EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros. Pictures has acquired global distribution rights to They Shall Not Grow Old, the Peter Jackson-directed World War I documentary that premiered October 16 at the London Film Festival to rave reviews. The deal was made after the film was screened for Warner Bros Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich; New Line president/Chief Content Officer Carolyn Blackwood; Global Marketing Chief Blair Rich; domestic distribution president Jeff Goldstein; and Tom Molter, president of international theatrical distribution.
The film mixes previously unseen footage and audio recordings from the Imperial War Museums’ film archives with state-of-the-art technology that includes colorized and sharpened images converted to stereoscopic 3D. The result is an immersive film that humanizes the experiences of the young British soldiers who fought in WWI 100 years ago, in sequences that are narrated by the soldiers themselves. In a small sampling of 13 reviews from the festival, the film so far has achieved a 100% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.
Jackson’s original intention when he began working with the Imperial War Museums several years ago was to make a film half an hour in length, a labor of love for a director whose British grandfather fought in WWI, as did the uncle of his partner Fran Walsh. It grew in ambition from there. With his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit writing partners Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson co-wrote a new franchise launch, Mortal Engines, with an eye toward directing it. After six years of directing The Hobbit trilogy, he instead set protégé Christian Rivers into that role and became its producer.
That gave Jackson time to really throw himself into the war documentary. Armed with 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of audio recordings from British soldiers from the BBC archives, Jackson’s half-hour film organically expanded into a full-length feature, one that is being called a landmark achievement in making history so palatable for contemporary audiences.
With that in mind, Ken Kamins, Jackson’s manager, began screening it to distributors in Hollywood late last month, to see if it might have a life beyond museums and classrooms. Warner Bros brass fell hard for Jackson’s accomplishment. This was in the weeks before the London premiere whose attendees included Prince William.
While Warners hasn’t trafficked much in documentaries since 2005’s March of the Penguins, Emmerich decided to make this the exception. Even though Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films have generated billions for the studio (Blackwood was the primary exec on the latter trilogy), the execs fell for the inventive way that Jackson presented the subject matter.
The organic nature of how this all fell in place for a WWI documentary to be released by a major studio is underscored by the fact that the picture won’t be eligible for Best Documentary consideration by the Academy because it missed the October 1 filing deadline. The next move will be to figure out how to launch the film theatrically around the world, most likely before year’s end.
“Peter and I share a passion for WWl history,” said Emmerich. “Watching this documentary was a moving, emotional experience and will remind viewers of the bravery and sacrifice of these soldiers and their contributions to freedom. Peter has created a powerful, immersive film that will touch people and we’re proud to partner with him to bring this film to audiences around the world.”
Said Jackson: “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more, rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film.”
Blackwood said that while they worked on The Hobbit, Jackson sometimes mentioned his passion for WWI, but she had no idea how it would morph into the film that she and her colleagues saw in a 3D version.
“I knew he was super fascinated with this period in time, that he had family members who fought, and when Pete called and said he’d turned this into a feature and do you guys want to see it, I was like, totally,” Blackwood said. “The whole group of us was mesmerized, and I sent a note to Pete telling him I felt a bit ashamed I never connected to all that happened during that war. I’m not normally a huge fan of 3D, but this was unbelievable. Immersive is often an overused word, but this was what it is meant to describe. It’s something to see how young these boys were, 14 or 15, and the remarkable lack of self pity they show. Their attitude could be best conveyed as, ‘We just had to get on with it.’ They tell their stories over this colorized, crystallized footage and it feels like these people have come back to speak of their experiences. He approached it such a way that you really need to see it, in 3D or 2D; it’s an arresting, gripping way to see a part of our history of our civilization that up until now took the form of narrative fiction or Charlie Chaplinesque sputtering distant footage. Leave it to Pete to come up with a groundbreaking way to reminds us of a period in history that deserves another look.”
The film is edited by Jabez Olssen and produced by Jackson and Clare Olssen. Kamins executive produced it with Tessa Ross. The film was co‐commissioned by 14‐18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the WWl centenary, and Imperial War Museums, in association with the BBC. The Imperial War Museums have five branches in England, filled with unique collections that tell the story of people who lived, fought and died in conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth since WWI.
Jackson’s attorney is Peter Nelson at Nelson Davis.