Attention is riveted on tonight’s premiere of “United 93” at the Tribeca Film Festival, not only because of the subject matter but also because of the business gamble involved.
Studio tracking on the pic is ambiguous: By a slim margin the film is the top choice among males, but it’s also registering a high percentage of “definitely not interested.”
The weekend’s other new releases include “Akeelah and the Bee,” “RV” and “Stick It.”
The response is not unexpected. Indeed many industry insiders were surprised “United 93” got Universal’s greenlight at all.
The decision to make the $15 million film stemmed from a series of fortuitous events: The demise of a project at Paramount and Universal’s desire to make a sequel to “The Bourne Supremacy,” which Greengrass had directed.
The Brit director, who had his breakthrough in 2002 with his docu-style “Bloody Sunday,” had been mulling a film about 9/11 since the attacks in 2001.
But in June 2005, the two projects on his plate were “The Bourne Ultimatum” for Universal and an adaptation of “The Watchmen” for Paramount.
Almost since “The Bourne Supremacy” opened in 2004, U had been trying to lock Greengrass down for the third installment. But with no script, neither Greengrass nor star Matt Damon had committed to the pic.
So “The Watchmen” at Paramount looked like Greengrass’ next film, until newly installed chairman Brad Grey scrubbed the project because of a budget threatening to top $100 million.
With Greengrass available, U execs began trying to get the next “Bourne” entry up and running. Greengrass, however, had another idea: “United 93.”
“When the film he was going to do at Paramount fell through, I said, ‘Why don’t you do a (‘United 93′) treatment?’ ” said Tim Bevan, co-chair of Working Title, the division of U that produced the pic. “He agreed to do a treatment in July, delivered 20 pages, and we said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
Greengrass subsequently committed to direct “Ultimatum” for U, which plans to get underway this summer. A studio rep said the two decisions were not linked, but said, “Both discussions were going on at the same time. We believed in Paul Greengrass and his vision for the movie and wanted to support him.”
“You would only make a film like this with very, very few filmmakers in the world,” said Bevan.
A British director and crew quietly filmed “93” — centering on one of the defining moments of modern times, a quintessential American story — in the U.K., out of the glare of U.S. media attention.
Before lensing began at Pinewood Studios in November, researchers interviewed the families of the people aboard United 93. U announced it would donate 10% of the opening weekend’s proceeds to build a memorial for those who died aboard the hijacked flight.
Family members of those on the hijacked plane have supported the film. At a press conference Monday, Tribeca Fest’s Jane Rosenthal said there will be 91 relatives of people on the flight on hand tonight. She also said she feels viewers are ready for such films, as “we deal with this every day.”
Indeed, Rosenthal and Robert De Niro founded the festival in 2002 to help draw business to lower Manhattan, which was hard hit on 9/11.
But, the fest decided to host the preem in Midtown instead of downtown by Ground Zero for fear that it could be too emotionally difficult for preemgoers.
Whether the pic is too emotionally difficult for auds elsewhere is now the key question U faces.
U and Working Title are hoping glowing reviews will boost the number of curiosity seekers.
“You make a film like this in order to start a debate, and that’s what has happened,” Bevan said. “Whether the film goes on to perform at the box office very much depends on what happens this week.”
Either way, with a budget of just $15 million, “United 93” was a fairly small bet for Universal. Studio reduced the project’s risk even further when it brought on Sidney Kimmel Entertainment just before lensing started to co-finance about a third of the production’s budget.
There have been two Flight 93 projects on TV, both drawing strong viewers. In January, A&E earned its largest audience ever (5.9 million viewers) with “Flight 93.” Last fall, Discovery’s “The Flight That Fought Back” (a mix of re-enactments and interviews) averaged 7 million viewers.
(Ian Mohr in New York contributed to this report.)