Armed with guerrilla strategy, bio-epic regroups

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted, “there are no second acts in American lives,” the makers of “Che” are hoping the New York Film Festival will provide a fresh opportunity for an iconic Argentine revolutionary to find new life on American shores.

When Steven Soderbergh’s bio-epic had its world premiere at Cannes as a kind of work in progress — unspooling May 21 in two two-hour-nine-minute shifts broken by a brief intermission complete with bag lunch — media reaction was wildly divided.

Responses ranged from over-the-top praise, especially for the nuanced performance of Benicio Del Toro (who won the fest’s actor prize) to harsh criticism of the film’s length, breadth and $64 million indulgence. Soderbergh’s “lack of passion about the Argentine rebel was a definite plus,” wrote one scribe. “Emotionally uninvolving,” harped another.

Most significantly, trade reviews were skeptical of the Spanish-language film’s commercial prospects, and financier/sales company Wild Bunch failed to sell the movie at Cannes. None of the studio divisions would step up unless the filmmakers dubbed the movie into English for TV sales. “I didn’t want to compromise,” says Wild Bunch’s Vincent Maraval, who funded the movie via international presales. “The marketing strategy we wanted is the one closest to IFC’s. In the end they were the most enthusiastic.”

One of IFC’s five pics appearing at the festival, “Che” was picked to play New York before IFC bought the film in Toronto, winning over Wild Bunch with an unusual release strategy. IFC president Jonathan Sehring says the fact that “Che” already had a New York berth was a lure when IFC began acquisition talks.

Thus the return of a revamped “Che” in New York marks a major opportunity for Wild Bunch, IFC and Team “Che” to turn around the film’s fortunes.

To be sure, New York critics appeared more forgiving in the aftermath of the film’s contentious Cannes debut. Most, like the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman — who called the film a “magnificently uncommercial folly” — recognized the film’s faults while praising its strengths. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott lauded “Che’s” rigorous attention to tactical warfare and Benicio Del Toro’s “soulful and charismatic performance” in the lead while lamenting the filmmaker’s decision to turn a blind eye to Guevara’s “brutal role in turning a revolutionary movement into a dictatorship.”

Over the summer, Soderbergh tinkered with the picture and trimmed 12 minutes. He cut seven from “The Argentine,” the first part dealing with Che’s rise in ’50s Cuba alongside Fidel Castro, ending on the eve of their successful revolution. And Soderbergh excised five minutes from “Guerrilla,” which is a stylistically different, cinema verite-style immersion into Che’s ill-fated attempt to repeat his glory days in Bolivia.

Whether a revamped “Che” will encourage Stateside critics to declare it a tour de force, or at least see it in a new light, is hard to gauge, at least until N.Y. Film Fest organizers screen the film Monday for media at the Ziegfeld Theater — an ideal, bigscreen venue to give it the “Lawrence of Arabia” treatment many feel it deserves. The fest’s reputation as a haven for challenging fare, if not a champion of foreign-language cinema, could work in “Che’s” favor.

IFC will open the full four-hour movie with an intermission for one-week Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles before opening “The Argentine” in 15 to 25 key markets in January; “Guerrilla” will follow two weeks later, after the Oscar nominations announcement. Both movies will be made available on video-on-demand concurrent with their wider theatrical runs.

“The film community is segregated now,” says Sehring, whose VOD release model appeals to filmmakers because IFC shares revenues with them. “If a movie is not an obvious studio release, there has to be an alternative. We’re more nimble, quick and aggressive when we know there’s both short-term and long-term value. No studio wanted to be in a risk position with ‘Che.’ “

Homevideo retailer Blockbuster will also be a valuable partner on pushing “Che.” Selling a film to IFC means a minimal advance and modest marketing spends at best. But “as an organization we are invested in this film working,” Sehring insists. A warm reception by New York auds and critics will be a crucial first step in IFC’s full awards season push for Del Toro and Soderbergh.

TIP SHEET

What: 46th New York Film Fest

When: Today through Oct. 12

Where: Ziegfeld Theater, Avery Fisher Hall, Walter Reade Theater, Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse

Web: filmlinc.com/nyff/nyff.html

SELECT HIGHLIGHTS

Opening night: “The Class” (Laurent Cantet)

Closing night: “The Wrestler” (Darren Aronofsky)

Centerpiece film: “Changeling” (Clint Eastwood)

Martin Scorsese presents a Technicolor screening of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”

Spotlight retrospective: Newly restored print of Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montes”

Panels include “Film Criticism in Crisis?” hosted by Film Comment; “The Place of Oshima”; HBO Films Dialogues (featuring fest filmmakers Jia Zhangke, Darren Aronofsky and Arnaud Desplechin)

Topper: Richard Pena, chair of the NYFF selection committee

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