By the sea one sheet2by the sea one sheetIn a crowded marketplace where prestige movies without proven stars are sinking like stones, you will be hard pressed to find a fall film with bigger worldwide box office stars than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. But despite the fact that Jolie wrote and directed By The Sea and stars in it with Pitt in what marks their first feature collaboration since the 2005 blockbuster Mr. And Mrs. Smith, there is little to no awareness — or evidence in the advertising — that two huge stars are in almost every frame of this film. And rather than a wide release, the only firm plan is for a release in three cities.

So, two weeks before its November 13 bow, few realize that By The Sea is coming out even though the studio releasing it, Universal Pictures, has expertly marketed and distributed winner after winner this year with Jurassic World, Furious 7 and Straight Outta Compton.

Consider the one-sheet for By The Sea: It shows barely a glimpse of the two biggest box office stars in its movie poster, which depicts a balcony with a man’s hat barely touching a woman’s hat, against a yellow-hued sky. On the second one sheet, Jolie is unrecognizable, with hair looking like a wave that covers most of her face. Pitt is in a small photo at the bottom, also barely recognizable. In fact, at first glance, he looks more like Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo.

So you gotta ask: What is going on with By The Sea? And why would a marketing-savvy studio like Universal not exploit the presence of two of the few stars who are proven draws?

According to the studio and Jolie’s camp, it’s all by design, a subtle way to deliver a film that is more personal than commercial. However, sources say that at the center of it all is Jolie, a writer-producer-director-star who has ideas of her own and is in involved in every detail of the film’s launch of what is clearly a personal pet project. By allowing the film to go to market in modest fashion as Jolie wishes, they say, Universal is protecting its future relationship with a star who built a strong relationship with film chairman Donna Langley from when the star directed the Louis Zamperini drama Unbroken.

So when a trailer cut by Universal didn’t please her, Jolie cut her own. Said one person with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes machinations: “They aren’t selling it as a mainstream romantic drama because she doesn’t want that and they weren’t willing to take her on.”

(The studio dropped a new trailer for the film today, noting only that it’s coming in November and using Universal’s old logo at the front of it:)

Also curious is that release pattern. While Universal and Jolie’s camp maintain that a limited release was always in their minds and that anybody who says different made the mistaken assumption this was going to be bigger, the film has been listed as going “wide” on exhibitor schedules (including on Rentrak’s release schedule, which gets its information directly from the studios). Online, By The Sea is also referred to as a “nationwide” release. It’s been on the books that way since May, when the studio first announced a November 13 release. To be fair to the studio, the press release of their date announcement had no reference to the release pattern.

“It’s still on my list as wide,” said one exhibitor this week. “If they are going limited, they probably need to tell people pretty soon.” Said one observer: “Why would you make a $30M movie with two big stars and deem it worthy of a three-city release?”

That it was ever going wide was vehemently denied by Jolie’s camp, and by Universal, which has told us that the movie wasn’t ever intended to be more than what it turned out to be: Jolie’s version of a ’70s art film; not a sweeping romance but rather a small “personal” film about a crumbling relationship. They say that this tiny release strategy for a film that is shouldering more than $30M (with P&A added in) was what they had in mind all along.

Universal Logo Old“While it certainly stars two of the most recognizable actors around, By The Sea is an intimate character study evocative of films from ’70s-era European cinema, and we wanted to consistently present that idea in the advertising with integrity rather than misleading the audience,” said Universal in a statement.

“It’s a very kind of private film,” understated one source. So private in fact that it has had no critics screenings to date. And those they will have will only happen days before release. The reason most art house films don’t feature big TV spends is because the expenditure doesn’t support the model, and those films rely dearly on word-of-mouth and the hustling of stars to create any kind of awareness. None of that exists here.

The only promotion on the film came from Jolie herself. In an interview with Vogue 10 days ago, the star called it a “personal project,” saying: “This is the only film I’ve done that is completely based on my own crazy mind.” She said that she and Pitt called the script “the crazy one” and “the worst idea.” Probably not the most positive words you’d use to promote a film.

The film will have its world premiere November 5 at AFI Fest, only about a week before it debuts in three cities: New York, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The AFI Fest choice, says Universal, “was an easy one because it offered an opportunity to debut at a filmmaker-centric festival that aligned well with the availability of the film as well as a window of time in the demanding schedules of Angelina and Brad. We have had good experiences at AFI launching films like Lone Survivor, and we appreciated the chance to be their opening-night attraction at this year’s festival.”

One source close to Jolie said all along she has considered By The Sea “an indie film.” However, most of those don’t cost $27M film and a location shoot in Malta. Compared to most indies, this one seems pricey and self-indulgent.

By the Sea“The budget of this film is incongruent with art-house fare. They made the movie because they had a re-pairing of Mr. And Mrs. Smith and thought they would have a marketable movie, but it became an art house film. That’s what happened,” said one observer. “They let it go for six months with everyone thinking it was going to be a wide release.”

By The Sea was always intended to open in limited release,” said a Universal spokeswoman. “This is a small, personal film from one of our most passionate writer/directors. We support Angelina’s artistic vision and plan to give the film the care it deserves.”

Set in the 1970s, the drama is about a couple’s relationship set against the backdrop of a seaside town. Universal picked up the project with awards-season hopes, but the studio is already waging campaigns for Jobs and Straight Outta Compton (the latter a surprise critical and box office darling). By releasing By The Sea in only in three cities, the studio can certainly save money by buying local spots and limited outdoor ads.

And lest we forget, this comes after the studio spent millions of dollars in TV spots trying in vain to sell Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs to a mainstream audience.