One of the downsides of the disintegration of the theatrical release of independent films and the dissolving of the indie arms of major studios, such as Picturehouse and Warner Independent, and the shutting down of daring studios like New Line is that the low-mid-budget films have no shot in the market. The reason for that is that it simply doesn’t pay for the studios to bother. If a film costs $20 million, but the average cost of prints and marketing is $50-65 million, it would be much cheaper to simply bury it, rather than take a chance. On $200 million films, the decision is obvious, because the loss would be too great. One of the casualties of this fairly prevalent way of thinking is Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret.
Originally shot in 2005 and packed with stars like Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Alison Janney, and Jean Reno, Lonergan’s film has never had an official release date, Fox Searchlight told me that the film is still TBD (to be determined), which has been true since the original guestimate release, November of 2006. The reason this is more depressing than say, when Alec Baldwin’s directorial debut, The Devil and Daniel Webster (which was recut by financiers and retitled Shortcut to Happiness), sat, unfinished for 6 years, is because I happened to be at one of the test screenings for Margaret, way back in June 2006.
Supposedly, this particular screening was not authorized by Kenneth Lonergan, he didn’t think Margaret was ready at that point, and at 3 hours, it was certainly unwieldy. Lonergan was not at the screening, but the producers were. One of these producers was Sydney Pollack, famed director, and even better producer, who died last week (Update: One of the other major producers on the project was director Anthony Minghella, who also died in 2008). Will this help the progress of the release or will it hinder it? My understanding is that the cards for the screening were extremely low, but let me tell you, this film is a masterpiece. Maybe not at the 3 hour length, somewhere around 2 hours and 20 minutes would cut out the unneeded excess. Challenging, direct and with the amazingly naturalistic dialogue that Lonergan also showed in his You Can Count on Me, Margaret would have been a perfect release in 2006, with its wonderfully realized dealings with 9/11, as opposed to the hokey uplift of recent films like Reign Over Me and World Trade Center. At this point I’m not sure it wouldn’t seem a bit dated, but the career-best performances for nearly all involved, especially Jeannie Berlin (who gives the frankest and best depiction of a New York Jew that I’ve ever seen, and I say that as one of those easily caricatured stereotypes) deserve to be seen, reactions of the easily insulted laymen be damned. Whether it ends up in an Oscar race or more likely, buried in the worst theaters in the world, is a mystery. Feel free to contact Fox Searchlight, but don’t tell them I sent you.