Why Did a Richard Linklater/Zac Efron Movie Struggle to Get Released?

"Me And Orson Welles" Austin Premiere And Q & A - Paramount Theater
"Me And Orson Welles" Austin Premiere And Q & A - Paramount Theater / Jay West/GettyImages

A slew of recent articles inquired why certain independent films haven't received U.S. distribution. Cannes 2024 premieres like The Apprentice and Megalopolis have yet to score domestic distribution rights despite featuring buzzy casts of actors. These titles (not to mention the continued absence of a distributor for Macon Blair’s Toxic Avenger remake) reflect the struggles of indie films of all sizes. If you want to get released to the North American masses, you need a U.S. distributor. Sometimes, an indie film (like CODA or Blinded by the Light) debuts at a film festival to lots of buzz and immediately studios swarm over it. A hot project is on the table, and a potential new box office crossover hit has arrived. Every studio, big and small, wants it.

Other times, a movie might seem too divisive, difficult to market, unpopular with critics, or any number of other factors that drive potential movie studio buyers away. The Apprentice and Megalopolis are extremely high-profile examples of indie films struggling to get U.S. distribution. But they’re far from the first. This has been a problem since the dawn of indie cinema itself. If you want another high-profile example of this trend, just look at a 2009 movie starring Zac Efron and helmed by Hit Man director Richard Linklater. The movie was Me and Orson Welles and it seemed destined for an easy distribution pickup. In reality, the film struggled to ever see the light of day.

Me and Orson Welles concerned the romance between actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) in 1937 against the backdrop of a production of Julius Caesar directed by Orson Welles. Based on a book of the same name by Robert Kaplow, Me and Orson Welles continued Richard Linklater's fixation on the complicated relationships between ordinary souls. Me and Orson Welles was intended to be a more mainstream and accessible project than his trio of Before films, granted. However, it’s no wonder the idea of focusing a tale involving Orson Welles on two working-class people appealed to Linklater. The man’s always been fascinated by the idea that everyone’s got a story. That extends to a pair of lovestruck individuals who helped make this Julius Caesar production a reality.

Me and Orson Welles premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008. The feature was greeted with lots of anticipation, with outlets like Variety predicting that this Linklater film would have no problem securing a distributor after its TIFF screening. However, 2008 was a rocky era for indie cinema. Thanks to The Great Recession, studios were tightening belts and shutting down specialty movie divisions like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures. Other independent arthouse labels were being wiped off the map. The few indie studios that survived 2008 were incredibly choosy about what projects they took on. The kind of studios that previously would’ve embraced Me and Orson Welles were now few and far between.

After failing to pick up a buyer at TIFF, Me and Orson Welles proceeded to screen at the 2009 incarnation of the South by Southwest film festival. Despite being anchored by Zac Efron in one of his first post-High School Musical performances, Me and Orson Welles just wasn’t getting anywhere with potential distributors. Me and Orson Welles were experiencing problems securing distribution that were plaguing all kinds of indie films in the late 2000s. Hachi: A Dog's Tale, for instance, debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival in June 2009 and proceeded to do quite well in various international territories theatrically. However, it went straight to home video and the Hallmark Channel in the U.S. North American studios were pickier than ever about what films were sent to the big screen. Big stars and good reviews no longer mattered.

A year after that fateful TIFF premiere, details emerged on how Me and Orson Welles would be delivered theatrically to the public. Per a Los Angeles Times piece, a DIY distribution plan was put into place The financers of Me and Orson Welles opted to just take matters into their own hands with releasing the film. Tiny U.S. distributor Freestyle Releasing would put the feature into theaters while the entity Hart/Lunsford Pictures would chip in a marketing campaign that cost $4 million.  In this piece, Mark Bode, the head of Freestyle Releasing offered this anecdote suggesting why his studio was an oasis in indie cinema at this turbulent point in time:

"“We’ve had more people coming to us than ever before because at a time when its become so hard to find people willing to risk spending P&A money to take pictures into the marketplace, we can offer producers an opportunity to get their films into quality theaters. This film won’t be treated like a stepchild. It will play side-by-side with the top releases in the best theaters in the country.”"

Mark Bode, head of Freestyle Releasing

There were hopes that Me and Orson Welles could change the game with its homegrown distribution plan, especially with Zac Efron being hot off High School Musical and the 2009 comedy 17 Again. In its eventual domestic run (which began over Thanksgiving weekend 2009), Me and Orson Welles only pulled in $1.1 million, making it the 52nd biggest limited release title of 2009. At this point, the movie just making it out onto the big screen was enough of a victory for all involved, but this disappointing box office run was far from an ideal ending to the Me and Orson Welles saga. It was extra crushing since it signaled that an unorthodox route for indie movie distribution hadn’t worked like gangbusters. A potential solution to the dearth of indie cinema distributors has not been found just yet.

Me and Orson Welles would end up being one of two consecutive Richard Linklater directorial efforts that never quite got the distribution rights their respective critical receptions would suggest they deserve. His 2012 film Bernie was handled by microscopic indie outfit Alchemy (then known as Millenium Entertainment), though at least that title brought in a little over $9 million in the U.S.  The struggles of a major Richard Linklater/Zac Efron collaboration to get distribution don’t just reflect the woes of Me and Orson Welles. They encapsulate a sickness that plagued the American indie scene for years. Not even an indie cinema master like Richard Linklater was immune from that phenomenon. Nor are modern titles like Megalopolis and The Apprentice immune from the way those problems endure into the modern world.

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