For sure, New Line Cinema doesn’t shy away from controversial, hard-to-market movies, as again evidenced by its latest release, “American History X.”
Just as the maverick company’s 1997 release “Boogie Nights” dealt with a taboo subject--pornography--"American History X” delves into another commercially risky area, in-your-face racism and hate crimes.
But “American History,” starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, is far tougher, more serious and disturbing material than “Boogie Nights,” graphically depicting brutal physical and psychological violence and the consequences of racism and hatred.
The film, which opened exclusively in Los Angeles and New York on Wednesday and comes to other key cities across the country today, is the first Hollywood movie from a major distributor to focus up close on the neo-Nazi movement in America and how hatred can rip families apart.
The film’s timeliness and poignancy are underscored by recent high-profile incidents of violence across the country, including the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student, and the grisly June murder of James Byrd, a black man in Texas who was tied to a truck and dragged to his death. The film’s depiction of gang violence centered in Venice hits the screen amid a series of gang-related killings next door in Santa Monica.
Written by David McKenna and directed by Tony Kaye, the story is about the vicious leader of a local group of white-supremacist skinheads in Venice, played by Norton. He’s redeemed after spending three years in prison for the brutal murders of two black men. After being released, he tries to prevent his impressionable younger brother (Furlong), who idolizes him, from following in his footsteps.
Issue-oriented entertainment that’s as serious as “American History” is no easy sell.
Mitch Goldman, head of marketing and distribution for New Line, a unit of media conglomerate Time Warner Inc., acknowledges that although “we’re fortunate that we have an excellent movie, the problem is it’s not friendly to a mass audience.”
The film’s target niche of upscale adults potentially limits its commercial prospects at the box office. But New Line production President Michael de Luca said that based on what the movie cost, he’d be happy with a domestic gross of $20 million to $30 million. Given that the film cost $11.1 million to produce and at least $10 million to market, “it could be a single,” De Luca said, once additional revenue from such areas as video are counted.
New Line’s efforts to sell audiences on a review-dependent film such as “American History” weren’t helped by the lack of critical acclaim from such major media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Time magazine.
Other reviews have been largely mixed, though influential critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it “two thumbs up.”
Goldman and De Luca say they aren’t disheartened by the negative reviews, nor are they uneasy about the timing of the film’s release as it relates to recent news headlines.
“In my opinion, it’s even more of a reason to see the movie now,” Goldman said. “It’s an important message, especially at this time.”
Added De Luca: “Even in the context of a negative review, we’re banking on moviegoers in the major markets going because of the subject matter.”
Goldman believes that “the movie itself will lead the audience” and that word of mouth will serve as New Line’s best marketing tool. “Not all films are as powerful and compelling, and this one really punches you in the gut,” Goldman said.
Consequently, New Line has set up a number of screenings around the country to stimulate that word of mouth. It has also enlisted the help of Amnesty International, a major human-rights group, to help screen the movie to community and student groups nationwide.
The Anti-Defamation League of Los Angeles, part of the world’s largest organization fighting anti-Semitism, has also come out in support of the film and is exploring opportunities to use it as an educational tool.
“The Anti-Defamation League hopes that this movie serves as a springboard for conversation and opens peoples’ eyes to issues of hate,” said Amy Levy, an associate director of the organization. “Clearly, the movie spreads the [word on the] dangers of extremist groups and we found it to be provocative, daring and compelling. It does not glorify hatred and evil.”
Goldman agrees that nothing in the film or the marketing campaign glorifies hatred and violence. In fact, in the print advertising, Norton’s character is shown covering the Nazi swastika on his chest, suggesting his redemption.
At the same time, New Line consciously chose not to run away from the subject matter in its advertising.
“We believe [the swastika] is a very powerful, provocative, arresting image,” Goldman said.
New Line’s strategy in positioning the film is to proceed slowly and carefully in its marketing and distribution.
“We’re hand-holding it and have worked very carefully in every city it is opening to take it step by step,” said Goldman.
“Our goal is to get as many people to see it as possible rather than throw it against the wall and see what happens.”
The movie opened in three theaters in New York and three in Los Angeles and will debut today in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Toronto and other cities. In mid-November, New Line will open the film in more cities. Sources said initial opening costs are estimated at $10 million.
At this point, New Line has not bought TV spots but is focusing on print ads as well as heavy publicity and promotion to get its message across.
Producer John Morrissey, who originally optioned the “American History” script three years ago and first sold it to now-defunct Savoy Pictures, said it’s important that the marketing take a “high-level approach” and “create debate and examine the hate crimes that are at the center of this movie.” He said he has submitted a proposed segment to the ABC series “Nightline” that would include a discussion of the issues raised by the movie. New Line said the segment is under consideration by “Nightline” producers.
Because of the seriousness of the movie, Norton is declining to appear on such entertainment talk shows as “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Instead, the Oscar-nominated actor is opting for more serious platforms such as interviews with Larry King and Charlie Rose.
“American History” comes with its own baggage created by the film’s British director and cinematographer, Tony Kaye. A conceptual artist and award-winning commercial director, Kaye took the unusual step of publicly renouncing the movie--his first feature--and demanding that his name be removed.
Naturally, it makes it even more difficult to promote a film without the support of its director.
In the well-publicized incidents, Kaye took out a series of full-page ads in the Hollywood trades this summer disowning the film and attacking New Line for interfering in his creative process.
After giving Kaye an entire year for post-production such as editing and sound work--more than double the average time--and an additional eight weeks to work on the film, New Line rejected the director’s demands for even more time to rethink and rework.
On Wednesday, the day both the reviews and the movie debuted, Kaye told The Times: “Today, I have officially lost because the film has come out to criticism that I completely agree with and it’s very distressing that the charming fools--the producers, New Line and the lead actor--have been delusionary in thinking they have a masterpiece on their hands.”
Kaye accuses New Line of “not letting me finish my movie” and insists that while he was “trying to make a proper investigation into racism, the film [as released] largely celebrates a neo-Nazi.”
New Line’s position remains unchanged.
“We believe Tony did a good job--he’s a genius--and it’s his film,” Goldman said. “It is very close to the cut he delivered. It’s not dramatically different.”
Kaye disagrees. He said the film New Line released, on which Norton collaborated in the editing, represents “30% of what I could do.”
He’s threatening to file suit against the Directors Guild of America, which denied his request for a pseudonym because he violated the condition of not engaging in public criticism of the film.
“People are calling me an eccentric because I tell the truth,” said Kaye, who was paid $250,000 for making the movie and claims he spent nearly $1 million of his own money for expenses during production.
“As a first-time filmmaker, I had the balls to say how it is. Nobody could believe I would stand up and run the risk of jeopardizing my career by doing this.”
Hollywood doesn’t take kindly to such combative tactics, yet if “American History X” winds up raking in serious bucks, you can bet the novice director’s phone will be ringing off the hook.