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Sean Penn as George Bush's nightmare, and a question over who will play 'Fair Game'

April 21, 2010 |  6:58 pm

Almost every year in the weeks leading up to Cannes, there's a big, star-driven movie in need of a distributor that plays for buyers in Los Angeles in the hope of scoring a deal (last year it was the Terry Gilliam/Heath Ledger fantasy "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"). There are few things tougher than a celebrity-laden film coming into Cannes without a studio backer; the film doesn't get the same publicity muscle, and the anxiety that comes with putting a film's fate in the hands of a fickle festival audience can be a little tough for producers to bear.

This year's candidate is "Fair Game," in which Sean Penn plays former Bush administration attaché Joseph Wilson, who, after writing an op-ed piece critical of the Bush administration, found his wife Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) outed as a CIA agent. The movie takes director Doug Liman in a more serious direction than he's been taken in nearly of his any other films ("The Bourne Identity," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," etc.).

Tuesday night, CAA, which is selling domestic rights  -- and also packaged, located financing for and represents almost everyone associated with the movie (including Wilson and Plame) -- hosted a screening  for buyers. Top executives from nearly every major specialty division and mini-major turned out (Harvey Weinstein was among those in attendance, for a movie that could well be a kind of awards-y picture he specialized in back in the day), along with representatives from a few studios. Several distributors are said to be interested, and there could well be a deal in place before the film masses descend on the south of France.

We talked to a number of buyers who were at the screening, nearly all of whom agreed the movie was well made but also came with distinct marketing challenges. Given its political themes, it's the kind of film that will go over like gangbusters in Cannes, they said, but its larger audience remains a question mark. Some buyers pointed out that Liman's movie could face some of the same questions that Oliver Stone's "W." did in 2008 -- namely,  do audiences want to relive a difficult chapter in American history, one in which much of the public felt misled?

That's especially true here given that Sean Penn isn't inhabiting the kind of transformative role he did with, say, Harvey Milk, but instead one who talks earnestly about the absence of WMD and sounds a lot like, well, Sean Penn.

Buyers tend to talk down a film's commercial prospects after a distributor screening because they don't want to work up the price. Still, there are reasons to take their concerns seriously.  "Green Zone," a movie with a less polarizing star in Matt Damon and more of a thriller/action conceit, was a box-office flop for a big studio.  Then again, at the right price, and with a campaign built around awards and critical praise, "Fair Game" could find its niche. And not just among the French.

--Steven Zeitchik and John Horn

Photo: Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Credit: River Road Entertainment

Comments () | Archives (3)

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re: Fair Game

Please be reminded this film is about Valarie Palme played by Naomi Watts, and her husband Joseph Wilson played by Sean Penn. Not only is this the story of Valerie Plame it is also based on her novel "Fair Game" that the film project is made. Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband, is therefore only a supporting character in the story. So when you people are getting all so excited about the film and the politics associated with it would you please also take a careful moment to make sure who is, and try not to slight the central character and actress ie. Valerie Palme and Ms Naomi Watts of the film? Regards.

W had a very limited audience, but it was also funny. A limited audience drama would go over like a lead balloon.

Sell the movie to HBO or Showtime.

LOL, no ROTFLMAO, pure typecasting! Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Syrian Opthomologist sponsored dirty bombs, Iranian nukes = Bush nightmares, maybe. But Mr. Penn, (excellent actor) and bad actor/liar Wilson (who introduced himself at DC cocktail parties as "Mr. Jane Bond"), never. Those last two are legends in their own mind.


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