Since tyro distrib Newmarket released “Memento” on March 9, reviewers have lavished words like “virtuouso” and “astonishing” on Christopher Nolan’s intellectual thriller, which stars Guy Pearce as aninsurance adjuster with a really bad memory.
However, when Newmarket principals and the film’s financiers Chris Ball, Will Tyrer and Aaron Ryder screened the film for would-be buyers last year, they heard words like “confusing” and “too cerebral.”
“We thought we were making something cool and unique,” said Jennifer Todd, who produced the film with her sister, Suzanne Todd. “And nobody wanted to buy it.”
Only Paramount Classics and Trimark made offers — bids that Newmarket thought were too low. Instead, Newmarket decided to go against the tide and use “Memento” to kick off its own domestic distrib arm.
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Enter consultant Bob Berney. A former arthouse exhibitor and marketing exec at Orion Pictures, he made his rep as the patron distribution saint of difficult films like Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.”
Berney hand-picked theaters where he thought the film would thrive. And he sent “Memento” star Joe Pantoliano on a promotional tour of East Coast and Midwest college towns.
“I’ve had friends attack it because they’re afraid they’re not smart,” Pantoliano says. “I like it when people come to me and say, ‘What the fuck is this movie about?’ ”
By the time the release got under way last month, it was clear that whatever the film was about, audiences liked it. After the first weekend, USA Films even made an offer to take over the remainder of the “Memento” run. Newmarket politely declined.
“Memento” has expanded to 300 screens — double what even the optimistic Berney had hoped. Now at $5 million, he thinks the film is on track to gross $10 million domestically.
“It’s to their credit that (distribs) wouldn’t buy it,” Pantoliano says. “On paper, it wouldn’t make a nickel.”
But, as the note-scribbling hero of “Memento” knows, paper can be deceiving.