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You've directed a movie. Now it sits on a studio shelf. And sits.

October 13, 2002|Brian Koppelman and David Levien | Special to The Times

"When's your movie coming out?" These five words have been thrown at us so many times over the past 18 months that they've started to sound more like an accusation than a question.

We've heard them on conference calls with studio execs, at neighborhood block parties, even in the middle of pickup basketball games. Our dentists, whom we see only at six-month intervals, have gotten the opportunity to ask three times. We've tried to answer politely, to veil our own frustration, to hide the fact that for long stretches of time we've had no idea.

It's been worse than development hell -- when a script languishes without being made -- because the movie is finished, waiting in the can. We've felt as though we were serving an indeterminate prison sentence.

It just ended.

"Knockaround Guys," which we wrote and directed for New Line Cinema, was finally released Friday after being finished for about a year and a half. So why did it take so long to come out? People want to hear a salacious answer: that the film was horrible, way over budget or the studio head had it in for us. In truth, the delay was caused by a series of marketing decisions that each made sense at the time, no matter how much pain they caused us.

When we set out to make "Knockaround Guys," a film about the sons of gangsters trying to make their mark, we didn't think about the way it would be sold. Our only intention was to make a solid movie. We worked hard to this end. We relocated from New York to Canada for production, then to Los Angeles for post. We put in the long hours away from our families that directing required. We waived a large chunk of our fee so the budget stayed low. We put together a multigenerational cast of some of our favorite actors: Barry Pepper, Seth Green and Vin Diesel, John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper. We came in on budget.

When we were finished, Bob Shaye, New Line's chairman, and Mike De Luca, then president of production, told us they liked the film. Test audiences liked it too. They laughed in the right spots, related to the characters, cheered at some points. The studio tentatively gave us a February 2001 release date.

But as that date approached, big competition landed on our weekend, and our release was moved to September. There would be more lead time to market the film, the studio distribution head said, and a clearer playing field. It sounded smart, but the delay made us nervous. Our nerves frayed further when AOL and Time Warner merged in the middle of that summer, throwing the studio into a bit of turmoil. Profits were down, there were personnel changes, and it was clear that they couldn't afford any misses.

Then in August they gave us the news that hollowed out our stomachs: Any movies that weren't sequels or obvious commercial wins were being delayed until after "The Lord of the Rings"--the studio's gigantic investment--came out at the end of the year. A decision on our film would be made then. This was a grim development. For the past half a year we'd never considered the possibility that the movie might not come out. We had to face it now.

Hearing the news from New Line was one thing. But having to tell our wives, our parents, our friends, even our agents, was far worse. A feeling of embarrassment and failure hung over each conversation.

The humor around the office became gallows:

" 'Knockaround Guys,' coming soon to a Blockbuster near you."

"Maybe we can get jobs teaching Intro to Film at Kenosha State Teachers College?"

"You think we could break into talk radio?"

In December, "Lord of the Rings" exploded. The good news from New Line in early January was that our movie would be released, with the studio's full support. The bad news: It wouldn't be until after Vin Diesel's "XXX" hit theaters that August. Nine more months.

People in the business start speculating when a film sits in the can for a long time. Production problems? Studio doubts? A certain amount of negative buzz is inevitable, and that makes it more challenging to position the film as new and exciting. It can taint reviews. It can also make it difficult for the director to get his next job.

But a delayed release has deeper effects. The filmmaker's job doesn't feel finished until the public can see the film for itself. This viewing is essential to the creator's artistic growth. It is this final element of the process that gives one distance and objectivity -- the ability, in a sense, to move on to the next work. And not being allowed to have it was worse than any question that might be lobbed by an interested relative across the barbecue.

We'd learned a lesson, though, on an earlier film -- "Rounders" -- that we've tried to remember during the past year and a half: The little things that happen to a movie as it is getting released, and the immediate reaction it garners, are not nearly as important in the long run as they seem at the outset.

Unlike "Knockaround Guys," "Rounders" was rushed to release in 1998 to capitalize on Matt Damon's newly minted fame. Along with some glowing praise, some of its early reviews were mixed, and a few were outright negative. Now the film has a devoted following. We get e-mails, Web mentions and calls from people all over the place who know the movie by heart.

Ultimately, the public forgets the machinations and watches the movie.

What's left is the film.

*

As well as writing, producing and directing "Knockaround Guys," Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote "Rounders" and are the producers of the November release "Interview With the Assassin."

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