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Indie world isn't for faint of heart

A horror film's on-again, off-again journey to a release date is on again, but its young makers are wiser to the process.

July 29, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

JUST hours after "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" had its debut screening at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, the movie's makers were sitting on top of the independent film mountain. In an all-night negotiating session following "Mandy Lane's" first showing, Harvey Weinstein purchased the low-budget teen thriller for $3.5 million, promising to release it on at least 800 screens.

But like the underage victims in the film, "Mandy Lane" immediately went missing.

Nearly a year after its Toronto debut, the movie hasn't reached theaters. But what would have been essentially a direct-to-video release was averted at the last minute, and the film now is scheduled to arrive at the multiplex in early 2008. Though it won the brief but spirited bidding war, the Weinstein Co. no longer owns the film's U.S. rights, having sold them to a new German-backed distribution company.

The rise, fall and potential resurrection of "Mandy Lane" offers a primer on the wild swings of independent filmmaking, in which you can be a film festival favorite one day, the victim of a poor test screening the next, and then wake up in the hands of a new, untested distributor.

The final chapter in "Mandy Lane's" up-and-down story hasn't yet been written. Early next year, the film is scheduled to be the first theatrical release of Senator Entertainment US, a newly formed production and distribution entity affiliated with Germany's Senator Entertainment AG, which promises to give the film the support the Weinstein Co. wouldn't.

Marco Weber, president and chief executive of the new American division, says he will release "Mandy Lane" on as many as 1,200 screens.

"I am incredibly impressed by this film," Weber says. "I feel like it represents a new generation of teen horror movies."

When "Mandy Lane" was shown at last year's Toronto festival, many also held Weber's positive assessment. Immediately after its midnight debut, producers Occupant Films and its CAA sales agents were approached by several bidders.

Weinstein bargained till dawn, successfully acquiring the film's worldwide rights while beating out Focus Features and MTV Films.

It was a stunning coming-out for Occupant, a partnership of three recent graduates of USC's Peter Stark film producing program. Soon after leaving school, Keith Calder, Felipe Marino and Joe Neurauter assembled a business plan to produce low-budget genre films, which would be financed by outside investors and then sold to various distributors.

Made for $600,000, "Mandy Lane" was Occupant's first production, and an apparent home run at that.

While Variety's festival review of the film was lukewarm, the notices posted by an array of horror and film websites were far more complimentary. "The gore is great and the tension palpable," said Written by Jacob Forman and directed by first-timer Jonathan Levine, the film stars Amber Heard as Mandy Lane, a knockout newcomer to a Texas high school. Several male schoolmates invite Lane and a couple of other girls to an isolated ranch for a weekend of fun. It doesn't quite turn out that way.

Although Harvey Weinstein purchased the movie, it was going to be released by Dimension Films, the genre division he runs with his brother Bob. The original plan called for a commitment of 800 screens, according to several people familiar with the deal, and a tentative fall 2007 debut, after the film's theatrical launch in Britain.

But soon after the deal was inked in Toronto, the film had a demoralizing test screening in New Jersey. Some recutting and editing was contemplated but never came to pass.

Unsettling changes

BY this past spring, the Weinstein Co. had decided to trim "Mandy Lane's" release rollout from 800 to 200 screens. The positive spin on that move was that the company hoped word of mouth would help build the film's audience slowly and that -- like the studio's thriller "Feast" -- it would sell a fair number of DVDs. The likelier scenario was that Weinstein Co. was scared by the test screening and was cutting its investment.

In exchange for Occupant's agreeing to a more limited release, the Weinstein Co. paid the producers an additional $250,000, according to a person familiar with the deal.

Then, in June, the film's makers found out via an Internet site that "Mandy Lane" had been moved up from the fall to July 20. With the new date just a few weeks away, there was hardly any "Mandy Lane" publicity under way. A "Mandy Lane" trailer had been cut, but it wasn't running, even in front of the Weinstein Co.'s "1408," a genre film aimed at the same audience.

The Weinstein Co. denies it, but to several people involved in the film, it looked as though "Mandy Lane" was being dumped, right into the teeth of the summer movie season: If it was going to be seen, it would have to make its mark in the fall in video stores and Target.

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