It was a special night last December when David Lynch's latest film, Inland Empire, had an advance screening at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) building in the heart of Beverly Hills. Now it's finally getting to Cincinnati -- via its recent release on a DVD from Rhino, primarily a record label.
It appeared, judging from the number of very snazzy suits in the auditorium, that some of CAA's talent agents had come down from their offices to see this curious three-hour film, which the surrealist-minded auteur Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet) was planning to self-release through his 100 percent-owned Absurda company. (CAA has since moved, incidentally.)
"Hi, everybody," Lynch said, in his friendliest plain-spoken voice as he introduced the film. By his side was a munificently beaming Laura Dern, Inland Empire's star and the beneficiary of a bizarre, then-current Best Actress Oscar campaign by Lynch. He had rented a cow and was camping out at various Hollywood intersections with the bovine and a sign promoting Dern's acting.
Then the film started. Three hours later, when the lights went back on, not too many of those suits were still in the auditorium.
Those who stayed, mostly invited critics, were befuddled. Some were entranced; others bored.
Inland Empire, about the troubles that arise when an actress (Dern) tries to make a new movie, had been shot on grungy low-resolution video. So narratively abstract and subconscious-pitched it makes Mulholland Drive seem like a straightforward Ken Burns' documentary -- it was incredibly tough to make sense of.
Dern didn't get her nomination. And Inland Empire, grungy digital video and all, has had a curious path finally getting to Cincinnati. While it played in Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland and Athens during a slow theatrical distribution, it apparently lacked an interested exhibitor here, according to Eric Bassett, managing partner of Absurda. (It is still getting booked into various theaters and cinematheques, however.)
That might be because, while the film did well on both coasts and in Chicago, it didn't exactly break records in the Midwest. Even by Lynchian standards, it might have been too weird. Its domestic theatrical gross was just $861,000, according to Box Office Mojo. There were only 50 prints in circulation.
Mulholland Drive, released through Universal's boutique Focus Films division in 2001, grossed $7.2 million. But Bassett said that Lynch didn't make any money from that because Focus spent about that much on an Oscar-pegged release after he was nominated for Best Director. It had 400 prints in distribution -- meaning it spent a lot to get that $7.2 million.
"They were trying to get the studio prestige of an Oscar," Bassett said. Mulholland Drive did, however, do well in DVD release.
Inland Empire was a tough sell to studios and their boutique divisions early on, especially at its three-hour length. That's a key reason Lynch decided to go it alone. (Absurda used a company called 518 Media for booking help.)
But on DVD, the fact it's three hours long might be more of a help than a hindrance.
"From a DVD point-of-view, the fact it's three hours means consumers want to watch it more," says Sig Sigworth, Rhino's vice president of video. "And David's style makes more that's revealed with each viewing."
Lynch financed Inland Empire's production completely through foreign sales, Bassett said. And then he sold the DVD rights to Rhino before ever releasing Inland Empire to theaters.
Rhino primarily is considered a tastefully hip music re-packager for the Warner Music Group family of labels. Most of its DVDs tend to be music-related, like the new Ratt: Videos from the Cellar and Pet Shop Boys: Cubism in Concert. But it also considers itself a pop culture bellwether -- like Lynch.
"We're willing to work with compelling artists," Sigworth says.
Rhino advanced Lynch roughly $500,000 for the film's theatrical distribution and promotion. "Rhino funded the whole thing," Bassett said. "And we spent $502,000 on the theatrical release, including $80,000 on the Oscar attempt for Laura Dern." (The cow didn't cost that much, by the way; Absurda also sent screeners to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
Rhino has also spent $200,000 on a marketing campaign for the DVD, even including some TV ads. The two-disc package, with a list retail value of $29.95, not only contains the three-hour film but also extra footage from Lynch's first 10-hour cut along with other bonuses. Neither Sigworth nor Bassett would say how many copies are in circulation, but Bassett said it has already earned back the $400,000-$500,000 costs for DVD replication.
Bassett admits self-distribution is a lot of work, but he's getting ready to do it again for the documentary Lynch. He promises in advance this one will play Cincinnati.
"I'll make sure the next one gets there," he says. ©