EXCLUSIVE: When Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom had its World Premiere in early September at the Toronto International Film Festival, the critical reaction and audience buzz wasn’t exactly all what distributor The Weinstein Company was hoping for. The epic film, which chronicles the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, was overshadowed by many other films including August: Osage County and Philomena from Weinstein itself. What was hoped to be a significant launch that would ignite Oscar talk instead left the prestige film back in the pack, a rare awards-season misstep for the Oscar-savvy company. For director Justin Chadwick it was a clear disappointment, and the Weinsteins now are second-guessing that decision to rush the film, essentially still a rough cut, into a high-profile Toronto slot before it was ready. Now that it is finished and won top notices last weekend from both the Los Angeles Times and NY Times as well as an A+ CinemaScore from first-night audiences, the director and Weinsteins are hoping to turn around the initial impressions out of Toronto (overall, it has a 58% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes).
This all underscores the fact that while festivals can be enormously important, they can also be full of landmines as the opening-night Toronto film, The Fifth Estate, also discovered, virtually destroying any awards hopes it might have had. For Chadwick, he feels vindicated. “Friday’s release of the film reflects my finished and visceral vision of how I dreamt of bringing Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life to the screen,” he told Deadline. The Weinstein Company’s COO David Glasser told me the decision to take the then-unfinished version of Mandela was based on some highly successful research screenings, including Birmingham, where it scored 90 in top two boxes and a similar score in New Rochelle with an 87% recommend. But now he questions the wisdom of the TIFF bow, even though the research was so powerful. “Toronto is a great platform. We have launched so many amazing movies there, and obviously that was our goal to rush Mandela into that Toronto slot. But I think in hindsight if Harvey and I had to do it again, we wouldn’t have done that. Obviously it was an unfinished version of the film, but then Justin Chadwick turns in his version of the film a few days ago and you see the New York Times and LA Times reviews. So was that the right decision, to rush a basically rough cut of the movie? Probably, in hindsight, no,” he said. “But I am so proud now for Justin because we gave him the time to finish the movie the way he wanted, and now look.”
Among changes since Toronto are an end-title song, U2′s “Ordinary Love,” and a considerably shorter running time. Weinstein now is hoping to get some Oscar buzz again. Initial perception is sometimes tough to turn around in Hollywood, but can Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom find traction in a very tough year? The film opened on 4 screens to a $25,000 per-screen average, and Weinstein is hoping strong word of mouth will keep it going through the holiday season.
Here’s an exclusive look at a featurette highlighting the performances of stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.