A Frightening Tale About Horror Movies In Distribution Hell

paranormal-activity

It takes a lot to be a horror fan. We suffer indignities that other film fans wouldn’t dream of. Genre films are seldom screened for press, leading to frantic scrambling to get a seat at a midnight showing so that we can have that review up and ready for you, dear readers, on opening day. Regular critics scoff at our genre, and often can’t be bothered with it at all. So it rests upon those of us who are true lovers of the genre to keep you abreast of the happenings in horror-land.

Adding to my general frustration with the powers that be is the mishandling of three recent films in particular.  All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Trick ‘r Treat, and Paranormal Activity have all gotten a rotten distribution deal in one way or another. I  asked Scott Weinberg, Managing Editor of Cinematical and Editor of Horror Squad if he was surprised that all three of these got shelved after they received good festival buzz. “Annoyed, yes. Surprised, no. Every distributor seems to want a ‘break-out’ horror flick, but few know what to do with it once they get one,” he said

So here is the rundown on these three films.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was a 2006 release starring Amber Heard (Pineapple Express, The Stepfather) and directed by Jonathon Levine (The Wackness). It’s a slasher film with an original twist, and had mixed reviews.

After playing at the Toronto International Film Fest,  South by Southwest, and others, the film was acquired by The Weinstein Company.  who promptly shelved the movie. Senator films later bought the movie from Weinstein, and it was given a 2008 U.S.  release date.  That was then canceled, and finally this summer it was on the slate for a July 17 release.

Which was then cancelled, the official reason being that all of Senator’s movies were on indefinite hold.  An August 30 story from The Hollywood Reporter indicated that Senator has closed its doors for good.  That leaves All the Boys back on the shelf, perhaps forever.  It is available on DVD overseas, however.  “Mandy Lane has been the victim of numerous broken-down companies, but that’s not the film’s fault,” said Weinberg

Trick ‘r Treat has a similar story, but happier ending. The movie was written and directed by Mike Dougherty and stars Anna Paquin (True Blood), Dylan Baker (Happiness), Brian Cox (the Bourne movies) and Leslie Bibb (Ironman). Production began in 2006, and the movie was to be released in 2007.

Then it sat on a shelf.  In October 2008, Trick ‘r Treat played at Screamfest. Despite great word of mouth, it got shelved once again.  Finally, Warner Brothers decided to release the movie straight to DVD last Tuesday, October 9.  All the box stores immediately sold out of the film, and a copy was almost impossible to come by. Netflix shows the film with the dreaded “long wait” status. Clearly there was pent-up demand for the movie.

Weinberg says, ” I understand that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes contract wrangling and stuff we never see, but nobody should have to wait over a year for Trick ‘r Treat, which was ready for viewing almost two years ago.”

Now for the unlikely success of Paranormal Activity. The movie was shot by director Oren Peli in 2006, for under $15,000. It screened at 2007’s Screamfest. According to The Los Angeles Times, Miramax executive Jason Blum became interested in the story, helped the director make some cuts and submitted it to Sundance and Slamdance, with only Slamdance opting to screen it.

Ashley Brooks, an executive at Dreamworks, was ultimately responsible for Adam Goodman and Steven Speilberg watching a screener. A remake was greenlit, but prior to the remake, one audience screening was held in March 2008. Response to this screening prompted Paramount to go with the original movie. Paramount bought Dreamworks in 2005, and internal fighting between studio heads seems like it would doom the film again. It was not until June 2009 that it was given a spot on the fall schedule.

Some people who saw the original screening of the movie have been disappointed that Paramount had the ending changed.  I agree that it does not have the same feel of the rest of the film. In a college conference call, director Peli said the following regarding the ending: “I liked the original ending personally but that’s one of the things that, a lot of people liked it but we also had a lot of people that didn’t dig it at all.”

“So we knew it’s a sticking point and we decided to experiment with a couple of different endings. And one of the endings that we experimented with was the one suggested by Spielberg and interestingly enough he knows a thing or two about movies and that’s the ending that like went, you know, so well in test screenings.”

“And people loved it and, you know, every time when I see the movie with audience it gets a huge reaction. So after that there was no question about which ending we were going to use.”

While Paramount is at fault for some of the earlier handling of the film, no one can deny that the marketing has been pure genius, and perfect for the film. For the first time ever, audience members determined which cities got screenings prior to a wide release, which was promised when one million demands via the internet were received. True to their word, Paramount is releasing the movie wide this Friday the 16th.

Some remain skeptical, and believe that the campaign was a clever ploy. They posit that Paramount was always going to release wide, but a screen rep I spoke to assured me otherwise.  “We have been working our butts off, and that million demands was a huge goal. This is all real.”

What is truly astonishing is the Box Office Performance of “the little movie that could”  last weekend on only 159 screens. It brought in over $ 7.1 million dollars and had a per screen average of over $44,000. Those numbers have big studio releases quaking in their boots, and hopefully rethinking the way they handle small horror releases in the future.

I do think the whole marketing success of Paranormal Activity is a one time thing, but I absolutely believe that the “demand it”  approach could work for other films. Studios might be surprised at the interest in certain films they have written off. After all, Trick ‘r Treat and Paranormal Actvitiy cold still be languishing on a shelf somewhere. That would be. . . ghastly.

  • Chris Ullrich
    October 14, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Indeed. Well done Shannon.

    • Shannon Hood
      October 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

      Thanks Chris. Glad you liked it.

  • Larry Richman
    October 14, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Excellent piece. I’ve been following the Mandy Lane story, in particular, for several years and have written extensively on the subject of its non-distribution. This is one of the few accounts I’ve seen which is essentially accurate. Kudos for getting it right.

    • Shannon Hood
      October 14, 2009 at 10:35 am

      Larry,
      Thanks so much for your comment(s). I did a lot of leg-work on this story, and the subject matter is near and dear to me, so your thoughts meant a lot to me.

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