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Long, strange trip for 'Amateurs'

The Jeff Bridges comedy has a new distributor and will finally open today.

December 07, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Movies occasionally miss their planned release dates: Thanks to production delays, "Titanic" arrived in theaters half a year late, and it hardly suffered. But "The Amateurs" may hold the record for the most postponements -- the Jeff Bridges comedy has had no fewer than six release dates, all of which have come and gone.

After so many false starts, "The Amateurs" finally arrives in theaters today, opening in Los Angeles and Dallas.

"We're all just happy it's going to be projected on some screens," says writer-director Mike Traeger, who made his directorial debut on the movie. "I am managing to block out all the negatives and am really glad it's happening."

When a movie ends up in an endless holding pattern circling the multiplex, it's natural to assume the film itself is to blame. But in the case of "The Amateurs," it was always the film's distributor that was the hindrance.

When French producer Philippe Martinez landed in Hollywood two years ago, he promised to bring new passion to independent movie distribution. In short order, his Bauer Martinez Studios financed or acquired a number of movies: Richard Gere's "The Flock," Christian Bale's "Harsh Times," Michelle Pfeiffer's "I Could Never Be Your Woman," Calista Flockhart's "Fragile," the sequel "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj" and "The Amateurs."

"Harsh Times" and "Van Wilder" received desultory releases, but the rest of the Bauer Martinez slate lay fallow as the company fought off insolvency. With unpaid bills inundating the upstart studio (the company never paid the more than $850,000 it owed the financiers of "The Amateurs"), Bauer Martinez scheduled -- and then abandoned -- all of its "Amateurs" release dates, the first of which was November 2005.

Throughout 2006, new release dates came and went like pages on a calendar, as "Amateurs" producer Aaron Ryder tried to transfer the film to a new distributor.

"I spent an entire year with the lawyers trying to get it out of there," Ryder says. It wasn't just Bauer Martinez that Ryder had to deal with; the company had sold pay-television rights to Showtime and home video rights to the Weinstein Co. (The movie already has been released theatrically in Australia, England and Sweden.)

Eventually, Ryder was able to transfer the film's theatrical rights to First Look Studios, a small independent distributor that released Michael Douglas' "King of California" this year.

"The Amateurs" follows a group of small-town nobodies who, under the leadership of Bridges' Andy Sargentee, decide their path to fame and fortune rests with making an adult film. Sargentee's amateur porn filmmaking team includes Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Joe Pantoliano, William Fichtner and Patrick Fugit. The movie concludes with a meta ending almost as strange as the real film's path to the screen.

"It's almost the same story of the film," Ryder says. "It was in their failure that they succeeded, and it's not unlike what has happened to us."

Despite the countless false "Amateurs" starts, Traeger and Ryder say the film's cast has remained supportive. "It's remarkable how these people feel about the film -- they never stopped calling about it," Ryder says. "You couldn't ask for more loyalty."

Bridges will join Ryder for a question-and-answer session in Dallas, while Traeger will be joined by Danson, Fichtner and Pantoliano for a similar panel after the film's 7:35 p.m. screening at the Landmark in Los Angeles.

With a limited marketing campaign, First Look is targeting fans of Bridges' "The Big Lebowski" and relying on as much free media as possible. "This is an all-star indie cast," says Brooke Ford, First Look's marketing head. "And we really think this is the little engine that could."

Traeger is confident that now that audiences can finally see the film, they will discover that "The Amateurs" is a lot of fun.

"After you've taken this ride, you just have to be thankful it's coming out," says Traeger, who hasn't made another movie since. "Right now, I am willing to believe anything is possible."

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