Last night, "Milk," the much-anticipated biopic directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, premiered in San Francisco to much hoopla and rave reviews from some who attended and sent me notes. Last night I also received a copy of a letter that the CEO of Focus Features, James Schamus, sent to the Hollywood Reporter, regarding this piece, which claims that the filmmakers are marketing the film under the radar, for fear of controversy:
Admittedly, many of the noisemakers are busy agitating on the election. But Focus also is doing something deliberate: It's eschewing publicity, keeping its awards contender out of fall fests and heavily restricting media screenings ....
Like its initial phase of playing keep-away from cable news, the post-election phase will also involve staying above politics. Focus plans on selling "Milk" in part as a story of hope and change (Harvey Milk won equal-rights battles against great odds) that happens to be gay, just as it sold "Brokeback" as a love story that happened to be gay.
The ploy was logical with "Brokeback." It's less so here.
The article goes on to say that the best way to market the film is to bust it wide open in the middle of this highly-charged political season. But CEO Schamas disputes the article's contention in his letter, also taking a few swipes at THR and the writer of the article:
First of all, to the charge of "hiding" the film (for which, given its post-production schedule, we have only had finished prints at hand for a couple of weeks - a fact conveniently missed by your reporter), I can only say that I happen to be writing this while on my way to the airport for a flight to San Francisco, where we shall world-premiere the film tonight at the Castro Theatre, across the street from the storefront where Harvey began his political career.
We determined early on that the only appropriate place for the world premiere of “Milk” was San Francisco. The event is a benefit for four LGBT youth groups; our benefit committee is chaired by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and includes every major LGBT leader in Northern California and virtually every major statewide elected official, including Senator Barbara Boxer, Assemblyman Mark Leno, and Treasurer José Cisneros. The premiere is timed to the final week before a crucial election, one which includes an anti-gay state proposition much like the one Harvey Milk vanquished 30 years ago. The after-screening gathering will be held at San Francisco's City Hall, and today has been proclaimed "Focus Features Day" by the Mayor – who clearly didn't get The Hollywood Reporter in time to understand our underhanded, apolitical approach to marketing the film.
Shamus then points to the film's trailer, shown in theaters across the country and posted all over the web, as proof that they are not being subtle in any way.
This is a silly controversy. With its high-profile director, star and political subject matter, the idea that a film company would actually market the film in the way THR describes seems a bit naive. The writer of the article may have blown up what is simply a strategy focused on creating buzz before the film's wide release. Whatever, controversy sells, and this article, and it's response, will feed more of that buzz. (Andy Towle has lots more on "Milk," so check it out.)