Connecting On-Screen

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bruce Wagner's acclaimed novel "I'm Losing You" was the kind of book that had movie written all over it, even before it hit the bestseller lists. As arguably the most-talked about fictional Hollywood chronicle since, well, Wagner's "Force Majeure," there was no way somebody wasn't going to make this Boschian panorama of entertainment industry anomie into a film.

Indeed, that somebody turned out to be the author himself, also a successful screenwriter and film creator ('Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," "Wild Palms").

"I wanted to preserve the soul of my book but without the almost pornographic savagery that the first part of it includes," says the engagingly warm yet introspective Wagner, 45, who grew up in the city that has become his metier. "People sometimes mistakenly feel my work is about satire or black humor. I don't agree; my books are above all else emotional. I wanted to make a film that reflected that, and I had to conflate the book because it has such a profusion of characters."

Written and directed by Wagner, "I'm Losing You" opens Friday in a limited engagement at the Laemmle Sunset 5 as well as in New York. Executive produced by David Cronenberg and produced by Killer Films ('Happiness," "Velvet Goldmine"), the film, which was one of only three American films showcased at the Telluride Film Festival, marks Wagner's directorial debut. It features an ensemble cast led by Frank Langella and Rosanna Arquette, as well as a debut film score by composer Daniel Catan, whose "Florencia en el Amazonas" was seen at the L.A. Opera in 1997.

Suffice it to say, this isn't the kind of opening one would have expected for a film with a pedigree of this caliber. Originally financed by Lions Gate Entertainment, "I'm Losing You" is being distributed by Strand Releasing. And the story of how this came to be underscores the vagaries of the indie game--wherein a film can be more or less made to order for a company and still wind up without theatrical distribution.

"I'm Losing You" was never intended to be the kind of blockbuster that opens on scores of screens nationwide. A character-driven drama like this couldn't be, particularly coming from a daring novel that combines an unblinking look at Hollywood social intercourse with a complex meditation on existential themes.

Yet the film has some passionate fans, including some within Lions Gate. "I was very pleased with the film and very impressed by Bruce as a filmmaker," says Michael Paseornek, one of the film's executive producers and president of Lions Gate Films Productions. "The greatest thing that Bruce accomplished is dealing with sadness in an uplifting way." "This is a beautiful film," concurs actress Meryl Streep, who has honored with a tribute at the Telluride festival where "I'm Losing You" premiered and where she became one of its ardent and vocal supporters. "It's brave work [filled with] yearning for ritual, family and children and a really tetherless looking for hope. It's so unexpected.

"I think it's quite unusual in the landscape of films now," continues Streep. "There is nothing like it that I know of. It's ironic that in the age of diversity there isn't that much in terms of what people see. The business at large vastly underestimates its audience and they create a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Canyon Calls and Emotional Fallout

Praised in the New York Times, the New Yorker and elsewhere, the novel "I'm Losing You" spent numerous weeks on the L.A. Times bestseller list in the summer of 1996. The book is, on one level, a portrait of a collection of lives from various L.A. social strata, in the entertainment industry and on its fringes--producers, writers, agents, actors, has-beens, wannabes and never-weres. On another level, as the title's cell-phone speak suggests, the book is about privation and mortality--the emotional fallout of aborted relationships and shortchanged lives.

Not long after completing the novel, Wagner adapted it into a screenplay, focusing on the book's final half. Left at the heart of the narrative in the movie version are a wealthy TV producer who's got cancer, his psychiatrist wife, their son and adopted daughter, and sundry significant others and acquaintances. Themes of death and redemption, sketched with literary wit and style, connect the fates of these disaffected Southland denizens.

Wagner first met Killer Films' Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler when Vachon reviewed the novel for the Advocate, a national gay newsmagazine. Shortly after that, the two women decided to produce his script. Cronenberg, already a fan of Wagner's writing, met with the author in Canada and agreed to be an executive producer. It was Cronenberg, in fact, who persuaded John Dunning, then at the Canadian company Cinepix Films, to provide the financing. (Cinepix Films was subsequently purchased by Lions Gate, but this didn't affect "I'm Losing You" or change the executives in charge of the project.) The film was shot in L.A. in early 1998.

"It was a very good shoot, aside from the usual unpredictable stuff, and I adored doing it," recalls Wagner. "I found I had the stamina for directing and, I think, the aptitude." Cronenberg told me the key thing one learns that first time is how to carve up space. My panic question on the set was never, 'How do I get the performance out of this or that actor?' It was more insidiously basic: 'How do I shoot this car pulling up?' 'How do I shoot these two making love so that it's new?' So the best thing was, I lost most of that 'spatial' fear. It's called gaining confidence."

And the film Wagner shot was pretty much the film Lions Gate production executives expected him to deliver.

"The film we got was definitely consistent with what Bruce set out to do," says Paseornek. "When we first screened the film, our VP of production and our head of development were both weeping. So that gives you a good idea that it was the film that he set out to make." Naturally, given the warm reception, Wagner and his producers went into the festivals assuming that Lions Gate intended to distribute the film. But as fall turned to winter, there was no word on a release date. "It became clear to us earlier this year that they did not have a release plan for the film, at which point we began to investigate other options," Koffler says.

Clearly, there was a lack of communication between the production and distribution arms of Lions Gate, which operate independently of one another.

Tom Ortenberg, co-president of Lions Gate Films Releasing Inc., the domestic distribution and marketing arm of Lions Gate, declined to comment.

Fortunately, Strand ended up buying "I'm Losing You." However, had Lions Gate executives made their intentions clear sooner, things might have turned out differently. "My disappointment in Lions Gate comes from not getting the whole story early enough to maybe have done something about it," says Vachon. 'They're bottom-line people. At the end of the day, do you want somebody at the head of a company saying, 'You know what, I love this movie and . . . I'm just gonna give it a shot'? Of course you do. But do you get that? Very rarely."

Unfortunately, there are also disincentives for a company to sell off a film early enough for someone else to make it into a hit. Unless the profit margin is going to be undeniably high, the company might well prefer to simply cut its losses, which in this case would not have been that substantial because "I'm Losing You" (made for roughly $2 million) was presold to distributors in Europe and for video/DVD.

If another company were to acquire the film and do very well with it, it wouldn't be a very happy moment for the company that let that film go--and nobody knows this better than Lions Gate. In February, the company won a great deal of praise and attention for releasing and promoting for Oscar nominations two films ('Affliction" and "Gods and Monsters") that it didn't make. Obviously, Lions Gate wouldn't want to find itself facing the same scenario in reverse.

Whatever its reasons, Lions Gate's change of heart stands as a warning for any challenging or provocative indie film. Indeed, with the majority of independents today never getting a theatrical release, studios cutting back releases across the board and the range of fare that reaches the ticket-buying public growing ever narrower, filmmakers are being forced to reassess their options.

"I have to be a little philosophical about it, because it's making me think about how do you keep making the movies that you want to make, and find audiences for them?" says Vachon. "Do we have to change our expectations--not the level of expectations, but the kind of expectations? Is a video release less good than a theatrical release? Why? Is a television premiere less good than a theatrical premiere? Why?"

"It's odd, but ultimately you're powerless," says Wagner. "Yes, you'd rather the movie would have been released and platformed, then grown and grown. It's just the circuitous route your work sometimes takes. The saga of this movie isn't over yet."

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