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AT THE MOVIES / WORD OF MOUTH

Wooing a 'Millionaire'? Be patient

September 18, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

"Slumdog MILLIONAIRE" is a film about the saga of an uneducated orphan who ends up winning on India's equivalent of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But the story of the movie's release has unfolded more like an episode of "Deal or No Deal."

When Warner Bros. announced in early May that it was closing its two specialty film divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, other art house distributors immediately starting telephoning around, trying to determine the fate of director Danny Boyle's film, which Warner Independent had penciled in for a Nov. 7 release.

Oddly, one person was absent from the "Slumdog Millionaire" call sheets: Fox Searchlight head Peter Rice.

Rice -- either through Fox Searchlight or parent 20th Century Fox -- had worked on five previous Boyle movies: "28 Days Later," "Millions," "Sunshine," "The Beach" and "A Life Less Ordinary." And Fox Searchlight had released "The Full Monty," written by "Slumdog Millionaire" screenwriter Simon Beaufoy.

So why wasn't Boyle's biggest Hollywood benefactor actively chasing the British filmmaker's latest movie? The studio somehow knew that "Slumdog Millionaire" would eventually make its way from Warners to Fox and that the best strategy (and smartest bargaining tactic) was to sit back and wait.

It's a way of thinking not unlike how Boyle shot his rags-to-riches movie in the disorganized sprawl of Mumbai. "If you trust it," Boyle said of his Zen-like attitude of shooting a movie in the world's largest city, "it will come back to you."

"Slumdog Millionaire" not only has come back to Fox Searchlight, which will release the film Nov. 28, but also is emerging as one of the fall's most celebrated specialty film titles. After premiering to fervent applause at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month, "Slumdog Millionaire" won the Toronto International Film Festival's significant audience award (past winners include "American Beauty") last weekend.

Backed by an abundance of early critical praise, "Slumdog Millionaire" is now being mentioned as a contender for Academy Award consideration. With its Toronto festival acquisition of director Darren Aronofsky and actor Mickey Rourke's "The Wrestler" (scheduled to open Dec. 19), Fox Searchlight has what looks to be on paper a remarkable end of the year.

When Christian Colson of producer Celador Films ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Descent") first started shopping the $15-million "Slumdog Millionaire" to North American distributors last year before filming commenced, Fox Searchlight wasn't among the most aggressive bidders. Instead, the company determined to grab the film was Warner Independent.

The Warner Independent deal was generous for a movie that was frequently in Hindi and that included scenes of torture -- all with a cast of actors unknown to American moviegoers. In addition to paying $5 million for the film's North American rights, Warner Independent also promised Celador and Boyle a healthy slice of the film's grosses.

But while Boyle was still racing to edit the film, Warner Bros. closed Warner Independent. With several New Line Cinema movies coming into Warners' fall schedule after parent Time Warner shut down New Line, the "Slumdog Millionaire" release date looked uncertain at best.

"You don't know what's going to happen," Colson said. "And that's unnerving."

In late June, Colson brought a rough cut of the film to the Warner lot. "It was clear that they understood that it was a good movie," Colson said. "But it was also clear that they had shut down the infrastructure to release it."

Rather than wash its hands of "Slumdog Millionaire," Warners tried to figure out how it could handle the film without using Warner Independent. The studio asked Bob Berney, the head of Picturehouse, to take a look to see if Picturehouse could be reconstituted to distribute the film. "I really loved it," Berney said. "I think it's his real home run -- it really brings it all together."

But the costs of reassembling Berney's team were prohibitive, especially if "Slumdog Millionaire" wasn't going to come out until early 2009. "They would essentially have to pay everyone double," Berney said, "because we had already fired everybody" and had paid them severance.

Warners allowed Celador, Boyle and Boyle's agent, Endeavor's Robert Newman, to show the film to one -- and only one -- American distributor. After a huddle, Fox Searchlight -- exactly as Rice had anticipated -- received the call.

Just as Warner Bros. was releasing the record-breaking "The Dark Knight," the studio closed a deal to partner with Fox Searchlight for "Slumdog Millionaire's" North American release, with Fox Searchlight marketing and distributing the film, collecting a distribution fee, and splitting costs and revenues with Warners.

"Audiences just love this movie. It takes them on a journey to a place they've never been before, and it's just joyous," said Rice, who declined to discuss the mechanics of the acquisition. "I think it's one of the best movies of the year, and that's what awards are given for. It is an utterly complete cinematic experience."

Producer Colson said that just as the movie is a fable about fate, so too is the story of "Slumdog Millionaire's" zigzagging path to the screen.

"It's a movie about destiny, and we've had some twists and turns ourselves," Colson said. "Is Fox Searchlight a better distributor for the film today than Warner Independent was 12 months ago? I don't know. I'd like to think Warner Independent would have done a great job, but they never got a chance to show us what they could do.

"But is the movie in a better position than it was four months ago? The answer is a categorical yes. Because now it will get a chance at the life it deserves."

--

john.horn@latimes.com

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