'Slumdog': From mutt to 'Millionaire'

The odds-on Oscar favorite once seemed destined for the direct-to-video bin, a victim of bad timing and studio indifference. Then against all odds, the project's luck turned from bad to good.

February 22, 2009|John Horn

Some movies can generate a spellbinding silence: a collective hush of audience anticipation, proof that the film has captured the attention of everyone in the theater. The deadly quiet that Danny Boyle heard in "Slumdog Millionaire's" first Hollywood screening was of a very different nature -- evidence that his underdog drama faced even longer odds than his film's uneducated game-show contestant.

Boyle and his filmmaking collaborators have said that "Slumdog Millionaire" has enjoyed so much good fortune it is almost as if destiny has guided it toward tonight's Academy Awards, where the film is a heavy favorite to win the best picture Oscar. But at the moment the film arrived in town, "Slumdog Millionaire's" fate looked bleaker, particularly after its initial showing inside an upstairs screening room at Warner Bros. last June 12.

Much has been written about the film's against-all-odds passage -- how a heavily subtitled film with no recognizable stars escaped the closure of its American distributor to become an awards-season steamroller, with domestic ticket sales set to pass $100 million. Yet the inside tale of "Slumdog Millionaire's" brush with a possible direct-to-video release -- and the behind-the-scenes machinations that brought the film to a new, enthusiastic distributor -- has received far less attention.

By some measure, the film's accomplishments are no less remarkable than the winning-answer streak delivered by the movie's protagonist in India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." In reality, "Slumdog Millionaire" was nearly sent packing in the first round.

Boyle and his producer, Christian Colson, had traveled from London to Burbank with a video copy of "Slumdog," both excited and nervous about showing their $14-million film's rough cut to Warner Bros. executives. The studio's specialty-film division, Warner Independent Pictures, had been the only American movie company to bid on the film's U.S. distribution rights, but soon after Boyle wrapped filming in Mumbai early last year, Warners decided to close WIP, focusing instead on mass-appeal movies such as "The Dark Knight."

With every passing week in the editing room, Boyle and Colson believed their movie was improving dramatically, but they also knew that the film's advocates were vanishing: the WIP executives who had paid $5 million for "Slumdog Millionaire's" domestic rights either had left the company or were on their final days.

Before Colson and Boyle even drove through the Warner Bros. gates on Olive Avenue, they had reasons to worry. The studio initially had scheduled a meeting with the two Londoners immediately after the screening to discuss "Slumdog Millionaire," but Warner Bros. had canceled the get-together a few days before the screening, citing schedule problems. Once at the studio, it wasn't entirely clear they were welcome; as soon as Colson and Boyle started toward two open screening room seats, a Warner Bros. staffer asked them to leave, saying the Warners executives preferred to watch the movie alone. But Colson quickly pulled Boyle into a seat, and they declined to go away.

If the brief disagreement over the seats was awkward, what followed over the next 2 1/2 hours in screening room No. 5 was unnerving, some participants say. Present in the well-appointed room were two senior WIP executives -- Polly Cohen, who had run the division, and Paul Federbush, an enthusiastic "Slumdog" supporter as WIP's production and acquisition head -- and a handful of top Warner Bros. decision-makers, including Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group; Kevin McCormick, president of production for Warner Bros. Pictures; and Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures.

Studio screenings can be antiseptically businesslike, but the "Slumdog Millionaire" reception felt strikingly icy to several people in the room. "It was quiet," Boyle says. Adds Federbush: "I was uncomfortable with the silence and felt bad for the filmmakers."

Little was said afterward, and while Colson and McCormick met the following morning for what Colson calls a "very constructive" meeting about the movie, the filmmakers flew the 5,500 miles back to London unsure of its American future. Boyle and Colson said they didn't hear from Warner Bros. for weeks, although Robinov says Cohen was in constant contact.

Robinov says Boyle's cut of the film was far from its finished version, with the movie's lead characters, Jamal and Latika, not reunited at the conclusion. "There was nothing negative that came out of the screening," Robinov says. "I told Danny that I thought he had done a really good job."

Boyle didn't sense the enthusiasm. On a holiday break with his 17-year-old daughter, Caitlin, a few weeks later in mid-July, the good-natured Boyle seemed resigned over the film's prospects. "It's such a shame," Boyle told her while they vacationed in Majorca, "that nothing is going to happen to it in the United States."


Numbers don't add up

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