Fox Searchlight picked the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for Tuesday’s local premiere of “The Tree of Life” and the choice couldn’t have been more fitting. Just as museum visitors may wrestle to understand an abstract painting, moviegoers are certain to be tested by writer-director Terrence Malick’s meditation on the origin of the universe, the mystery of faith and a troubled family’s journey from grief to reconciliation.
Few prominent releases in recent years present the marketing challenges of “Tree of Life,” the enigmatic Malick’s first movie since 2005’s “The New World.” Although the film — opening Friday in Los Angeles and New York — stars Brad Pitt, has attracted some critical raves and won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, “Tree of Life” has no traditional plot and only fleeting fragments of dialogue. Sequences focus on primordial evolution, wordless glimpses of dinosaurs, waterfalls, volcanoes and the galaxies, and, for the substantial bulk of the film, three young boys doing pretty much everything besides having a regular conversation.
“It’s a demanding movie,” said Patrick Wachsberger, president of Summit Entertainment, the international sales agent for “Tree of Life.” “It’s not a movie where you can sit down as an audience and relax.”
The marketing team at Fox Searchlight hasn’t been able to unwind either.
The specialty film division of 20th Century Fox frequently has succeeded in distributing some risky productions (such as “Black Swan” and “Slumdog Millionaire”), but struggled selling the trickier “Never Let Me Go” and “127 Hours.” Some of its typical strategies include holding extensive screenings before a movie’s general release to get the word out about its story and seed the box-office clouds. And around a movie’s opening, Fox Searchlight commonly sends the cast and director on a national media tour to drum up business.
But the studio had no time between the film’s Cannes mid-May premiere and its U.S. debut to hold word-of-mouth screenings, and there’s no real “Tree of Life” story to establish. The hardest-core art-house patrons might be familiar with Malick’s work, but “Tree of Life” is only his fifth movie in nearly 40 years. Making matters worse, the famously press-averse director and Pitt certainly aren’t hitting the hustings to help sell the movie, forcing Fox Searchlight to alter its usual approach.
“The marketing campaign is kind of upside-down from how we handle most of our films,” said Nancy Utley, Searchlight’s co-president.
Rather than introduce the “Tree of Life” trailer online, Fox Searchlight first showed it ahead of “Black Swan” in theaters last December in an effort to focus attention on the film’s cinematography (by four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki). The movie’s first poster was a close-up of an infant’s foot, while subsequent posters showed a collage of seemingly random images (stained glass windows, sand dunes, planets, a sunflower) from the film. “I think of it as letting out a piece of rope — just a little bit at a time,” Utley said.
The studio opted not to make it look as if “Tree of Life” is for the same crowd that loved Pitt in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” The film’s trailer, Utley said, “doesn’t try to put forward that it’s a traditional three-act narrative,” Utley said. “I think misrepresenting the film — and making it look more conventional than it is — would not serve the word-of-mouth well.”
Searchlight is hoping that the movie’s visual set pieces will help sell it as a different kind of summer spectacle, and is courting audiences that might respond to its engagement with religion and morality.
The distributor does have one financial factor working in its favor: It acquired domestic rights to “Tree of Life” for no cash payment; the studio will pay for the film’s prints and advertising and collect a distribution fee.
Internationally, “Tree” may not be a much easier sell. A number of foreign distributors last year balked at a Malick cut that clocked in at about three hours, according to a source familiar with the overseas release, prompting a back-and-forth that resulted in the current 2-hour, 18-minute version. Most distributors wrote their checks for the film based only on an early version of the script — which changed considerably over the course of production — and Pitt’s involvement.
The movie was independently financed by Bill Pohlad’s River Road Entertainment, which initially planned to release “Tree of Life” through its now-closed Apparition distribution arm. Pohlad has financed difficult projects before, including “Into the Wild,” based on Jon Krakauer’s book about a young adventurer who starved to death in Alaska, and the animated documentary “Chicago 10,” about antiwar protesters put on trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
But he knows that recouping his investment — believed to be in the tens of millions of dollars, owing to the film’s complex visual effects and almost three years of post-production — won’t be easy. “I’m an optimist,” Pohlad said. “But it is challenging.”
While appreciated by critics and cineastes, Malick’s movies are not commercial juggernauts. “The New World” grossed $30 million worldwide, while 1998’s “The Thin Red Line” took in $98 million worldwide.
Winning the Palme d’Or is also no guarantee of box-office riches. The prize helped launch the fortunes of “Fahrenheit 9/11" and “The Pianist,” but the six most recent winners of the top Cannes honor — including “The Class,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” — have grossed an average of just $1.64 million in the United States.
“It’s not the kiss of commercial death,” Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight’s other co-president, said of the Palme d’Or. “It just happens not to be in sync, on a film-by-film basis, with American audience returns.”
After introducing “Tree of Life” in just four theaters this weekend, Fox Searchlight is taking the movie to eight more cities on June 3, hitting cinephile stations such as Boston, Austin, Minneapolis and Atlanta. The slow rollout will build through the following weekends until “Tree of Life” is playing in some 200 locations — including El Paso, Des Moines and Tallahassee — by the July 4 holiday.
Gilula believes that despite its experimental DNA, “Tree of Life” carries broad appeal. “At the core, it’s absolutely relatable to everyone,” he said.
Summit’s Wachsberger agreed. “Was it an easy sell? Not the easiest sell in the world, for sure. But did we sell it everywhere? Yes,” Wachsberger said. “It’s a movie that plays for a more sophisticated audience, there’s no question about that. But it will play for a long time.”