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When A Fest Strategy Goes Awry: Traverse City Screens “Jesus Camp” Against Magnolia’s Wishes

When A Fest Strategy Goes Awry: Traverse City Screens "Jesus Camp" Against Magnolia's Wishes

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady‘s “Jesus Camp,” an unreleased documentary that insiders hope will play to audiences on all sides of the political spectrum, gained significant media attention in recent days when its distributor, Magnolia Pictures, unsuccessfully tried to stop Michael Moore from showing the film at his growing Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan this weekend. Against the wishes of those involved with the production, the movie, about a group of children that attend an evangelical summer camp in North Dakota, was boldly screened for more than 600 people during two sold-out festival showings. As reported in indieWIRE and other publications more than ten days ago, Magnolia decided to pull the film, concerned that screenings in a festival headed by Moore would taint the perception of the film in the run up to its theatrical release. Despite requests, Moore and the festival decided to screen the film anyway.

The whole incident underscored how a film’s festival strategy can change quickly once a movie is acquired for distribution. And it raised questions about the accountability of a film festival after that ownership changes. The situation also gave both the festival and the film a boost of much-appreciated publicity.

“Jesus Camp”, intended to play to both sides of the aisles, certainly had both sides of this battle seeing and skewing the incident to their own advantage. In a statement issued Friday, Moore called the move to take the film out of his festival “one of the worst publicity stunts I’ve ever seen,” saying that he was “begged” to show the movie but then received a letter requesting the cancellation a day before the screening. Magnolia however, maintained that moves to pull the film began back in mid-July after it acquired the film. In a conversation with indieWIRE on Friday, Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles reiterated, “I don’t want the perception out in the public that this is an agenda-laden film.”

In a letter addressed to Moore (and sent to indieWIRE), Magnolia’s Bowles reiterated his rights to the movie adding that the Traverse City fest was not authorized to show the movie, emphasizing his concerns that, “showing the film at a festival so closely aligned with Michael Moore will create the misimpression that the film is left-leaning and critical of its subject matter, when, in fact, the film is a balanced and objective work.”

Moore saw the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and producers A & E Indie Films and rep Cinetic Media booked the festival showings. But, indieWIRE became aware of Magnolia’s concerns even before the “Jesus Camp” deal was announced. The company objected to the film being listed on the lineup in mid-July when the Traverse City roster was highlighted in indieWIRE. An insider connected to the film told indieWIRE on Friday that Traverse City organizers were aware of the decision to remove the film back on July 13 or 14th, when they in fact pleaded with the “Jesus Camp” team to keep the film in the fest because both screenings were already sold-out and a Magnolia rep was scheduled to speak on a panel.

Filmmakers Ewing and Grady decided to stay out of the recent fracas, since they weren’t involved in implementing the festival strategy before or after the deal was made with Magnolia. Ewing, who is from Michigan, admitted that some family members would be seeing the movie in Traverse City and would report back on the reaction. “As far as the rest of it,” Ewing told indieWIRE, “Rachel and I have three words: slow news day.”

John Hull, a Traverse City resident who works as a zoning administrator in a nearby town, attended the first screening of the film on Friday and told indieWIRE this weekend that the controversy was not mentioned at the “Jesus Camp” screening. Asked for his take on the movie, Hull told indieWIRE, “‘Jesus Camp’ was outstanding, and horrifying, in that so many Americans can be so militant and theocratic. Their speech was thick with statements about conflict and war. It was very well made and absent of any commentary. The subjects spoke for themselves.” Continuing, Hull added, “I spoke with an acquaintance who had caught the other screening, and his reactions were the same as mine. The people in the film were so bizarre, yet they were so sincere, they were like Leslie Neilsen in ‘Airplane’.”

A scene from “Jesus Camp,” which screened this weekend at the Traverse City Film Festival. Photo provided by Magnolia Pictures

The biggest surprise of the whole incident, for many, was the fact that Moore and his festival would screen the movie over the objections of those who are responsible for it, an action unheard of in festival circles, but one perhaps bolstered by Moore’s notoriety. Bowles added that he would not pursue legal action, despite his requests being ignored.

A film being removed from a festival after a lineup has already been announced is certainly not unheard of, but in such instances, festivals typically respect the wishes of distributors, according to a number of other event planners. At SXSW, organizers faced just such a problem when Sony Pictures Classics acquired “American Hardcore” just after its Sundance Film Festival debut this year. SXSW already had a commitment from the filmmaker and the film was listed in all fest materials, but Sony Classics decided to hold the film for fall festivals closer to its intended release date.

“We understood, these things happen,” SXSW film festival producer Matt Dentler explained, in a conversation with indieWIRE on Friday. Dentler noted that in other cases, as with “Super Size Me” and “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004, both films were acquired at Sundance after being booked by SXSW, but the buyers (Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films for “Super Size” and Fox Searchlight for “Napoleon”) decided to honor the committment and use the screenings to promote upcoming releases of the films.

“Distributors know the landscape rather well,” explained Dentler, adding, “I would like to think that we have a pretty good relationship with both filmmakers and distributors. So, if it changes overnight from working with one to working with the other (as was the case with “Super Size Me” and “Napoleon”), more often than not we’re still working with people we know.” He added, “I mean, we’re always going to concede to the distributor’s wishes.”

“We deal with it as it happens,” offered David Kwok, a programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival, who reiterated that his festival maintains continual communication with its filmmakers to try and avoid such situations. “We usually know that something is going to happen,” he explained. “It only becomes a problem for us when films do need to be pulled out, but that doesn’t happen that often — or we work it out with the distributor to still keep the title.”

“Broadly speaking,” explained Christian Gaines, head of AFI Fest in Los Angeles, “I would say that a larger, more established film festival, with the strongest relationships with filmmakers, sales agents and distributors, is less likely to have to deal with last- minute changes in the programming for whatever reason, as festival opportunities are generally seen as good for the film and filmmaker.”

However, Gaines explained, “It’s only natural as a film festival to fight (the) decision to pull a film, citing event logistics and audiences who may not know or care about the reasons for a film being pulled. But he added, “I also think U.S. distributors that commit to the assumed risk of a theatrical distribution then have the largest say in the films’ U.S. release strategy and are then in the position to make these calls, however unpopular the decision might be.”

“I always try to steer my colleagues in the festival world from trying to pressure distributors,” added SXSW’s Dentler. “It doesn’t seem like good business to me. Why potentially burn a bridge? Some festivals take it personally. We don’t, we know that it’s all part of the process. And, in the end, a film getting picked up is good for everybody.”

Back in 1998, the Sundance Film Festival decided to drop Nick Broomfield‘s “Kurt and Courtney” documentary, just days before its debut, following apparent pressure from a record label and Courtney Love. In that case, the filmmaker was against the decision, but the festival decided to avoid a potential legal battle with a large record label and a subject of the movie. The decision brought even more attention to the film and Broomfield organized a separate local screening in Park City for insiders and key press.

In the case of “Jesus Camp,” even though the film screened against the wishes of the distributors and those involved with the film, the media attention about Magnolia’s concerns distanced the movie from Moore and gave the film an added bit of awareness.

“I am not complaining about the fact that this film’s profile has been raised,” noted Bowles, in the conversation with indieWIRE. Because, he added, “This films stands up to the scrutiny. I have no problem going to bat for (it).”

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