Fox Searchlight looks to make Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' an event
Can a new film from a niche auteur generate the same level of excitement as a new "Twilight" movie?
That's the question the distributor Fox Searchlight will test as it prepares to unveil Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" over the coming months.
At least five years in the making, Malick's movie is a semi-autobiographical story about a boy growing up in the Midwest under the hand of a sympathetic mother and domineering father. The film, which features sweeping photography and stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, also tells the story of that boy facing a crisis as an adult.
The studio began its campaign for "Life" this past weekend, when it attached the movie's trailer (you can read our impressions here) to "Black Swan," another art-house conversation piece. The move was the first step in a plan that will involve the strategic release of images, plot details and other clues about the enigmatic picture over the coming months, in the way a studio teases details about a fanboy favorite.
"The film has tons of elements and tons of surprises," Searchlight Co-President Nancy Utley said. "We're going to try to keep people interested by releasing a still or a clip, keep the ball in play with different glimpses along the way."
The release date is another attempt to give the movie an event feel. Most specialty pictures come out in late summer or fall, looking to take advantage of the increased appetite for serious subject matter.
"Tree of Life," however, will come out on May 27, right after a likely premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The release date puts it in the heart of superhero and broad-comedy country (the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" comes out the week before, and "The Hangover 2" comes out the same weekend). The idea, a Fox Searchlight spokeswoman said, was to create a sense of significance as spring and summer moviegoers look for a big-event theatrical experience.
So far, the response has been strong: Malick fans have sent out tweets along the lines of "The trailer is absolutely breathtaking! Malick can do no wrong."
But both he and Searchlight will need to overcome some obstacles, not least of which is the fact that Malick's last movie, the Colin Farrell-starring historical drama "The New World," was a commercial dud that received mixed reviews. (Malick also directed the war picture "The Thin Red Line" in 1998, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture; before that he hadn't directed a feature since the 1970s, when he announced himself with the acclaimed "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven.")
With its campaign, Searchlight wants audiences to understand that Malick, who sometimes tends more toward the visual than the storytelling, has created something accessible. "We don't want people to think it's 'Stand by Me,' but we want them to know there's a traditional narrative," Utley said. She added, "We hope this can be the kind of spring counterprogramming for thoughtful people, people who like a little philosophy with their movies."
Photo: Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight