Sundance 2011: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ breaks out -- and faces some obstacles

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By almost any yardstick, ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ is one of the hits of the Sundance FIlm Festival. It’s gotten strong reviews from critics and has been talked about feverishly by filmgoers, boosting the stock of its director and two leads, including newly anointed Sundance It girl Elizabeth Olsen (yes, sister of those Olsens). Fox Searchlight thinks it’s the syrup on the pancake too: It made a quick move and acquired rights to the movie before the festival’s first weekend was even over.

That’s good news for anyone who wants to see the film outside of Park City, Utah. But there’s a big question looming for the studio: Just how do you market something like ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene?’

In case you’re just tuning in, T. Sean Durkin’s first feature tells the story of Martha (Olsen), a bruised twentysomething who early in the film escapes a commune-cum-cult. She takes shelter with her married yuppie sister, from whom she had been estranged. Durkin’s script teases out details of Martha’s horrific past very slowly, while simultaneously showing her (largely futile) attempt to escape that past, at least psychologically, in her new quarters.

Nearly every choice Durkin makes seems driven by artistry instead of commerciality -- in subject matter, tone, pacing and a highly ambiguous ending. Even the tongue-twisting title doesn’t scream get-thee-to-the-multiplex (we have a feeling that title could change by the time the movie reaches theaters). In a post-screening question-and-answer session, Durkin said that one of his guiding principles in shaping the movie was that he ‘didn’t want to give too much information.’


All this makes for a cinephile’s dream -- and a marketer’s, well, something else.

There are ways to sell difficult dramas, of course, especially when you have an attractive up-and-coming female star. Roadside Attractions, the distributor behind last year’s Sundance hit ‘Winter’s Bone,’ pulled it off for Jennifer Lawrence, peddling that dark Ozark tale as an opportunity for us to get a first look at a major new talent. One can imagine Searchlight doing the same here with Olsen, who flashes chops her famous twin sisters could only (but probably don’t) dream of.

Searchlight could take the topical route, getting news-page publicity out of the movie’s abused-victim angle. But that would make ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ sound like Brussels sprouts instead of the narrative puzzle that it is. (A spokeswoman for Searchlight declined to comment on marketing plans.)

Searchlight is known for rolling out its movies very slowly, spending little on advertising and letting word-of-mouth build. That approach worked wonders last year for ‘Black Swan,’ but it didn’t fare well for ‘Never Let Me Go,’ a piece of melancholia with attractive young stars.

It’s bold for a conglomerate-owned studio to take a gamble on a movie like ‘Martha Marcy.’ The trick now is how to make it pay off.

-- Steven Zeitchik