Director Terrence Malick's long-delayed 'The Tree of Life' has encountered another confusing snag on its way to theaters. The Brad Pitt / Sean Penn film was set to make its debut in the United Kingdom through distributor Icon Entertainment on May 4. However, the company has absolved itself of responsibility for the film's release because Summit International wants it to debut instead at the Cannes Film Festival later in May.
If the film were to open in the U.K. before its Cannes premiere, it would not be eligible to compete in the festival. Why Icon would schedule the film for release prior to its already-planned debut at arguably the world's biggest film festival is anyone's guess, though there are a few theories.
Fox Searchlight will open the film in limited release in the U.S. on May 27. Read on for more info on 'Tree of Life''s confusing three-year journey to the big screen
Notoriously tight-lipped about his projects, Malick has kept an even tighter lid than usual on 'Tree,' though there have been rampant rumors about the film's plot. While Summit Entertainment has said the film is "the tale of a Texas boy's journey from the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as a lost soul in the modern world, and his quest to regain meaning in life," sources have reported the film includes supernatural elements, everything from a prehistoric Earth to dinosaurs.
Malick's film has been in development for years. Colin Farrell and Mel Gibson were at one time attached to the project, but in late 2007 Pitt and Penn signed on to star and production got underway in 2008. The film was originally scheduled for release in December 2009 through Apparition, a new distributor founded by the former heads of River Road Entertainment and Picturehouse.
When the film was not completed in time for a 2009 release, Apparition hoped to debut the film at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and release it to theaters that fall. Though an early (and well-received) cut of the film was screened by the Cannes selection committee in 2010, Malick ultimately decided it was not ready to be screened at the fest, and its release was again delayed.
With the film still not ready for theaters, Apparition co-founder Bill Pohlad decided to close the distributor and sell the film. Private screenings were held for Fox Searchlight Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival. Fox Searchlight ultimately acquired the film and set a late spring 2011 release date.
Overseas distribution has been in place for some time. According to indiewire, Icon reportedly won the rights to 'Tree of Life' by offering a high minimum guarantee – an amount of money that they'd have to pay to the film's backers regardless of how well the film does. After a few not-so-great test screenings, the distributor was having second thoughts about releasing the film but its agreement to do so remained in place.
Because the deal was signed long before a release date could be established and with the changeup in ownership of the film, Icon was placed in a bizarre position, and some theorize that its decision to release the film before its Cannes debut was likely a negotiation tactic in an effort to rid itself of responsibility for 'Tree of Life's' release.
If so, it worked.
"Things have changed in the past few hours. We now won't be releasing 'The Tree of Life' on 4 May and currently have no release plans for the film," a spokesman for Icon told The Independent.
In another take on how things went down, Variety reports that under Icon's original contract with Summit, it was only required to distribute the film if it was completed and ready for release in the U.K. by May 4. Summit's decision to hold the film back for the Cannes Film Festival would then free Icon from its contractual responsibility.
All other international distribution will reportedly move forward as planned following the film's premiere in Cannes.