MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Music Box Films Bets on a Win with “Girl” Double-Header

Music Box Films, whose namesake theater stands within shouting distance of Wrigley Field, is playin’ two this week. And, no, Cubs icon Ernie Banks isn’t appearing in either movie.

In the cinematic equivalent of a double-header, the three-year-old distribution company has released on DVD and Blu-ray The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, with The Girl Who Played With Fire, following hot on its heels in select theaters Friday. The feat will be duplicated later this year when the final installment in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, opens during the same week as its immediate predecessor enters the video arena.“We’re really betting on this franchise,” allowed William Schopf, president of Music Box Films and, since 2004, owner of Chicago’s 750-seat, jewel-box theater of the same name. “A nine-hour Millennium mini-series, also based on Larrson’s characters, has already been shown in Sweden. We own the U.S. rights to that, too.”

You know you’ve hit a home run in this business when the first installment in a trilogy can hold its own on the same bill as the new segment, even though the original can be rented in a store down the block. Just such a serendipitous scenario is playing out in theaters across the U.S. this week.

The Cubs should be so lucky … or smart.

In its short history, which began with the release here of Quanan Wang’s Tuya’s Marriage, Music Box Films has distributed such well regarded titles as Tell No One, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Shall We Kiss?, Il Divo, Cloud 9, Séraphine, North Face and La León. Yet to come this year are a matched pair of French crime thrillers, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 and Mesrine: Killer Instinct; a Rio-set sequel to OSS 117, the offbeat comedy that spoofed genre conventions and Gallic manners simultaneously; and the Italian revenge drama, The Sicilian Girl. Waiting in the wings are Ben Sombogaart’s Bride Flight and Jerome Salle’s Largo Winch.

Significantly, all are subtitled and none would qualify as a sure bet. But, then, the same could have been said of Dragon Tattoo and the company’s first unqualified success, Tell No One.

Although Harlan Coben’s best-selling mystery had been optioned by a Hollywood studio, which attached Michael Apted’s name to the project, it wasn’t until the deal collapsed that an adaptation was put on the fast track … in France. Actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet had fallen in love with the book and communicated his ideas directly to the New Jersey-based author, who agreed that the movie should be a love story, first, and thriller, second. This isn’t to say, however, that Hitchcock fans wouldn’t recognize the master’s influence on the final product.

Tell No One didn’t begin its limited run in U.S. until July 2, 2008, more than a year-and-a-half after Europeans began flocking to see it and several months after its release in DVD in France and Brazil. The American rollout was slow, steady and energized by universal critical approval. By the end of the year, its $6-million-plus box-office tally made Tell No One the top-grossing foreign-language film of 2008.

“That was a fluky situation,” conceded Ed Arentz, managing director of Music Box Films, “and, everything considered, we probably were more lucky than good. The studios were interested in remaking Guillaume’s film, but not in distributing the French-language version. Music Box didn’t exist when those decisions were being made, but, even when we did get involved, no one saw the same things in Tell No One that we did.

“Actually, so many new films are released each year that it’s easier to move on when negotiations get complicated. Turns out, we were the last suitors for Tell No One.”

When it came time to negotiate for the rights to Dragon Tattoo, Arentz added, Music Box’s foresight “paid dividends.”

According to Schopf, “This time, we faced strong competition. They wanted a Tell No One-style rollout and we could guarantee lots of prints and venues.”

The first book in the series had yet to be published in the United States, when the U.S. rights for the film were being contested. Today, it would be difficult to find a mass-market book-seller that didn’t have a copy of “Hornet’s Nest,” at least, displayed in its front window.

In fact, Arentz says, Random House pushed up its release of the third installment to coincide with the marketing campaign for our two movies. Even though Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev had relinquished the helm to Daniel Alfredson for the sequels, the reporters happily made due with co-star Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander, the kick-ass Goth computer geek in league with investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist. If anyone was going to sell the picture, based solely on star power, it would be the can’t-miss actor playing the franchise’s most intriguing character.

“In person, Noomi is the sweetest, most gracious person … not at all like Salander,” Arentz added. “She dieted and trained for a long time to get in shape for the part. She got really buff … I think she could have a future as an action star.”

It would have taken more than an interview with a charismatic star to sell the grueling, hyper-violent trilogy to American audiences, however.

Few people on the planet have as intimate a knowledge of the foreign-language, indie and documentary film world as Milos Stehlik, director of Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media. The company began showcasing art-house films in 1975 and has since become a leader in rentals and sales of niche videos and DVDs; a key distributor of rare and obscure titles; and organizer of festivals. If anyone knows the territory, he does.

“Music Box FIlms has been smart at using a slower, progressive release strategy, and, of course, with Dragon Tattoo, had a brilliant sense of timing,” Stehlik said. “Many people were just beginning to read the book as the film opened. At the same time, the company has remained realistic about the difficulties of the marketplace.

