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How 'Towelhead' got its title back

September 11, 2008 |  6:25 pm

Ctlogo_3 "Towelhead," from Warner Independent Pictures, is based on an acclaimed novel and was made by a filmmaker with plenty of art-house credibility: writer-director Alan Ball, creator of "Six Feet Under" and screenwriter of "American Beauty."

But the R-rated comedy-drama, opening Friday at four theaters in New York and Los Angeles before expanding to 10 more markets next week, could be the tough sell of the weekend and beyond. The controversial title is taken from an anti-Arab slur and the story looks unflinchingly, though not graphically, at childhood sexual assault as well as racism.

"I took the script to every studio in town and they all told me the same two things: 'We love the writing but have no idea how to market this,' and, 'I can’t possibly make this — I have daughters,' " said Ball, who found independent financing for the $8-million budget film through upstart Indian Paintbrush.

TowelheadWarner Indie bought the rights to the picture -- its final release thanks to Time Warner Inc. consolidation -- out of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, where it screened under the title "Nothing Is Private."

Ball said that title was the best name "among pages and pages of ideas" that marketing consultants came up with to help sell the film. However, screening audiences universally complained that it was pointless, so he was able to persuade Warner Indie to go back to the original title, taken from Alicia Erian’s novel.

The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations recently protested, asking for a title change, but the filmmakers and studio stood firm. Ball said that as a gay man he didn’t want to make light of hate speech, but added: "The whole point of Alicia’s title was to show the impact that such words can have."

The picture has received mixed reviews, with some critics cringing from the subject matter. But Ball said there is "a sizable audience that doesn’t shy away from, and in fact seeks out, movies that give them something to think about. Of course, it’s not the same size as 'The Dark Knight' crowd."

-- Josh Friedman

Photo: A scene from "Towelhead." Credit: Associated Press

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