Boyle and his filmmaking collaborators have said that "Slumdog Millionaire" has enjoyed so much good fortune it is almost as if destiny has guided it toward tonight's Academy Awards, where the film is a heavy favorite to win the best picture Oscar. But at the moment the film arrived in town, "Slumdog Millionaire's" fate looked bleaker, particularly after its initial showing inside an upstairs screening room at Warner Bros. last June 12.
By some measure, the film's accomplishments are no less remarkable than the winning-answer streak delivered by the movie's protagonist in India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." In reality, "Slumdog Millionaire" was nearly sent packing in the first round.
Boyle and his producer, Christian Colson, had traveled from London to Burbank with a video copy of "Slumdog," both excited and nervous about showing their $14-million film's rough cut to Warner Bros. executives. The studio's specialty-film division, Warner Independent Pictures, had been the only American movie company to bid on the film's U.S. distribution rights, but soon after Boyle wrapped filming in Mumbai early last year, Warners decided to close WIP, focusing instead on mass-appeal movies such as "The Dark Knight."
With every passing week in the editing room, Boyle and Colson believed their movie was improving dramatically, but they also knew that the film's advocates were vanishing: the WIP executives who had paid $5 million for "Slumdog Millionaire's" domestic rights either had left the company or were on their final days.
Before Colson and Boyle even drove through the Warner Bros. gates on Olive Avenue, they had reasons to worry. The studio initially had scheduled a meeting with the two Londoners immediately after the screening to discuss "Slumdog Millionaire," but Warner Bros. had canceled the get-together a few days before the screening, citing schedule problems. Once at the studio, it wasn't entirely clear they were welcome; as soon as Colson and Boyle started toward two open screening room seats, a Warner Bros. staffer asked them to leave, saying the Warners executives preferred to watch the movie alone. But Colson quickly pulled Boyle into a seat, and they declined to go away.
If the brief disagreement over the seats was awkward, what followed over the next 2 1/2 hours in screening room No. 5 was unnerving, some participants say. Present in the well-appointed room were two senior WIP executives -- Polly Cohen, who had run the division, and Paul Federbush, an enthusiastic "Slumdog" supporter as WIP's production and acquisition head -- and a handful of top Warner Bros. decision-makers, including Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group; Kevin McCormick, president of production for Warner Bros. Pictures; and Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures.
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Studio screenings can be antiseptically businesslike, but the "Slumdog Millionaire" reception felt strikingly icy to several people in the room. "It was quiet," Boyle says. Adds Federbush: "I was uncomfortable with the silence and felt bad for the filmmakers."
Little was said afterward, and while Colson and McCormick met the following morning for what Colson calls a "very constructive" meeting about the movie, the filmmakers flew the 5,500 miles back to London unsure of its American future. Boyle and Colson said they didn't hear from Warner Bros. for weeks, although Robinov says Cohen was in constant contact.
Robinov says Boyle's cut of the film was far from its finished version, with the movie's lead characters, Jamal and Latika, not reunited at the conclusion. "There was nothing negative that came out of the screening," Robinov says. "I told Danny that I thought he had done a really good job."
Boyle didn't sense the enthusiasm. On a holiday break with his 17-year-old daughter, Caitlin, a few weeks later in mid-July, the good-natured Boyle seemed resigned over the film's prospects. "It's such a shame," Boyle told her while they vacationed in Majorca, "that nothing is going to happen to it in the United States."
Numbers don't add up
In a way, "Slumdog Millionaire's" timing couldn't have been worse. When the film came on the market almost two years ago, the sky was starting to fall on independent cinema -- WIP, Picturehouse, Paramount Vantage and the Weinstein Co. would soon either close their doors or scale way back. Outside financiers were starting to lose their interest in movies that require strong word of mouth to succeed.
When Celador Films, the British producer of "The Descent" and "Dirty Pretty Things," began assembling the film's financing in 2007, Colson, Celador's joint managing director, penciled in a rough budget of about $18 million. U.K. tax credits would save about $1.5 million, and Film4 purchased "Slumdog's" British television rights for a little more than that, with Film4 investing an additional 10% of the budget.
"We've got a great script by ["The Full Monty's"] Simon Beaufoy, a great director in Danny Boyle, and we're in love with this thing," Colson says of his 2007 thinking. American buyers -- including eventual "Slumdog Millionaire" distributor Fox Searchlight -- were less smitten.
Colson was asking for between $8 million and $10 million for the film's American rights, or $18 million for the remaining global rights. The deal looked problematic to Fox Searchlight, even though division head Peter Rice had collaborated with Boyle on five other movies, including "28 Days Later" and 2007's "Sunshine," which around that time was flopping at the box office.
In Fox Searchlight's back-of-the-envelope math, "Slumdog Millionaire" would have to gross more than $20 million domestically to justify an $8-million purchase, as a studio retains about half of a film's ticket sales. The exacting contract terms required the American distributor to pay a share of its income to Celador and Boyle, which Fox Searchlight saw as another obstacle to profits. "We would have fully financed it," Rice says, "but we didn't want the split-rights deal they were offering."
Says Colson: "We were met with a resounding silence. No one had any interest whatsoever."