“For me, the challenges of the indie market don’t have as much to do with the distribution mechanism — something many filmmakers focus on — but with how near-impossible it is these days for an independent film to get noticed. The average viewer has so many options, and communication with audiences is so fragmented, it’s difficult to register.”

Besides going to the expense of bringing in talent from Europe “to make it easier for editors and writers to make decisions on what movies to cover,” Music Box’s publicity team also is spreading the word on Dragon’s Tattoo and Plays With Fire via the increasingly important social-media networks. Now that traditional print outlets have thinned the ranks of critics inclined to seek out non-studio releases, it’s become the duty of niche publicists to maintain contact with those who’ve migrated to the Internet, ostensibly dragging like-minded readers along with them.

“At one time, critics had enough power to overcome resistance to a narrative feature audiences might not have sought out, otherwise, or were deemed too serious or depressing,” Stehlik added. “We know well what’s happened to newspapers. All this ends up as a destructive downward spiral.”

Mainstream studios are still willing to finance publicity junkets for writers on publications likely to swallow puffy interviews whole and run the copy alongside full page ads for the same movie. In the absence of quotes from reviews by established critics, any old blurb tends to work just fine. For movies deemed critic-proof, the marketing teams don’t even bother with print outlets, anymore.

Even so, “in many ways, it’s become easier for serious movie-goers to stay informed on independent and foreign movies,” Schopf observed. “Before the Internet, a review would run once and disappear. Now, in addition to the blogs, you can go to Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes and find dozens of reviews of the same movie from a variety of critics.

“Positive reviews of foreign movies still drive viewers to the theater, but, in the case of ‘North Face,’ for example, we screened the movie at ice festivals and for the climbing community. We also wanted to make sure people knew that Séraphine won Césars in seven of the nine categories in which it was nominated, including for Yolande Moreau as Best Actress.”

As Stehlik points out, however, major prizes – even Oscars — don’t mean nearly as much as they once did in positioning a title. That’s especially true if the film’s theme isn’t reducible to one line, for example, Chanel and Stravinsky in Bed.

The same year Seraphine scored big, the Mesrine saga captured Césars in three of the 10 categories for which it was nominated. They included a Best Actor nod for Vincent Cassel, who played legendary outlaw Jacques Mesrine (a.k.a., the Man of Hundred Faces), and Best Director for Jean-Francois Richet (Assault on Precinct 13). Besides Cassel (Oceans 12, Eastern Promises), American audiences also will recognize Ludvine Sagnier ( Swimming Pool, The Girl Cut in Two) and Mathieu Amalric (Munich, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

’Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, which in some markets will open three weeks apart from each other, “harken back to the great French noir dramas and policiers,” said Arentz. “He was a bank robber, jewel thief and kidnapper, who escaped from several prisons. He had the distinction of being Public Enemy No. 1 on two continents, before being arrested in Quebec, France and Arkansas.”

It would be natural to think that the Music Box Theater would have first dibs on movies distributed by Music Box Films, just as any picture bearing the fingerprints of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s production companies 2929 and HDNet, will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures or Magnolia Home Entertainment and be shown day-and-date in a Landmark Theater or on cable’s HDNet and HDNet Movies services. The 80-year-old, two-screen theater can’t compete with the specialty multiplexes, though, and Schopf doesn’t anticipate getting into the “brick-and-mortar business.”

“The Music Box does fine with or without us, and Landmark is our most important booking client,” Schopf stressed. “We’re running our own DVD and Blu-ray operation, but, considering the nature of electronic delivery, it’s also logical to think we would expand in other territories. Right now, it’s still too expensive for art houses to commit financially to converting to digital.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Hollywood interests have begun making overtures to Music Box executives to serve as scouts for foreign-language properties that could be exploited here. For that to happen, though, Schopf said the company might insist on being able to secure a piece of the re-make rights.

Indeed, a Hollywood re-make of Tell No One is in development and the guessing game has begun as to who should star in David Fincher and Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Men Who Hate Women. David Craig appears to have trumped Johnny Depp, Viggo Mortensen, Brad Pitt and George Clooney for the role of the distressed Stockholm reporter. Carey Mulligan is rumored to be the choice for Salander, overtaking such high-profile contenders as Ellen Page, Kristen Stewart, Natalie Portman, Mia Wasikowska, Keira Knightley, Anne Hathaway, Olivia Thirlby, Eva Green, Rooney Mara and Scarlett Johansson.

“We have only an indirect interest in the success of the Hollywood versions,” notes Arentz. “If audiences like the way they came out, they might want to check out the original.”

If they don’t, however, they could rent the originals to see what went wrong.

– Gary Dretzka
July 9, 2010

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Digital Nation

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon