You Can Count On Me is a kind of fairytale for all young filmmakers. The drama, released in 2000, was an art house smash that came out of nowhere launching the career of its star Mark Rufallo and seeing its writer and director Kenneth Lonergan nominated for an Academy Award.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when Fox Searchlight, along with Gary Gilbert the wealthy financier and owner of production company Camelot, decided to back Lonergan on his second feature; an ambitious story about a young woman struggling through guilt titled Margaret.
The buzz surrounding this epic yet intimate drama back in 2005 was so sensational that everyone wanted to ride Lonergan’s wave of success. Scott Rudin jumped on-board to produce the film alongside the late Sydney Pollack and it assembled a cast that includes everyone from Anna Paquin and Matt Damon to Matthew Broderick and the aforementioned Mark Ruffalo.
Filled with enthusiasm, Lonergan launched himself into the project hoping to recreate the same success as his debut feature.
But his dream turned into a nightmare.
On set, Lonergan found himself unable to meet the two-hour running time that Fox Searchlight demanded. Then, when it was agreed he could extend it to 150 minutes, he was incapable to fulfilling that request either. Consequently, communications broke down between studio and director with Matthew Broderick putting up $1 million of his own cash to ensure the film, clocking at around 3 hour in length, was completed.
But even as the shooting wrapped and the team entered post-production, Fox Searchlight still refused to budge of their demand of no more than 150 minutes. They firmly drew a line in the sand and would not release the film until Kenneth Lonergan complied. However, he continued to find it impossible to compact his big story into that small timeframe.
Everyone from Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker to Martin Scorsese were called in to hack the film down to that 2 and a half hour length meaning a fifth of the movie would be left on the cutting room floor. But in the end, a final version that everyone could be content with was finally produced. It took years to make and runs at just 20 seconds below what the studio demanded.
As the process came to a head, however, more trouble arose as Fox Searchlight and Camelot found themselves in a furious courtroom battle. The former sued the latter claiming they failed to pay half of the production costs and the latter sued the former for allegedly interfering with the production in such a way that meant they had to pay for an “inferior, unmarketable film”.
Even as you read this, Gilbert is suing Lonergan over a breach of contract.
As a result, Margaret has been thrown out in the cold and left to die. You won’t see a press screening of the film, a campaign for an award or even an advertisement for the film aside from a YouTube hosted trailer that has evidently been hacked together with little interest or care. On top of that, none of the stars or talent involved can even talk about it due to the ongoing legal battles.
Just last week, the film finally got a UK release six years after shooting was completed on the film. However, Fox Searchlight apathetically chucked into one 133-seater screen at the tiny Odeon Panton Street in London for just a single 8:00pm showing a day. A small, dilapidated cinema buried down a side street and overshadowed by the multiplexes of the West End, it’s often joked to be the place where films go to die.
But in spite of all its problems, Margaret didn’t die. In fact, it flourished.
On the back of 5 star reviews from The Guardian, Time Out and The Telegraph – the few members of the press who saw the film – and responses from other film journalists who have paid to see the film and hailed it as a masterpiece, Margaret has somehow managed to damn-near sell out every single night of its performance at the cinema.
Across the city and even across the country, Kenneth Lonergan’s doomed sophomore release has become a phenomenon with cineastes turning out in droves to discover what all the fuss is about. Reactions from audiences have ranged from “genius” to “the best film of the decade” and, talking money, it made more money than any film in British cinemas this week in terms of intake-per-screen.
Margaret is becoming like the cinematic equivalent of The Beatles’ breakout performances at the Cavern Club and film’s answer to The Sex Pistols’ infamous gigs at the 100 Club. With the demand so intense, furthermore, the movie is to spread to other London cinemas this weekend with plans for it to reach other regional areas of the UK too.
Kenneth Lonergan might have thought his debut film was a fairytale, but this week, we’ve seen a real rags-to-riches story right in front of our eyes.