Three Kings minus one documentary equals a budding controversy.
Warner Bros. has scrapped plans to distribute filmmaker David O. Russell's new anti-war documentary that was supposed to be screened this fall with the rerelease of his 1999 Gulf War flick, Three Kings.
After seeing the completed 35-minute film, titled Soldiers Pay, Warners bosses deemed it too much of a political hot potato to release ahead of the November election. The suits were also concerned that the film could end up violating federal election laws.
"We felt that it's inappropriate to put out a personal political statement and attach it to the film," said Warner Bros. spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti. "We just felt that this was a personal political view, it didn't have a place."
The $180,000 doc features interviews with Iraqi refugees, human-rights officials and veterans of the Iraq conflict. While it takes an anti-war stance, it avoids taking sides in the presidential race and doesn't mention either candidate.
Soldiers Pay was due to be screened along with Three Kings when Warner Bros. reissued the film to hype the release of a new special-edition DVD. But now, studio execs say they have not only pulled the plug on the doc's theatrical release, but it's unlikely they will include Soldiers Pay as an extra when the disc hits stores.
The decision comes a month after Russell told the New York Times that he thought he "could perhaps make a difference before the election," as well as show "what war does to people."
The remarks didn't go over so well with the studio's legal eagles. They advised Warners brass against releasing Soldiers Pay, saying the filmmaker's lopsided point of view could raise red flags with the Federal Election Commission.
Russell, however, says Warners is overreacting. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the writer-director said the film is "far from a polemic."
"It takes a point of view that questions the way the war went down...but it's not black and white, it's not Michael Moore," he said.
Russell had been pushing Warner Bros. to rerelease Three Kings--a critically hailed dark comedy about three soldiers, played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, hunting for looted Kuwaiti gold after Operation Desert Storm--in theaters given the ongoing conflict in Iraq. He began working on the documentary as part of the value-added material for a new DVD, beginning by catching up with several Iraqis who played extras in the original film.
But eventually he grew more ambitious and included interviews with people outside the frame of the movie, including Democratic California Senator Barbara Boxer--something the studio felt uncomfortable with considering his comment about influencing the election.
Russell, who was informed of Warners' decision earlier this week, said he was taken aback and disappointed by the studio's reaction.
The flap over Russell's doc comes months Disney dumped Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 because the Mouse House was concerned about appearing partisan, much to the dismay of its Miramax unit, which backed the film.
The studio ended up selling Fahrenheit back to Miramax honchos Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who teamed with Lions Gate and IFC to distribute the film. The controversy helped propel the movie into the box-office stratosphere and made it the top-grossing documentary of all time.
Hoping to avoid a similar fiasco, Warner Bros. said it will allow Russell to seek a new distributor for his film after it recouped its initial costs.
"If we wanted to censor somebody, we would've said fine, we'll take it and throw it in the vault. We didn't," said Brogliatti. "David asked that if he could release it and...put it out [himself]. We said, 'Yes.' "
Russell said he's pleased to have the opportunity to release Soldiers Pay and is considering various avenues of distribution--including via MoveOn.org or other Internet site, or perhaps on a cable network like HBO--in the hopes of getting it out before the election.
"It was definitely a surprise and a disappointment," Russell told the New York Times. "But they are being very gracious and letting me take it back."
Russell, whose credits also include the 1994 incest-themed indie hit Spanking the Monkey and the quirky comedy Flirting With Disaster, recently wrapped I Heart Huckabees for 20th Century Fox, a project that is drawing some early Oscar buzz.