Towards the end of the DGA Q&A, the moderator said, "Obviously it's a very different film from most commercial films...you're going to go out, and I think you're very brave because it's dealing with emotions that a lot of commercial cinema doesn't anymore. So I'm curious how you prepare yourself to step out there right now with this work."
A: "You come to directors first, and get yourself praised. (laughs) I don't know. Fortunately I'm on a plane the day that I think everything comes out about it. I'm on a plane to Cambodia. Other films I've done deal with history and there's a way that you can excuse yourself and say 'I did my best work but I know it's important because its history, and its somebody else's life and somebody else's script. ' And this one I think I'm a little uncomfortable because its hard to feel like you want to say to somebody 'I want you to come and sit for two hours and see if you can connect, and if we can connect as people. ' If this expression of art and pain and grief is something worth asking somebody to sit through."
As expected, the film has proven to be polarizing. But the most important detail is that it has found strong support from some of the leading lights in the critic community including the NY Times' Manohla Dargis (for me the only one that matters), as well as the critics from the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Timeout and Time. After the initial reviews leaked out of the AFI, I had braced myself for the worst, but now I am actually relieved. One could further argue that 33% on RT and 45 on Metacritic for an uncompromising 60s-style Euro art film that probably only really appeals to 20% of the population is about as good as can be hoped.
As to the film's box office prospects, her answer addresses that as well. They're not promoting it to the general public -- as Deadline noted -- but those who are open to this type of film will likely hear about it. (I saw it at a small theater in NY that was maybe slightly less than 3/4 full for an early evening screening. Yes, it's languid but I've sat through many "acclaimed" festival films that were far more trying. I agree most with The Playlist, Slash Film and Dargis.) Since we're only talking about a very select audience, expectations for its U.S. run are quite low. It may fare better in Europe where this style of cinema originated. Industry watchers like Anne Thompson believe Universal backed the $10M film despite its obvious limited prospects because it wanted to stay in business with Angelina (and Brad). Thompson noted that all of Universal's top brass led by Donna Langley and Ron Meyer attended the film's AFI premiere. The studio is assured of having the inside track on her future directing efforts -- and perhaps even a few acting ones (she had turned down Wanted 2 from them). The studio has much larger exposure in Steve Jobs ($30M budget) and Crimson Peak, ($55M) which have both underperformed. Unlike those films, Universal has spent very little on By the Sea's promotion -- also at her behest -- so its total exposure isn't much more than the production cost.
In a crowded marketplace where prestige movies without proven stars are sinking like stones, you will be hard pressed to find a fall film with bigger worldwide box office stars than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. But despite the fact that Jolie wrote and directed By The Sea and stars in it with Pitt in what marks their first feature collaboration since the 2005 blockbuster Mr. And Mrs. Smith, there is little to no awareness — or evidence in the advertising — that two huge stars are in almost every frame of this film. And rather than a wide release, the only firm plan is for a release in three cities.
So, two weeks before its November 13 bow, few realize that By The Sea is coming out even though the studio releasing it, Universal Pictures, has expertly marketed and distributed winner after winner this year with Jurassic World, Furious 7 and Straight Outta Compton.
Consider the one-sheet for By The Sea: It shows barely a glimpse of the two biggest box office stars in its movie poster, which depicts a balcony with a man’s hat barely touching a woman’s hat, against a yellow-hued sky. On the second one sheet, Jolie is unrecognizable, with hair looking like a wave that covers most of her face. Pitt is in a small photo at the bottom, also barely recognizable. In fact, at first glance, he looks more like Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo.
So you gotta ask: What is going on with By The Sea? And why would a marketing-savvy studio like Universal not exploit the presence of two of the few stars who are proven draws?
According to the studio and Jolie’s camp, it’s all by design, a subtle way to deliver a film that is more personal than commercial. However, sources say that at the center of it all is Jolie, a writer-producer-director-star who has ideas of her own and is in involved in every detail of the film’s launch of what is clearly a personal pet project. By allowing the film to go to market in modest fashion as Jolie wishes, they say, Universal is protecting its future relationship with a star who built a strong relationship with film chairman Donna Langley from when the star directed the Louis Zamperini drama Unbroken.
So when a trailer cut by Universal didn’t please her, Jolie cut her own. Said one person with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes machinations: “They aren’t selling it as a mainstream romantic drama because she doesn’t want that and they weren’t willing to take her on.”
“While it certainly stars two of the most recognizable actors around, By The Sea is an intimate character study evocative of films from ’70s-era European cinema, and we wanted to consistently present that idea in the advertising with integrity rather than misleading the audience,” said Universal in a statement.