A year ago, when "Me and Orson Welles" made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was one of the most anticipated new films of the season and a leading candidate on most distributors' acquisition lists. Directed by Richard Linklater, it offered a striking vision of Orson Welles as a brash 22-year-old wunderkind mounting his legendary theatrical production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" -- four years before his "Citizen Kane" transformed moviemaking.
Offering a view of Welles' escapades through the eyes of a theater-crazed teenager, the movie seemed to have something for everyone: a great performance by Christian McKay as Welles, a lively portrait of an oversize artist as a young enfant terrible and last, but certainly not least, the presence of a red-hot young actor, Zac Efron, star of "High School Musical," in the role of Welles' star-struck protege.
But despite a raft of largely favorable reviews and a warm audience reaction, "Me and Orson Welles" left the festival without attracting a buyer. In fact, the film had been out of sight ever since until its backers announced late last week that it would be arriving in theaters Nov. 25. The film will be distributed by Freestyle Releasing, the for-hire distributor that has been involved with a variety of art-house and genre projects, including "An American Haunting," which quietly grossed $16 million in 2006, as well as "Bottle Shock," which did modest business last summer.
But for me, the reemergence of "Me and Orson Welles," accompanied by a tie-in with a major studio DVD release and a revenue-sharing deal with a major theatrical exhibitor, offers a fascinating glimpse into the future of independent cinema. If the film finds an audience later this year, it could provide a template for success for films that play film festivals around the world but never find any real theatrical distribution. In today's overcrowded marketplace, it takes a village -- a village of like-minded, entrepreneurial talents -- to nurture a film that appeals to a specialized audience.
"Me and Orson Welles" was bankrolled by CinemaNX -- NX for short -- a British finance and production company that is backed by a film fund from the Isle of Man. NX has a new slate of films in various stages of postproduction, including a thriller called "The Disappearance of Alice Creed" that is playing at this year's Toronto festival and creating some buzz of its own. NX Chairman Steve Christian strongly believes that indie films, if they expect to flourish again, need a radically new distribution model.
"This deal means everything," he told me the other day. "The day before we started shooting 'Me and Orson Welles,' I told Rick Linklater that the best thing that could happen to this film would be if we could release it ourselves." While he is using Freestyle as a distributor in the U.S., Christian has engineered a much more unusual scheme in the U.K., striking a revenue-sharing deal with Vue, one of Britain's largest exhibitors with close to 25% of the country's theaters. Vue will exhibit the movie, which opens on 150 screens Dec. 4 in the U.K., in return for a share of the film's DVD, pay TV and other ancillary revenues.
Christian is committed to giving Vue four films for each of the next three years. At first, the films will represent pictures NX has bankrolled, but eventually the films will include acquisitions as well. The benefits are pretty obvious, because if a theater chain has a piece of a movie's back end in addition to its theater rentals, it would have a much larger interest in the film's long-term success.
"It seems so obvious at a time when buyers for specialized films were drying up, but so far we're the only ones doing it," says Christian. "It's a way to harness the power of the big screen to create ancillary value for good movies. Obviously, we have to show we can make it work in the U.K., but if we can, I'm betting we'll find a way to do the same thing in the U.S."
"Me and Orson Welles" also received a couple of important boosts for its U.S. release, thanks to some strategic brainpower from Cinetic Media partner John Sloss, a familiar figure on the film festival circuit whose consulting and management company helped orchestrate the production and distribution of Linklater's film. Sloss realized that he had a film that could attract a lot of studio interest, but largely only for its DVD release, not for a theatrical opening, since most of the studio specialty divisions, which would have been the most likely buyers for a film like "Me and Orson Welles," have been dismantled in the last couple of years.
Sloss made a deal with Warner Home Video to release "Orson Welles" on DVD with an added promotional prize. When the studio released Efron's recent hit "17 Again" on DVD, it spotlighted a trailer for "Me and Orson Welles," offering a valuable free plug for the movie. "We thought it was a great opportunity to be able to draft off of the '17 Again' video release," Sloss explains. "It was a conscious decision on our part to not even think about releasing this movie until after '17 Again' had come out as a way of allowing Zac to transition from his 'High School Musical' audience to an older group of moviegoers."
Even though the film now has a U.S. distributor in Freestyle Releasing, one of the main differences between Freestyle and a larger studio distributor, like Fox Searchlight or Focus Features, is that Freestyle doesn't put up any prints and advertising money -- essentially the marketing backing for a film. So Sloss found an outside company, Louisville-based Hart/Lunsford Pictures, who agreed to put up roughly $4 million in P&A; commitments in return for a piece of participation in the film's revenues.
Freestyle Releasing's Mark Borde, who's been in distribution for nearly four decades, says his company is a perfect fit for a specialized film like "Me and Orson Welles," which could attract several distinct audiences: older moviegoers eager to see a story about the fabled Orson Welles as well as younger moviegoers who are fans of Efron and Claire Danes, who plays an ambitious young assistant to Welles who becomes romantically involved with Efron.
"We've had more people coming to us than ever before because at a time when it's become so hard to find people willing to risk spending P&A; money to take pictures into the marketplace, we can offer producers an opportunity to get their films into quality theaters," says Borde.
Another village elder onboard is Russell Schwartz, the former New Line marketing chief who now does indie marketing and is helping orchestrate the publicity launch for "Orson Welles." He's betting that the film can attract several different audiences, including Linklater followers, Efron fans and a large contingent of 15- to 20-year-old girls who look to theater arts as a big part of their lives. "If we just get one-fifteenth of Zac's audience, we'll do fine," he says.
So what does Linklater, who's spent most of his career working outside the studio system, think of this unusually diverse group effort?
"Look, as a filmmaker these days, you either have to adapt or perish," he told me. "So this is definitely a way for someone like me to adapt. It's pretty obvious that Hollywood isn't going to take the risk to make these kind of movies. So I'm hoping that this could be a new model, by taking things straight to the public."