OSCARS: Werner Herzog's Controversial Toronto/Telluride Death Penalty Doc Being Rushed Into Release In November

EXCLUSIVE: After its controversial showings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Werner Herzog’s dark and gripping death penalty documentary Into The Abyss, originally scheduled to be released sometime in 2012, has just been moved into the crowded November holiday corridor and will now open November 11th in New York, Los Angeles and possibly a couple of other major cities. The decision was literally forced on distributor Sundance Selects by its filmmaker, who became “obsessed” with the subject matter and demanded they release it now — particularly as the issue has turned into a hot potato due to a recent Republican presidential debate and the execution of Troy Davis. The difficulty for the distrib was Herzog’s other current doc, the 3D Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, has been a big hit and continues in theaters, and it’s likely some of those dates will now have to be pulled to make way for Abyss.

Erik Nelson, the producer on both films, explains that there was a confluence of events. “Cave is still in theaters and we had no idea it would do as well as it has done,” he said. “You’re not really supposed to put two films out at the same time by the same director (tell that to Steven Spielberg). On the other hand, what Werner wants, Werner gets. Resistance is futile. Added Nelson: “It seems now for whatever reason. everyone in the country is focused on the death penalty debate again thanks to Rick Perry and the bloodthirsty yahoos at the Republican debate, and I think Werner wants the film to be part of that discussion because timing is everything.”

Nelson says he would prefer to bring the film out as planned next year so they don’t have to remove Cave from theaters, but events have trumped that desire. According to Sundance Selects and IFC president Jonathan Sehring, Cave has made $5.3 million and counting, a strong number especially for a film essentially about cave painting. He said it’s still playing at the company’s own NY IFC Center and could play “forever.” And after they saw Abyss, the plan was to wait and bring it out next year once Cave is played out. “It’s a very crowded year for documentaries, but our minds have been changed for us. Do I love our original plan for releasing next year? Yes. Have I been swayed and think we’re doing the right thing? Yes. And I can say 99 out of 100 times I would not respond that way. It’s rare that a filmmaker can convince an entire company that our distribution plan is wrong and his is right,” he said.

Despite fierce competition for screens, Sehring expects to launch Into The Abyss in top theaters and then expand based on how well it does, but he fully expects to be in several top markets before the end of November. The film — which focuses on exploring a triple-homicide case in Conroe, Texas, probing why people kill and why a State kills — does not really take a stand either way, even though Herzog personally is opposed and says in his director’s statement: “A State should not be allowed — under any circumstance — to execute anyone for any reason. End of story.”

Says Nelson: “Whether you support the death penalty or oppose it, this film will make you think about it. I say if the death penalty is a rock thrown into a pond, this film looks at the ripples.”

Sehring says Abyss has qualified for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar competition and could wait until after the nominations to be released, when an Oscar nod for Herzog could be commercially viable. But he points out that other Herzog docs like Cave and Grizzly Man didn’t even make the preliminary documentary shortlist and went on to do great business. And despite having made about 35 documentaries for theatrical release and TV, Herzog has been nominated only once for an Oscar — in 2009 for Encounters At The End Of The World. “Is he due? Absolutely, but that’s not what is driving him here,” Sehring says. Adds Nelson: “I think having this as part of the national debate right now is actually more important to him that an Oscar nomination.”

  1. It would be glorious to see Herzog win an Oscar. For his work is uncompromising and his speech will be just as profound as his films.

    Thanks, Pete. For putting Mr. Herzog’s film into this community’s consciousness.

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