UPDATED: Though Aviron initially declined comment on this story about it not honoring the P&A spend its execs said they would make on Serenity, the distributor has now asked to comment. Here is that comment:

“We had the best intentions for Serenity. We were excited for the opportunity to release this uniquely original movie and work with such a stellar cast and talented filmmakers. As much as we love this film and still hope it finds its audience, we tested and retested the film — with audiences and critics alike — and sadly, the data demonstrated that the film was not going to be able to perform at our initial expectations, so we adjusted our budget and marketing tactics accordingly. Regardless of the spend, it’s next to impossible for an adult-skewing drama to overcome a 23% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a D+ CinemaScore. To have spent more would have been irresponsible to our capital partners and wouldn’t have made prudent business sense for an independent distributor. We have enormous respect and admiration for the talent and all the hard work they put into the film and wish the box office results were better.”

EXCLUSIVE: Serenity stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are furious with distributor Aviron Pictures after they watched their latest film, Serenity, post the worst opening-weekend numbers of their careers. Now, the movie has a polarizing premise and got bad reviews. But a steamy film anchored by two Oscar-winning stars ought to show up better than an eighth-place finish for its opening weekend, at a paltry $4.4 million.

What’s troubling the stars of the Steven Knight-directed drama, and their CAA reps, is the fact that Aviron agreed to a battle plan that called for them to put up P&A commensurate with a 2500-screen release, and the stars agreed to do a full promotional campaign including a junket and as many late-night and daytime talk shows as would have them.

They believe that they were fed excuses and got a lot of unreturned calls when TV spots didn’t show up and it became clear to them Aviron wasn’t going to support the movie and was essentially dumping it. Sources said they believe maybe only nine spots aired in obscure locales and not in any time slots that would have helped create awareness for the film. And sources said it wasn’t until the night before McConaughey and Hathaway got on a plane for the Los Angeles junket that Aviron execs finally leveled and told them that there would be no P&A spend.

Sources close to the situation said the stars feel they were dealt with in a passive aggressive fashion. Originally told that money would be spent, they were then told funds were delayed because the Black Rock-funded distributor was closing one fund and opening another. As it got closer to crunch time, they suddenly weren’t getting their calls returned by chairman William Sadleir. They finally received the bad news from president David Dinerstein, that no money would be forthcoming and the publicity blitz would have to be enough.

Aviron wouldn’t comment, and speculation is the distributor was hurting after dropping P&A on A Private War, and figuring to use that cash flow from ticket sales to roll out Serenity. A Private War didn’t catch on with audiences after it didn’t get hoped-for award nominations, particularly for Rosamund Pike’s performance as conflict journalist Marie Colvin. Aviron ultimately told the reps of McConaughey and Hathaway that it wasn’t throwing good money after bad, sources said.

Serenity has had a tough road. It was one of the pictures generated by Global Road before that company imploded, and Aviron was set as a backstop distributor. But McConaughey in particular is breathing fire over feeling like he was duped. The star asked Aviron to roll the film out slowly but was rebuffed, and sources said he was told that would interfere with an ancillary deal.

There’s nothing that can be done about all this, except perhaps to put an asterisk on the dubious distinction of Serenity being such a low opener for the stars who believed in the film enough to support it, and who believe they deserved better from their distributor.