Few films in recent history have gotten off to as rough a start as Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees.” The drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts was loudly booed following its premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it scored a 0.6 out of 4.0 on Screen’s festival jury rankings, the lowest score in 12 years. IndieWire’s chief film critic Eric Kohn called the movie a “stunning misfire” and Van Sant’s worst film.
Based on a spec script from Chris Sparling (“Buried”), the movie follows a suicidal widower (McConaughey) whose plan to end his life in the forest near Mount Fuji is derailed when he encounters a Japanese businessman lost in the same woods and close to death.
“The Sea of Trees’” disastrous introduction to the world last summer made it all the more surprising when leading distributor A24 acquired the domestic rights to the movie in June from its original distributors Roadside Attractions / Lionsgate, which had picked up the film days before its Cannes premiere. A24 is releasing the movie theatrically in Los Angeles and New York and simultaneously on video-on-demand on Friday. The company declined to comment for this story.
Why is A24 betting on a title that earned a 20 out of 100 on Metacritic? The distributor known for its savvy marketing had been a fan of the project prior to its Cannes premiere, according to the film’s producer, Ken Kao. “They’re undaunted by what happened at Cannes,” he told IndieWire in a recent interview, adding that few companies today would get on board for a project that was virtually pronounced dead on arrival at Cannes. “It takes a specific touch to be able to rebound from that.”
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But there’s another possibility behind the company’s motivation: Despite the film’s critical reception, the combination of a star like McConaughey and an iconic director like Van Sant — who won Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 2003 for “Elephant” — could help A24 turn a profit from VOD rentals. Unlike box office grosses, companies don’t report VOD revenue, so the platform’s commercial potential is hard to gauge. “I myself — and I assume A24 — believe that there is a real audience for this film,” Kao said. “If at all possible I would always prefer to watch a movie on the big screen, but I’m also aware that our times are changing and clearly there is an incredible business and revenue stream coming through [VOD] now.”
While the VOD market can help keep a film in the black if it doesn’t make its money back theatrically, there are no guarantees for “The Sea of Trees,” which had a reported $25 million budget. “That one may be one that they’re going to regret picking up,” said one independent film executive who asked not to be identified. “Only certain movies will work on VOD.”
It’s worth noting that A24 found commercial success recently with “The Lobster,” another Cannes 2015 title the company picked up from its original distributor, Alchemy. But unlike “The Sea of Trees,” “The Lobster” garnered high praise from critics, earning a Metascore of 82. The film has grossed more than $9 million at the domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo. Still, Kao remains hopeful that “The Sea of Trees” will outperform expectations in the hands of A24. “There’s a real human message that a lot of people respond to when they sit and watch it,” he said. “My hope is that — all the talk about box office aside — there is some type of personal enriching experience for people. At the end of the day, there are some life affirming messages in there.”