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Major chains refuse to play Bush death film

Nicole Sperling and Anne Thompson / Reuters | October 6 2006

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Newmarket Films set itself an unusual challenge when it decided to release the controversial faux investigative documentary "Death of a President" just six weeks after acquiring the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

But it might face an even more formidable obstacle because several major theater chains are refusing to play the film, which mixes real news footage with dramatized segments depicting the fictional 2007 death of President Bush.

Newmarket, the 12-year-old Los Angeles-based film financing, production and distribution company, plans to open the film October 27, just in time for the November 7 election.

"Yes, it's controversial," Newmarket co-founder Chris Ball said. "It's quite a compelling political thriller. In many ways it is sympathetic to George Bush. It talks about a rush to judgment. In no way is it a call for violence."

But the country's largest theater chain, Regal Entertainment Group, has passed on playing the film, citing the subject matter as the primary reason. "We would not be inclined to program this film," Regal Entertainment Group CEO Mike Campbell said. "We feel it is inappropriate to portray the future assassination of a sitting president, regardless of political affiliation."

Texas-based Cinemark USA also has declined to play the indie film, corporate spokesman Terrell Falk said. The circuit, which recently completed its acquisition of northern California-based Century Theatres, will not allow the regional player to book the film either. "We're not playing it on any of our screens," Falk said. "It's a subject matter we don't wish to play. We decided to pass on the film."

Boston-based National Amusements, controlled by Viacom Inc. chief Sumner Redstone, still is in negotiations as to whether it will play the R-rated film from director Gabriel Range, who reportedly was the subject of death threats before the film's debut in Toronto.

"We're currently in discussions with the distributor of the film," said Wanda Whitson, director of corporate communications at National Amusements. "The availability of the film in our markets is an important factor affecting this discussion. Our film department does consider all films, and we've run controversial films in the past."

Newmarket distribution consultant Richard Abramowitz insisted he was having no trouble booking the film, which initially will open in several hundred locations. "Every day during a busy time we are picking up plenty of screens," he said, citing the Landmark Theater chain as being supportive.

Abramowitz declined comment on problems with theater bookings. "We're getting a good reception in a lot of places. No matter how tight the screens are, once a film has success, it's always easier to get more screens."

Although a consortium of distributors led by Miramax Films' Harvey Weinstein pushed the politically polarized "Fahrenheit 9/11" into theaters very quickly in summer 2004, and Paramount Vantage took only four months to open Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," it is rare that a film goes from acquisition to release so quickly.

One distribution executive questioned the wisdom of rushing "President" into cinemas in advance of the election. "In the midst of all the backlash and controversy it seems to make sense to ride the moment," he said. "The film is so topical and incendiary, you'd think that to wait is to waste it. But the film may not have enough time to gestate and get the best theaters booked. They are finding out how difficult and crazy this timing is."

"President" marks Newmarket's bid to reclaim its title as a champion of product other distributors deem untouchable. The distribution arm was built from the ground up in 2000 surrounding the release of Christopher Nolan's "Memento" when other distributors passed on the film. It eventually took the movie to a $25 million North American gross and went on to a winning streak with "Whale Rider," "Monster" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."


 

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