By Robert W. Welkos
Times Staff Writer
May 12, 2006
The veteran Hollywood filmmaker is trekking to the Cannes Film Festival this month to showcase 38 minutes of his new film, "Home of the Brave." The independent film stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel and rapper 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) as U.S. National Guard troops readjusting to life back home after enduring the physical and emotional toll of war in Iraq.
The film won't be finished for months. But Winkler hopes that the early exposure will pique interest: "I wanted to expose the film to the media and some foreign distributors. Cannes gives you that opportunity. We could show the film to buyers [in Hollywood] or anywhere else, but we just want to get the word out about the film, get people talking about it. We think the subject is something on everybody's mind."
Cannes may be many things to many people, from cinéastes looking for the latest cutting-edge director to celebrities cavorting on the red carpet. But increasingly, studios and independent distributors see the French festival as a platform for launching their unfinished films.
"Home of the Brave" is one of three unfinished productions that will preview footage outside the juried competition at the heart of the festival. The other two are roughly 20 minutes of Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" and a 20-minute preview of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which will be screened along with a new print of his Oscar-winning 1986 film "Platoon" as part of Cannes' "classics" screenings.
Thierry Frémaux, Cannes' artistic director, said he is happy that filmmakers want to showcase footage of their working projects at the festival. "It's good for everybody," he added. "It can be great for a filmmaker and to the audience, it's getting the first impression of a film that is just in the editing room. I think that is something free, something very open." He noted that Stone was initially going to screen only "Platoon," but then asked Frémaux if he thought the audience might also like to see his current project.
Screenings of works-in-progress are unusual at Cannes, but not unheard of. Sometimes they serve as a tribute of sorts, other times they are an attempt to reverse a tide of negativity. Of course, there's always the risk it will backfire.
When the festival held a midnight screening last year of footage from horror director George A. Romero's "Land of the Dead," the atmosphere "was very casual, very warm," Frémaux recalled. "Everybody stood up, welcoming George."
In 2002, the festival invited director Martin Scorsese to screen a portion of his unfinished "Gangs of New York," which at the time was the subject of many rumors. The Miramax film had been scheduled to come out in theaters the previous December, but was held up in the editing room. In the meantime, a poor trailer was released, leaving film buffs wondering what Scorsese had wrought. The decision to screen footage including entire scenes at Cannes helped change opinions in some corners, because it offered context the trailer did not convey.
"I was so disappointed that 'Gangs of New York' was not ready for Cannes," Frémaux said. "I asked Marty to prepare something. Billy Wilder had died [about] one month before Cannes and Marty said, 'What about making [a tribute to Wilder] and I will show "Gangs" if you want it, but I want to pay tribute to Billy Wilder.' "
Perhaps the best example of how Cannes can be used to leverage interest in an upcoming film came in 2001, when New Line Cinema arrived with 26 minutes of its still-to-be-released trilogy "The Lord of the Rings."
New Line pulled out all the stops publicity-wise, inviting the world's entertainment press to see the footage and meet director Peter Jackson and his cast. It spent $2 million transforming a hilltop castle outside Cannes into an elaborate replica of Hobbiton from J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy books. The mini-major studio, an arm of Time-Warner Inc., bused more than 1,000 guests up the hill to a massive launch party. They were greeted by black-clad riders and led into a world of orcs, hobbits and elves.
"The red carpet took up half the mountain," recalled Rolf Mittweg, president and COO of worldwide distribution and marketing for New Line. "Nobody had done this before. For us, the presentation became the turning point for the buzz on the film."
Winkler's "Home of the Brave" is the story of National Guard troops fighting in Iraq who are demobilized and must reassimilate into civilian life back in their home state of Washington. Biel plays a single mom and teacher who loses a hand in a battle. Jackson is a battlefield doctor, and 50 Cent is an emotionally traumatized soldier.
Due out later this year, the film will inevitably raise comparison to other dramas about returning vets, such as the World War II vets in the 1946 film "The Best Years of Our Lives" or Vietnam vets in 1978's "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter."
Early screening can also provide valuable feedback. With "World Trade Center," Stone's cinematic take on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Paramount Pictures can gauge how overseas audiences will react to the film, said Cannes attendee and veteran entertainment attorney Peter Dekom.
"I think it's a fact that it's an American subject and that we are really sensitive to it," Dekom said, "and so we are wondering, 'Does the rest of the world care?' "
"Clearly, [Oliver Stone] is going to get [news] coverage" by coming to Cannes, Dekom points out, and screening footage of the film will make news.
This year, DreamWorks is returning with roughly 20 minutes of footage from "Dreamgirls." Cast members Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose are to make the trip to promote the film.
Dekom believes DreamWorks wants to show an unfinished "Dreamgirls" at Cannes in part to create "European buzz."
The film, about a singing trio from Chicago, "is not something that will inherently play in the [European] marketplace," Dekom observed. In that respect, the screening is a bit of a gamble. "It could backfire. It could create strong, negative buzz."
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