TELLURIDE: Peter Weir’s The Way Back is about an epic journey of survival, an appropriate metaphor for the film’s own treacherous journey through the current wobbly state of the movie industry which just didn’t seem to know what to do with this stunning adventure, the kind of movie Hollywood used to make all the time. Finally yesterday, as many were arriving for the Telluride Film Festival, Newmarket announced it will handle  the film for U.S. release just after the first of the year. It coincided with Telluride’s career tribute to Weir today and the World Premiere (the only fall festival slot for the film) tonight. My interview with Weir is below.

Produced under the Exclusive Films label (which owns Newmarket) and co-produced by National Geographic Entertainment and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, Weir’s The Way Back is currently planned for a fairly wide break on over 600 screens on January 21, according to Newmarket’s VP of acquisitions John Crye. It’s a particularly aggressive rollout for the indie company whose past distribution successes have included such award magnets as Memento, Monster, Whale Rider, and Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster The Passion Of The Christ. With this kind of DNA, it would seem natural that part of the master plan would also include a late December Oscar qualifying run. But both Crye and a PR rep for the film would only say that is a distinct possibility even though they acknowledge the film deserves one.

Perhaps Newmarket is waiting for reaction and reviews out of Telluride. But, c’mon, it’s unheard of to open a prestigious film like this from a 6-time Oscar nominee (4 in the directing category) with a cast including Ed Harris (here in Telluride for the premiere), Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) in the middle of January without trying to get some of Oscar’s fairy dust sprinkled on it. At the very least, the breathtaking and challenging cinematography of longtime Weir collaborator Russell Boyd, already an Oscar winner for Weir’s most recent film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2003) would seem a slam dunk. But the film has many other attributes as well, including those actors and Weir’s impeccable direction. Which is why Telluride Fest directors Gary Meyer and Tom Luddy said the film was an obvious choice the minute they saw it.

When I talked to Peter Weir earlier today in advance of his career tribute and the World Premiere tonight, he thought an Oscar run would seem likely. “I can’t imagine why not,” he says. “But it all comes down to money. You have to pay for a campaign and I have worked so long with studios [that] this independent system is new to me.” The 66 year veteran, previously nominated four times — for directing Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander (2003) — told me it was just a relief that, in this uncertain time in the industry, his labor of love was getting a theatrical release. Especially after the beautifully crafted epic adventure was rejected out of hand by several possible distributors, not an atypical story filmmakers tell today.

He says, “One [studio exec] said, ‘We aren’t in that kind of business anymore.’ I thought what kind of business? Show business?” He believes there is no way he could have gotten his last film, Master and Commander made now, just seven years later. “We just squeaked in on that one. The gate is now closed.” Weir got to the point where he became genuinely worried it might go directly to DVD, a thought that sends shivers down his spine but is a reality for major directors now working in the not-so-brave new indie environment.

There was talk last spring that the film would be in the Cannes Film Festival in May — and Weir confirms it could have been. “It was ready  for Cannes. But the talk was what is the market, especially for a drama which is an extremely chancy genre now. Few are offered, few succeed. It’s a big conversation going on in the world of film. Is audience taste changing? It seems to have fallen out of fashion. I think the fantasy film has usurped this kind of adventure.”

Weir notes that distributors were considering many factors to find the best window of opportunity. Do they go to Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Sundance? Do they look toward the end of the year when there is such a crowded field all competing for the prestige slots? “Everybody dreams they will be this year’s Hurt Locker,”  Weir adds. “You go out into this independent marketplace, and push and shove and jostle to find a spot so that’s a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, it’s challenging to find that path out to the public. It was pre-sold in European territories but I think people get naturally nervous.”

Weir’s film, set in 1940, does have a bleak atmosphere and is not an obvious sell for today’s “what’s the easy hook?” movie marketing. But it tells a fascinating tale of a small group of multinational prisoners who escape a snowy Siberian gulag. Their impossible trek of thousands of miles through five different dangerous countries follows. Although it’s been  fictionalized, it is inspired by the real-life tale of three men who turned up in India one day after reportedly making a similar journey.

It’s ironic that Weir was the recipient of BAFTA’s David Lean Award For Direction in 2004 because, if anything, The Way Back is reminiscent of the kind of ambitious and sweeping epic in which Lean excelled. Of course, if Lean were working in  today’s film industry, he probably wouldn’t be working.

Weir is happy that filmmaker-centric Telluride was chosen to premiere his film, and is honored to be the subject of a tribute and to have a non-CGI’d movie here that stands tall in his long career. “If you can sit here as I can and say, ‘That is the film I wanted to make,’ what happens after is just fate, luck, and timing. This is a film about survival, and I am very interested in that kind of subject.”