Back in 2012, after Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence co-starred in David O. Russell's Oscar-winning "Silver Linings Playbook" and before its follow-up "American Hustle," the duo shot period drama "Serena," which was once going to star Angelina Jolie with director Darren Aronofsky. Lawrence recommended Cooper and talked him into joining her on the project.
Oscar-winning Danish auteur Susanne Bier ("A Better World") took the helm for producers Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Productions, and has been delayed trying to finish it. Based on Ron Rash's 2008 novel, the film is set in 1929 North Carolina and follows George and Serena Pemberton, ambitious newlyweds with their hearts set on a timber empire. They become obsessed with success, and their lives take a Shakespearean turn when Serena finds that she can't get pregnant and tries to harm her husband's illegitimate son.
Why the delays? "Once it finished shooting we've all been busy," Bier told me at the Toronto Film Festival, which invited "Serena," but the stars weren't available. "I've been doing another film [TIFF world premiere "Second Chance"]. Cooper and Lawrence were super-busy, just doing the [post-production sound recording] has been tricky. She had only one day off in two years!"
"There were some different cuts that took a lot of time," Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles told me. Seller CAA screened the movie for studio buyers and several made offers but none were substantial enough to make it worthwhile for 2929 not to release the film itself. "There was some play with the studios, but it didn't get to the place where it needed to get," Bowles said. Thus 2929 sister company Magnolia Pictures released the film first on premium VOD and then in theaters March 27.
Bowles says he saw "a couple of different versions of the movie" (which one unidentified buyer told THR "made no sense"). What was the difference? "Frankly I don't know what cut they saw," says Bowles. "It was a question of emphasis. It's not a radically different cut. Susanne tweaked it and it got better. The one they have now is the best one. It's a beautiful-looking period piece, a fantastic-looking production. It's completely relatable and understandable and a really good film. It's a serious drama, a big-scale romance, and a bit of a tragic Lady MacBeth story."
Canal Plus, which is handling Europe, booked the film for an October 13 world premiere at the London Film Festival in advance of its European release. That's where negative reviews first landed --it's at 34% on Metacritic. Magnolia waited until 2015 to open stateside because of the availability of the stars. Cooper was starring on Broadway in "The Elephant Man" until the middle of February, and had to promote Clint Eastwood's Christmas release "American Sniper" as well, while Lawrence was stuck with "Hunger Games" chores.
So Magnolia opened the movie stateside February 26 on VOD (scoring a reported $1 million so far)--counting on Lawrence and Cooper to drive viewer desire to see the movie at a high purchase point-- followed by an "aggressive" theatrical release in 20-25 major markets on March 27. (Here's how it did at the box office.) "If people go in thinking it's a bad film they will be pleasantly surprised," said Bowles. "It's a good film. I stand by it. Susanne Bier did a good job directorially on this film."