December is the month when undiscovered movie gems are found.
A band of critics might rise in support, a movie studio may make a last-minute sprint, or a top awards organization could herald an unfamiliar triumph. But what happens when none of that happens?
The makers of "The Painted Veil" are about to find out.
Without much fanfare and limited media spending, Warner Independent Pictures is set to release the adaptation of the 1925 W. Somerset Maugham novel on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles. It's the kind of sophisticated and emotional movie that tends to flourish at year's end: It stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, was filmed in spectacular locations throughout China and has at its center a redemptive love story that leaves many moviegoers in tears. Ten years ago, Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Films, which waged many a battle on behalf of such exceptional indie fare, would have fought to the death to make it a best picture contender.
But "The Painted Veil" is currently generating so little attention that half a dozen people associated with the film are starting to complain. Even one prominent film critic has questioned the handling of the film.
"Nobody can understand why Warner Independent Pictures is keeping this movie such a secret; it is filled with Oscar possibilities that should be shouted from the rooftops," Rex Reed wrote in his New York Observer review.
"I don't think we feel that we've been abandoned," Norton says. "But you want to hope that the film will have a chance."
The actor has more at stake than simply starring in the film as bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane. As one of the producers, Norton spent the better part of seven years bringing "The Painted Veil" to the screen -- personally recruiting Watts, supervising screenplay revisions with writer Ron Nyswaner and hiring director John Curran.
Bob Yari, who financed last year's best picture winner "Crash" and also backed "The Painted Veil" from the start, says the "Painted Veil" situation reminds him of what he went through last year.
"With 'Crash' and the Golden Globes, we didn't get a lot of attention," Yari says. "And we kind of thought at that point, 'Wow, the momentum doesn't look good.' But we were wrong. I'm not ready to write 'The Painted Veil' off. But it's a tough battle."
In Thursday's nominations for the 64th annual Golden Globes, "The Painted Veil" received just one, for best original score by Alexandre Desplat, who also was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. The film received two nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards and was named one of the year's Top 10 films by the National Board of Review, which also honored its screenplay.
Warner Independent Pictures, the art house division of Warner Bros., says it has worked tirelessly to publicize and market the film.
"We have been busting our asses on this movie," says Laura Kim, the division's marketing and publicity head. Beyond the two cities the film will debut in, Warner Independent plans on bringing "The Painted Veil" to 23 more markets on Dec. 29, with additional cities added Jan. 5.
Kim says award and media recognition for the film was slowed by the film's post-production schedule. Delivery of the completed film was originally expected in late summer; instead it was not finished until November. With other studios duplicating hundreds of their movies into DVDs for awards organizations, "The Painted Veil" had to take a number at the lab; "Painted Veil" screeners did not go out until Tuesday.
Nevertheless, Warner Independent has conducted or plans to host more than 80 screenings in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and London. The art house outfit also has presented a number of "Painted Veil" question-and-answer screenings for a variety of Hollywood guilds.
Several people who worked on the film said "The Painted Veil" was hurt by two separate developments during its production.
Adapted loosely from Maugham's novel and previously filmed in 1934 with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall, the movie follows the troubled marriage of Walter and Kitty Fane (Watts). The doctor punishes his adulterous wife by bringing her to rural China, where he is fighting a cholera epidemic.
Not long after Kitty arrives in the Chinese countryside and begins working in a convent, her fury starts to fade; she begins to see her husband -- and herself -- in a new light.
A project's development
The movie was originally developed at Yari's Stratus Films, and when Stratus executive Mark Gill left the company to launch Warner Independent, he brought the project with him. Gill ultimately commenced production on the film in partnership with Yari but was not around to see its completion.
After clashing with Warner Bros. production President Jeff Robinov, Gill was forced out as head of Warner Independent, replaced by Robinov colleague Polly Cohen. "The Painted Veil" had completed filming, but Norton and Curran no longer had their original champion.
Kim says Cohen actually pushed for greater marketing money for the film, but others say the studio is spending a fraction of what it lavished on television and newspaper ads for "Good Night, and Good Luck" a year ago.
"Any transition is not going to be ideal," says Curran, whose previous film, 2004's "We Don't Live Here Anymore," was distributed by Warner Independent. "When the guy who has gotten you on board is gone, you're kind of exposed." The Warner Bros. mandate, he says, is to make big, crowd-pleasing spectacles. "I never would have expected Jeff to see this as the kind of film he would embrace," says Curran, referring to Warner production chief Robinov.
In arranging financing for the $19-million film, Yari and Warner Independent brought in a Chinese partner, which was granted approvals over the script and the finished film. After one thoughtful script note -- every Chinese person in one screenplay draft was villainous -- the Chinese production company ultimately asked that several sequences, which had already been filmed, be redacted; they were unhappy with the film's depiction of the uprising in the Chinese Revolution and the country's cholera victims.
Although neither will discuss the issue in detail, Norton and Curran worried that Warner Bros. bowed to the Chinese censors too quickly. Norton ultimately complained to parent company Time Warner Inc., and Curran threatened to remove his name from the film.
"As a director, it wasn't the overall size of their concerns," Curran says of the Chinese producers.
"It's that you die from 1,000 paper cuts."
Curran and Norton's pressure yielded results. For all of the Chinese production company's suggested redactions, the final trims were limited to about 38 seconds.
"It's one of the ironies of the business," Norton says. "You look at your collaborators and say, 'We won't make any money making this. We'll make it for the experience of making it. And we'll make your $60-million film for $19 million and change.' And then they treat you like the poor cousin that you are."
Says Watts: "People really are swept away by the movie. Nominations or not, we really are connecting with an audience."