The signs are always the same when any studio knows it has a bomb. Executives won’t commit any opinion to email. Phone calls from them pledging to “explain everything” are promised but never come. The suits deny up and down any truth to the inevitable leaks about a troubled shoot or creative friction or bad buzz. But when the studio is financially on-the-fence like The Weinstein Co, and it acquired U.S. rights to Madonna’s first feature-length directorial effort W.E., and the subject matter is Wallis Simpson, and its debut is at the unforgiving Venice Film Festival, which has panned far bigger and more influential big names in filmdom — then not even the PR maestro Harvey Weinstein can downplay crushingly lousy reaction and reviews.
Fact is that the international press and its U.S. counterparts are having a field day killing Madonna’s movie in what can only be seen as the latest “Death In Venice”. Or maybe the more accurate way of saying this is “Death By Venice”. The Times of London claimed Madonna had made an inadvertent comedy “screamingly, inadvertently funny in parts [that] had ‘em rolling in the aisles at Venice” The Guardian review was truly vicious under the headline, “Madonna’s jaw-dropping take on the story of Wallis Simpson is a primped and simpering folly, preening and fatally mishandled”. Only the Daily Mail gave it a true thumbs-up. But my guess is that probably has more to do with that newspaper’s long and troubled history with Madonna, who in 2009 won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit again the Daily Mail and whose legal reps have been threatening the paper recently and repeatedly of more to come because of its nearly always negative coverage of her.
In fact, The Weinstein Co in June was strenuously denying the British tabloid’s article pronouncing W.E. a mess after detailing a secret NY test screening that reportedly left Harvey “thunderous and sour”. His minions claimed that the audience loved the picture and so did Weinstein, who had made Truth or Dare with Madonna and enjoyed a critical and financial success. The studio confirmed the pair had been working on W.E. for some time before that test screening, but wouldn’t confirm or deny reports that Harv was re-editing the picture to make it more commercially viable. That’s something he’s done to only mixed success in the past — earning him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands”.
I do think The Weinstein Co was masochistic not only to send Madonna’s oeuvre to the film festival even if out of competition but also schedule it during the coming Oscar corridor. The good news is that Madonna’s movie cost less than $35M, and all of it shows on the big screen. Even Madonna’s many detractors said the film looks beautiful — even if its story is superficial. (As Bloomberg opined: “Madonna’s second stab at filmmaking is stylish but sophomoric. From a purely emotional standpoint, it’s barely more engaging than a fashion shoot, or a music video. Feelings — love, fear, betrayal, solitude — are expressed in their most elementary form. Actors get little direction.”)
The bad news is that The Weinstein Co already made a major distribution commitment to release W.E. on December 9th in NY and LA, then expand to additional markets in December, with wide release anticipated by mid-January. At the time of the announcement, Harvey gave the film a rave: “Madonna beautifully interweaves past and present in W.E. It’s a very smart film, and a stunning feature directorial debut. I’m incredibly excited about this movie and I wanted to give it a prominent release date.” It was Harv who decided not to show W.E. at the Cannes Film Festival and send it instead to Venice. This was after the film was previewed in Berlin back in February and sales agent IM Global screened clips to 200 invited guests. But it was Madonna’s agents CAA who held back the U.S. rights which went to Weinstein.
Now the terrible reviews for W.E. couldn’t be coming at a worse time for The Weinstein Co. It’s had two major box office disappointments in a row, and coming this weekend is Dimension Films’ Apollo 18. I don’t know how the studio is going to stay on track with its reorganized finances if Dimension films keep bombing like Spy Kids 4 (which opened to a weak $12M weekend from 3,295 theaters) or TWC pics underperforming like Our Idiot Brother (only $5.7M from 2,555 locations hurt by Hurricane Irene but dead last of the trio of new films).
As for Madonna’s narrative, it was co-written by her and her pal Alek Keshishian (In Bed With Madonna), produced by her and another of her pals Kris Thykier. This was only her second stab at filmmaking (after the 2008 Filth and Wisdom). No question this production was troubled: Among those who exited were producer David Parfitt (who’d been on Harv’s Shakespeare in Love, which stole the Best Picture Oscar from Steven Spielberg’s far more worthy Saving Private Ryan) and casting director Nina Gold and actor Ewan McGregor and actresses Vera Farmiga and Margo Stilley.
I predict that The Weinstein Co will wind up just dumping W.E. into North American theaters, put little marketing push behind it after the first weekend, and instead focus on the real Oscar possibles that the studio has this year. It’s more the rule than the exception for Harv to throw his Fall films against the wall, see which stick with critics and awards voting members, and then abandon those that don’t. Last year he whittled down his contenders early and wound up with many acting nominations and the Best Picture Oscar for The King’s Speech. This year potentially, he’s got Academy Award contenders in the black-and-white silent film The Artist that he bought right before the Cannes Film Festival and became a rave on the Croisette. He’s got Iron Lady with Meryl Streep playing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and also bought at Cannes. And the John Hillcoat-directed The Wettest County in the World expected to be platformed for Oscar and released in early 2012. The Weinstein Co also will push Michelle Williams for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. And so on. Here is Madonna talking about her film at the 68° Mostra del Cinema di Venezia: