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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Harvey Weinstein and Stephen Daldry's secret bet over 'The Reader'

September 25, 2008 |  4:43 pm

Rudinharvey_2 Everyone in Hollywood is at heart something of a gambler. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to discover that the real source of the nasty feud between Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin over the release date of "The Reader" involves a high-stakes test screening of the film that was held not long ago in New York. To recap: Weinstein, who is releasing the film, wants it out this December for an Oscar run. The filmmaker, Stephen Daldry, and the film's producer, Scott Rudin, are adamantly in opposition, saying the picture isn't in shape to be released until next year.

But here's what was missing from all the coverage of the dispute earlier this week. (None of the principals is talking about it, so I've pieced this together from a number of other sources intimately involved with the dispute.) Believing that he had gone more than the extra mile in supporting the film, Weinstein persuaded Daldry to have a test screening of the film at the Lincoln Square theater in Manhattan in return for giving the filmmaker eight extra days to shoot additional scenes. If the film scored more than 70 (in what is known as the top-two boxes of audience recommendations), Weinstein could put the film out later this year. If the film didn't score a 70, everyone would agree that it needed more work and the release would be put off.

The Weinstein camp won its bet (although the Daldry camp argues that Daldry simply agreed to do everything possible to complete the film, not let Weinstein release it no matter what). The film, which screened in late August, scored a 77, which is considered a good but not exactly break-out-the-champagne score for a highbrow drama with an A-list cast (Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet play the leads). Still, it was high enough to make Weinstein a winner. He contends that Rudin has now persuaded Daldry to back out of the agreement, with the filmmaker telling Weinstein he felt the film still needed more work.

This has prompted a real donnybrook, which is complicated by all sorts of past feuds (Weinstein and Rudin had a number of verbal brawls during the making of "The Hours") and present conflicts. Daldry, for example, is about to open a big musical on Broadway, "Billy Elliot," which goes into previews next week. It doesn't leave him much time to work on the film. The Daldry camp contends that Daldry has a contract with Working Title, which made the original "Billy Elliot" film, that predates his involvement with "The Reader" and binds him to an exclusive commitment to work solely on the musical until its opening in November.

It's a sign of how bad the blood is between Rudin and Weinstein that charges have been flying that Weinstein somehow rigged the screening, holding it at a Manhattan theater where he believed it would receive a higher score. (Rudin, some say, pushed for the screening to be held in White Plains, N.Y., the rough equivalent of having a screening in Sherman Oaks instead of Beverly Hills.)

I'm certainly not taking sides in this crazy fight. It sounds as if Weinstein and Rudin need a divorce lawyer or perhaps a Middle East mediator to help settle their differences. Here's what seems clear: Weinstein, who originally bought the book, feels the film needs an Oscar push to help it find an audience. Its subject matter is hardly crowd-pleasing, being the morally complex tale of a young man's passionate affair with an older woman who turns out to have a disturbing past involving the Holocaust. Even with a top filmmaker and cast, the film needs all the Oscar momentum it can get to nudge cautious moviegoers into the theater.

But the Oscar game complicates everything. Is Rudin's sole motive to protect his filmmaker? Or is he protecting his other Oscar-friendly films, "Revolutionary Road" and "Doubt," which are both due out later this year as well? And even if Weinstein forces the film's release, can he run a credible Oscar campaign if his filmmaker and cast members refuse to make the media rounds in support of the film? Winslet, for example, isn't just a costar of Rudin's rival film, "Revolutionary Road"; she's married to its director, Sam Mendes. So is she really going to want to campaign for "The Reader" if it's going head-to-head with her own family project?

The whole story just keeps getting messier and messier. "The Reader" was originally going to be produced by Sydney Pollack and directed by Anthony Minghella through their production company. Pollack fell ill and Minghella had another film he wanted to direct first. It was Minghella who suggested bringing in Rudin to produce and agreed to move aside and let Daldry come on board as director. Now both Minghella and Pollack are dead, hovering like ghosts over the film. Who would they have sided with? That's not a question I know the answer to. But I can't imagine that, as filmmakers, they would want this movie to be in the theaters without the enthusiastic blessing of its director.

Weinstein may have a great case, having poured a lot of his heart and money into the project. He may have even won his screening wager hands down. But if he doesn't find a way to get Daldry on board, he'll have won the battle but lost the war.   

Photo of Harvey Weinstein, left, from AFP; Scott Rudin from Getty Images

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