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."
WIP, though, soon developed an appetite. The art-house division of Warner Bros. had released the $77.4-million-grossing "March of the Penguins" in 2005, but, having been founded in 2003 to make or acquire movies just like "Slumdog Millionaire," it had generated few box-office headlines since.
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.
WIP began negotiating with Colson, and from WIP's opening $7-million offer for the film's remaining worldwide territories, a tentative deal was struck in September 2007, with WIP buying North American rights for $5 million and France's sales agent Pathé Pictures International coming in to handle most of the rest of the world.
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.
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."