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The Reeler Blog

Who Wins (and How) When Lynch Self-Distributes Inland Empire?

The news that David Lynch is self-distributing his three-hour L.A. implosion Inland Empire came as a little bit of a surprise this morning; the Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Goldstein notes that the filmmaker and his producer/ex-wife Mary Sweeney have settled on terms with Studio Canal to handle a North American release, while theatrical and video partners will be announced next week as Lynch pursues "a new model of distribution."

Of course, this isn't The Passion of the Christ: As I noted following last week's New York Film Festival industry screening, at least a few local distributors crawled out of the director's rabbit hole around the two-hour mark, and others with whom The Reeler caught up afterward -- while loving the film -- couldn't quite rationalize picking it up. After hearing the news today, at least one New York exec who passed on the film expressed interest in seeing what Lynch comes up with on his own.

"DVD and electronic media will be the dominant revenue drivers for this," the distributor said on the condition of anonymity. "One thing they're smart about is the limiting of expense for theatrical distribution, because a film like this would have a very tough road except for the hardcore urban art theaters. It's too impenetrable for anything resembling a general movie fan and his Saturday night out at the movies. However, I think they will be unpleasantly surprised at the cost of even a very limited release if they are expecting all the attendant fanfare of a big event in the individual markets.

"But," the source continued, "this is a good film to take out in an untraditional manner, mainly because it would be extremely tough and extremely inefficient to do it traditionally."

ThinkFilm's Mark Urman agrees. "The film is highly experimental and, since it conforms to no known conventions as storytelling, why not distribute it in a commensurate, i.e. experimental manner?" he said.

I always thought this would be a nice little pick-up for IFC or Magnolia, each of whose vertical integration could propel Inland Empire into North America with both the marketing push it needs on cable and DVD and the urban theatrical resources to score adequately on a limited release. Their demurral speaks volumes (to me, anyhow) about distributors' severe lack of confidence in conventional audiences to even sit through -- let alone enjoy -- Inland Empire in a theatrical setting, what with the images' crackling grain and the "story's" vexing abstractions. This has to be an issue for Lynch and Sweeney's purported theatrical partners, whose terms will undoubtedly reflect a worst-case-scenario bottom line heavily weighted against the filmmaker. Forget about "prestige" bookings; unless Lynch himself is giving viewers their money back (or personally issuing signed hold harmless releases prior to each screening), who wins here?

Furthermore, none of this takes awards season into consideration. Goldstein writes that the producers are priming up for an Oscar run in Laura Dern's name; not a quixotic idea at all, and perhaps even a profitable one if Inland Empire can entrench its video presence by January. The key factor here might be the Web; Lynch's site has done well by itself since reissuing Eraserhead independently in 2003, and downloads of some sort are inevitable for Inland Empire. Of course, with the director's exacting visual control in mind, one has to wonder what how or if he intends to preserve the bad lighting, sharp contrasts and overall pixelated crunch of faces in media viewers, or how to even preserve its continuity among impatient viewers.

I wish I liked this movie enough to enjoy following its course. But you have to be pulling for Lynch, who is taking his biggest gamble yet in 20 years of rocking a certifiable brand name. It could be worse: He could be Terry Gilliam.

Posted at October 11, 2006 7:24 PM

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