year-old would-be studio. (Walker declined to comment for this article; Broad Green executives didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Walker, a Sundance award-winning documentarian with two Oscar nominations, made a deal with Broad Green shortly before the 2015 Cannes Film Festival to finance her new film, a sequel to Wim Wenders’ 1999 hit “Buena Vista Social Club.” On a January 13 Instagram post, Walker announced that she’d completed the film and had a press day booked for the January 20 premiere. Two weeks later, in a February 1 Instagram post, she commented, “it’s not clear for now if that work will be seen or appreciated which is the purgatorial pitstop we are in currently.”
When I reflect on our #buenavistasocialclub doc having been pulled from all the spring fests I console myself with how much better my skiing is getting and how much more time I suddenly have to enjoy the season. I am now a certified advanced skier enjoying black diamonds, trees and even (ok not too pointy) moguls. I no longer have to fear skiiing with my skiing-since-birth friends lest they persuade me to let go my sweaty trail map and head over the edge with them. This is a brand new and most marvelous feeling. ⛷💩💊
On February 2, Walker turned to social media again, posting an Instagram photo of an emoji chia pet with the comment, “Things you get around to when your distributor pulls your film from every festival.” In the same Instagram post, Walker also implied that there has been a communication breakdown between her and Broad Green executives.
“When people have been ‘traveling’ and unable to speak to one another for weeks you start to wonder if it’s an honest description, don’t you?” Walker wrote. “So few people lose their satellite phones when rowing the Atlantic, for example. Or forget to tell their assistant that they are going on a month-long silent meditation retreat.”
Wall Street billionaire brothers Gabriel and Daniel Hammond launched Broad Green in 2014 with the goal of launching a full-fledged studio, expanding rapidly to 87 staffers and opening brand-new Hollywood offices where they feed their employees breakfast and lunch. “It’s everything from the guys that option the books and graphic novels — the development sides, the earliest stages, the IP, production — on through marketing and distribution,” Gabriel Hammond told IndieWire in 2015.
However, outside of its 2015 Sundance acquisition “A Walk In the Woods,” starring Robert Redford, which made nearly $30 million at the domestic box office, and Bryan Cranston thriller “The Infiltrator,” which managed $15 million, Broad Green has struggled to find its footing.
Disappointments include Ramin Bahrani’s well-reviewed real estate thriller “99 Homes” ($1.7 million domestic), Sarah Silverman’s depressive drama “I Smile Back” ($58,000), and Amazon Studios’ Nic Winding Refn horror flick “The Neon Demon” ($1.5 million domestic). “Brain on Fire,” starring Chloe Grace Moretz, debuted at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival to mostly withering reviews and then sold straight to streaming platform Netflix, with no theatrical release.
Even with stars Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale, Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” scored only $566,000, while his “Voyage of Time” IMAX documentary grossed even less. Malick’s “Song to Song,” starring Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender, will open SXSW on March 10.
In summer 2016, the company laid off around 6 percent of its staff, all of whom worked in the publicity department, and saw the resignation of publicity head Adam Keen, distribution chief Travis Reid, and former Anonymous Content producer Alix Madigan, among many more. Today, according to a company spokesman, the team numbers about 69.
When it comes to Broad Green’s oversight of its pipeline, several former employees told similar stories of a company led by people who have the ambition to run a studio but a dearth of experience, and didn’t listen to their own staff. “There’s a definite lack of understanding of the business that prevented them from making clear decisions,” said a former employee.
Among the issues that face Walker’s Buena Vista Social Club documentary, which was produced by Convergent Media and Blink TV: creative differences between the filmmaker (who wanted to play Sundance) and Broad Green’s Gabriel Hammond (who still hasn’t dated the movie or made further festival plans), complex music clearances, finishing costs, and the pressing need to deliver finished assets to multiple international buyers who acquired rights in Cannes 2015 from sales company Mister Smith, which handles Broad Green’s international sales.
This isn’t the first time Broad Green has faced a dispute related to a festival premiere. Director Jeremy Saulnier’s horror-thriller “Green Room” — which Broad Green financed but did not release, selling the movie to A24 — premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, but only after a lengthy dispute with Broad Green over sending the film to the festival at all. Sources say Broad Green wanted to skip Cannes to premiere the movie at a later festival, and at the time, Saulnier made no secret of his antipathy toward Gabriel Hammond.
While the Hammonds hoped to foster a friendly and hospitable place to work, people who have worked with the financial service moguls say that while Hollywood is a relationship business, they relate to numbers more than people. “You have to know what the rules are before you can break them,” said one ex-employee. “I felt like I was participating in an expensive experiment.”
Jan Thijs / Broad Green Pictures / Miramax
The company initially focused on specialty fare, then moved toward more mainstream titles and looked to algorithms to gauge their commercial potential. However, Miramax’s “Bad Santa 2,” released November 23, earned just $17.2 million. One agent admitted that Broad Green is not her first-choice home for a favorite movie. “They lost some good, talented people,” she said. “They’ve changed strategies a handful of times. We’re waiting and watching.”
Next on the Broad Green release calendar was the sorority comedy “Step Sisters,” from “Drumline” director Charles Stone III. However, Los Angeles Media Fund CEO Jeff Soros has had to cover “Step Sisters” production overages, and production sources confirm the movie will not make its March 31 release date. For now Broad Green is still the North American distributor, but that could change.
Looking ahead, John Leonetti thriller “Wish Upon” is set for June 30, while Cannes 2016 pickup “Villa Capri,” directed by Ron Shelton and starring Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, is set for August 25.
There’s no evidence that Broad Green is planning to offload Walker’s film the way they did Saulnier’s, but other distributors told IndieWire they wouldn’t be surprised by that outcome, and there is word of a potential partner sharing the burden of releasing the movie.
Though the future of Walker’s “Untitled Buena Vista Social Club Documentary” seems very uncertain, the director has hinted that a resolution could be forthcoming very soon. “Any minute now we’ll be able to explain!” she wrote on Instagram. “I’m still dreaming the beautiful film we made might be seen ever again.”