Hot-button topics are trends du jour

Timing, racy subject matter affect releases

A film featuring fast-rising stars Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles would seem to have commercial potential written all over it. But because the movie climaxes with deadly shootings on a high school campus, “O” sat on the shelf for more than a year, largely due to the sensitive post-Columbine climate already stirred up by two widely publicized high school shootings this spring.

“O” is only one of several indie titles that are attracting a lot of attention because of their hot-button themes.

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, “O” is a racially charged contemporary version of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” set in a private high school in the South. The film’s release date was pushed back by original distributor Miramax Films after real-life shootings in Santee, Calif. and Williamsport, Pa. Miramax eventually allowed Lions Gate Films to acquire the movie, set for an Aug. 31 release.

” Other controversial films have either run afoul of the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings board or had trouble finding domestic distribution. Even if they hit the screen, how to market them remains a challenge.

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing, defends “O,” saying there’s really very little violence in the pic, which stars Mekhi Phifer in the title role. Ortenberg says the violence will not be highlighted at all in the film’s marketing, which will focus on Phifer, Stiles and Hartnett.

Nelson, who was named best director at this year’s Seattle Intl. Film Festival, says he is simply happy to have the film released at all.

“I would have loved for ‘O’ to come out last fall and was certainly quite frustrated,’ he says. “But I suppose what’s happened with Josh and Julia since then, it’s best for the movie’s commercial potential to be released in the end of the summer.”

Ortenberg compares the situation with “O” to “Dogma” and “American Psycho,” two previous Lions Gate releases that featured, respectively big-name actors such as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and Christian Bale but courted controversy because of their dark subject matter.

“We don’t look for controversy but that happens when you do things off the beaten path,” Ortenberg says. “Sometimes controversy finds you and while we don’t go looking for it, as long as we believe in what we’re doing, we don’t shy away from it either. We do think that the movies we take into the marketplace have a reason for being there.”

Lions Gate also had to be cautious in its release of “Bully,” which opened on selected screens in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco throughout July and August. The movie is based on the true story of a South Florida teen killed by his best buddy and a group of friends, and is unrated due to its graphic sexual content.

“There’s a lot of sex,” Ortenberg says of the Larry Clark-directed film. “To have trimmed it down to an R we really would have had to lacerate the film. Going out unrated was really the only way to go. It’s very edgy and hip, and hopefully we’ll get some good word of mouth going and play for a long time this summer.”

New York-based independent distributor Lot 47 Films acquired Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E.” in February and will send it into limited release in September with an NC-17 rating. The movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to critical raves but is tricky to market because it focuses on the relationship between a vulnerable teenage boy and an older man with a questionable agenda.

Lot 47 President Jeff Lipsky feels the NC-17 rating is unfair but will try and use it to the company’s marketing advantage. Lipsky says the MPAA objected to sex scenes between an adult male and female with a few seconds of nudity as well as a two-minute dialogue about sex between the boy and a pedophile.

“When I first saw the film at Sundance, the chance of an NC-17 never even entered my mind,” he said. “The pedophile never engages in sexual activity with any character in the film.”

IFC Films’ “Thomas in Love” got slapped with an NC-17 rating for another reason: The film’s opening scene features the lead character engaging in cybersex with an animated character.

“We knew that the animated character would be pushing it a bit,” says Bob Berney IFC Films, senior veep of marketing and distribution. “At the same time, I think it will be a really popular character. I think people will talk about it. It’s a good and a bad thing.”

IFC Films will release the film initially in Los Angeles and New York in early August without a rating.

One film that won’t even be getting a chance for any kind of theatrical run this summer is “The Believer,” written and directed by Henry Bean. The film, about a former yeshiva student turned anti-Semite, was screened to great raves at the Sundance, winning the grand jury prize for dramatic film. But a screening at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles in an attempt to get the center’s support backfired when the center was critical of the film.

“We would have gotten a deal from one of the larger distributors of art films if not for the fear of the Jewish organizations coming out against them,” Bean claims.

So instead of a theatrical run this fall, “The Believer” will air six times on Showtime.

“It’s an inflammatory piece,” Bean says. “The thing that made it unattractive to theatrical people made it attractive to Showtime.”

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