By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 1, 2011 at 12:57PM
A brief addendum to our piece yesterday on the story behind the surprise announcement of a U.K. release of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" before its mooted Cannes debut -- and it's another twist in what's turned out to be one of the more interesting behind-the-scenes business stories of the year. Icon Film Distribution Ltd, who've been set to distribute the film in the U.K. for some time, announced a May 4th release at the start of the week, something firmly denied by the film's U.S. distributors Fox Searchlight, and others close to the film.
Some had doubted the original story, but as we discussed yesterday, Icon had officially placed the film on the release schedule. As we suspected, that date isn't likely to hold, but a new angle on the story has developed, and it's a troubling one for anyone who wanted to see the film on U.K. cinema screens any time soon. Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere got in touch with Jill Jones of Summit International, the film's sales agent, who stated, simply: "The information regarding the May 4th U.K. release [of "The Tree of Life"] is incorrect. Icon Film Distribution Ltd. does not have the right to distribute "The Tree of Life" in the U.K., as it is in default of its agreement. The matter is pending before an arbitration tribunal in Los Angeles."
It's fairly staggering to hear that Icon don't have the rights to the film, and, as you might expect, there's more to the tale. Anne Thompson reports from sources that the company initially won the rights by offering a high minimum guarantee (an amount of money that they'd have to pay to the film's backers, no matter how well the film does), and were now having second thoughts about releasing the film -- presumably after viewing the finished product (Jeff Wells suggests that distribution types have told him the film is deeply uncommercial, although we're not sure how this is a surprise to anyone).
So, it seems likely that Icon slating the film for an early release was a negotiating tactic, something of a dick move. There's no word on when the arbitration tribunal will happen, but we imagine it'll result in Icon eventually relinquishing the rights to the film, and it'll go back on the market -- the bad blood at work here means its highly unlikely that the film will be released in the U.K. by the company (they also hold the rights in Australia and New Zealand, but it's unclear if the same problems will arise in that territory).
So short-term, it means that the film's world premiere will take place on the Croisette, as Summit and Fox Searchlight had already planned. It also means that it almost certainly won't see the light of day in Britain (and possibly Australia and New Zealand) for quite some time. Even assuming a distributor swiftly steps up to take Icon's place, once the legal wranglings are complete -- and they could turn out to be protracted -- they'd need time to plan a release and a campaign. We're sure there's yet another side to this story, but all in all, not a happy outcome, and a big black mark on Icon's global reputation.