Cohen, Federbush and Laura Kim, WIP's marketing and publicity chief, were taken with Beaufoy's "Slumdog" script, even if the price tag was steep. "We all read it, and we all loved it," Kim says.
With the deals in place, Boyle and Colson would not have to cut their shooting days, as they had once feared.
Like any principal investor in a movie, WIP had several suggestions about the "Slumdog" screenplay.
Among WIP's concerns was why the film's central character, Jamal (played as a teen by Dev Patel), chose to become a contestant on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Federbush felt it needed to be made clearer earlier that Jamal did so not to win money but to locate his lifelong love, Latika (Freida Pinto).
Boyle believed Jamal would never confess something so personal to a police officer he scarcely trusted, but he eventually changed his mind and shot an additional scene in the police interrogation room where Jamal confesses his romantic intentions to the police inspector. (Because costar Irrfan Khan was unavailable for the reshoots, Boyle hired a stand-in and shot the replacement actor out of focus so the audience wouldn't notice the switch.)
WIP also was concerned about the film's violence, and insisted in its contract that the film had to be rated PG-13, a mark it would never receive.
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WIP wasn't around to see the finished film. A few weeks after Boyle wrapped filming "Slumdog Millionaire" in Mumbai, Warner Bros. closed the division, in May, setting the stage for that fateful June screening. Boyle says he was concerned but not panicked. "I'm experienced enough now to know to keep calm."
A direct-to-video bailout plan
The Warner Bros. executives who watched "Slumdog Millionaire" in the June screening may have been "very complimentary about the way the film was made," as Boyle remembers it, but it was clear to him and Colson that the studio no longer felt equipped to release it.
Robinov says Warner Bros.' fall schedule was filled with movies it had absorbed from New Line Cinema, leaving it without the resources to release "Slumdog" in 2008. "We didn't want to mishandle the movie and start something we couldn't finish," he says. "But if we were going to release it, it wasn't going to come out" in 2008.
Warner Bros. was worried it still might flub its theatrical distribution and wondered if a less costly direct-to-video U.S. release might be a safer path.
Robinov eventually spoke with Boyle's talent agent, Robert Newman of the Endeavor Agency, and Colson about the film's future. "I don't think anyone there thought it was a terrible movie," Colson says. "But it was part of a business they had just gotten out of."
The studio eventually decided that Colson could show the movie to one other distributor. "It didn't take us long to decide," Colson says, "that it should be Peter Rice." So in mid-July, Rice summoned about 20 of his senior staff -- including marketing head Nancy Utley, distribution chief Steve Gilula, and acquisitions head Tony Safford -- into the Little Theater screening room on the 20th Century Fox lot to watch the movie.
If the Warner Bros. screening of "Slumdog Millionaire" had been restrained, this was breathtaking, complete with applause at the end. "It was completely, emotionally gripping, and it had an energy to it," Rice says. He immediately polled his staff about their reactions, going around the theater a person at a time. "Exhilarating," said one. "Magnificent" said another.
Colson was driving back to the Four Seasons hotel 15 minutes after the screening when his mobile phone rang, with Rice on the line. "What do we need to do to get it?" Rice asked Colson.
But now that Fox Searchlight was interested, Warner Bros.--which was in the middle of releasing its blockbuster "The Dark Knight" -- grew cautious, Colson says. "As soon as another studio wants it, there's an anxiety about selling it, because it makes it seem more valuable," Colson says.
After weeks of negotiating, Fox Searchlight ended up paying Celador $2.5 million to take over the film's domestic release, just in time to get the movie into the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, whose invitations Warner Bros. had not accepted. Fox Searchlight will split its "Slumdog Millionaire" costs and revenues with Warner Bros. after collecting a 12.5% distribution fee.
"Warners did the right thing a little slowly, which is why we got twitchy. But they still have a chunk of the movie, and I hope they make a lot of money because in the end, they did the right thing," Colson says.
"Is it the best result for Warner Bros.? No," Robinov says. "But having made the decision to support Danny, it's hard to have any regrets about it."
When the "Slumdog Millionaire" filmmaking team strides into the Kodak Theatre tonight, among the spectators high in the balcony will be Kim, the former WIP marketing head.
"It going to be bittersweet," says Kim, who had started crafting "Slumdog Millionaire" posters and trailers just before she became unemployed. "It's not like we will be sitting with Danny and Christian and Simon anyway. But I absolutely believed it had awards potential. And it will be really thrilling if it wins."