Can Lion Find Its Way Home With Moviegoers in Post-Election Climate?

Variety
Published: December 6, 2016

As Sunny Pawar, the 8-year-old Indian star of “Lion,” struggled to get permission to attend the film’s premieres in Los Angeles and New York, the hard-charging indie mogul Harvey Weinstein tapped his network of Beltway power-brokers to try to secure a visa for the boy and his father, Dilip.

Weinstein knew the leadership of the Homeland Security Department from his work producing a 9/11 benefit, so he called. To press his case, he tapped David Boies, the high-profile attorney who successfully lobbied the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage. He even reached out to an industrialist friend in India to see about using his private plane to ferry the Pawars into the country. After they missed the film’s Los Angeles kickoff, Weinstein was able to convince authorities to expedite the boy’s petition to come to the U.S. just in time to catch the Manhattan premiere.

“If I didn’t have those relationships, this kid doesn’t get in,” says Weinstein, who sees what happened to Pawar as part of a larger shift toward isolationism and xenophobia. He expects that troubling trend will continue with the election of Donald Trump, a man who Weinstein, a die-hard liberal, has little time for.

“What they did to Sunny galvanized me,” says Weinstein. “I’ve been busy building the company, and now I said, ‘Screw that — I’m going to work on this movie like no tomorrow and go wherever I have to go and do whatever I have to do.’”

Of course, this being Weinstein — a deft manipulator of the fourth estate — the saga of Sunny Pawar also provided an opportunity to earn free publicity. The boy’s visa battles were covered in the press in vintage Weinstein fashion, and his visit to New York City received glossy coverage in Us Weekly.

In the past, Weinstein has lobbied the British Parliament, arranged papal visits, and set up White House screenings, all to draw attention to minority groups or unjust laws. But these events also served to bang the drum for his Oscar contenders, such as “The Imitation Game” and “Philomena.” That kind of showmanship paid off brilliantly, pushing those movies to awards glory and box office success. It remains to be seen, however, if Weinstein can will “Lion” — a film with a first hour that unfolds entirely in Hindi — into the Oscar race while convincing audiences to turn out.

The movie business is increasingly dominated by superhero adventures and animated offerings, leaving little room for intimate dramas like “Lion.” This year, there have been a stream of mid-budget casualties, as “Rules Don’t Apply,” “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and “American Honey” have all been rejected by multiplex-goers.

“There’s no guaranteed turnout for these films, even with good reviews,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They don’t cost much, but they’re not doing anything in the theaters.”

The Weinstein Co. certainly hasn’t been immune to changing audience tastes and habits. The studio has released several flops recently, including the Bradley Cooper comedy “Burnt,” the musical comedy “Sing Street,” and the boxing drama “Hands of Stone.” Even “Carol,” a critically adored period drama, and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” weren’t able to break out in a big way.

Weinstein admits that it’s a more challenging landscape than the one he navigated during the heady days of the 1990s, when “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love” cemented his legend as a Svengali of the Sundance set. “It’s got to be really great to get people motivated to come out, with ‘The Crown’ on TV, or ‘Transparent,’” he says.

Yet Weinstein believes that “Lion,” which recounts the true story of Saroo Brierley, a man raised by adoptive parents in Australia, who uses Google Earth to reunite with his long-lost family in India, is the kind of uplifting fare that can capitalize on the post-election malaise.

“I defy anybody to not feel triumphant after watching this movie,” Weinstein says. “You’re always worried about a movie like this because it’s not commercial on paper. But the reaction has changed since the election — people are more euphoric watching it. We were getting good reactions before, but now we’re getting standing ovations and bursts of applause throughout.”

There’s a reason “Lion” feels like a repudiation of Trumpism. The film is pan-national to its core. In addition to Pawar, its cast includes British (Dev Patel), Australian (Nicole Kidman), and American (Rooney Mara) actors, with the action unfolding on two continents. The first part takes place in India as Brierley, a 5-year-old accidentally separated from his family, struggles to survive alone on the streets of Kolkata. The second half is set in Australia as the adult Brierley tries to piece together his fractured memories of the home he lost decades before, in order to reunite with his biological mother. It’s a story about ties that transcend oceans, borders, and language barriers.

Of course, this being Weinstein — a deft manipulator of the fourth estate — the saga of Sunny Pawar also provided an opportunity to earn free publicity. The boy’s visa battles were covered in the press in vintage Weinstein fashion, and his visit to New York City received glossy coverage in Us Weekly.

In the past, Weinstein has lobbied the British Parliament, arranged papal visits, and set up White House screenings, all to draw attention to minority groups or unjust laws. But these events also served to bang the drum for his Oscar contenders, such as “The Imitation Game” and “Philomena.” That kind of showmanship paid off brilliantly, pushing those movies to awards glory and box office success. It remains to be seen, however, if Weinstein can will “Lion” — a film with a first hour that unfolds entirely in Hindi — into the Oscar race while convincing audiences to turn out.

The movie business is increasingly dominated by superhero adventures and animated offerings, leaving little room for intimate dramas like “Lion.” This year, there have been a stream of mid-budget casualties, as “Rules Don’t Apply,” “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and “American Honey” have all been rejected by multiplex-goers.

“There’s no guaranteed turnout for these films, even with good reviews,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They don’t cost much, but they’re not doing anything in the theaters.”

The Weinstein Co. certainly hasn’t been immune to changing audience tastes and habits. The studio has released several flops recently, including the Bradley Cooper comedy “Burnt,” the musical comedy “Sing Street,” and the boxing drama “Hands of Stone.” Even “Carol,” a critically adored period drama, and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” weren’t able to break out in a big way.

Weinstein admits that it’s a more challenging landscape than the one he navigated during the heady days of the 1990s, when “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love” cemented his legend as a Svengali of the Sundance set. “It’s got to be really great to get people motivated to come out, with ‘The Crown’ on TV, or ‘Transparent,’” he says.

Yet Weinstein believes that “Lion,” which recounts the true story of Saroo Brierley, a man raised by adoptive parents in Australia, who uses Google Earth to reunite with his long-lost family in India, is the kind of uplifting fare that can capitalize on the post-election malaise.

“I defy anybody to not feel triumphant after watching this movie,” Weinstein says. “You’re always worried about a movie like this because it’s not commercial on paper. But the reaction has changed since the election — people are more euphoric watching it. We were getting good reactions before, but now we’re getting standing ovations and bursts of applause throughout.”

There’s a reason “Lion” feels like a repudiation of Trumpism. The film is pan-national to its core. In addition to Pawar, its cast includes British (Dev Patel), Australian (Nicole Kidman), and American (Rooney Mara) actors, with the action unfolding on two continents. The first part takes place in India as Brierley, a 5-year-old accidentally separated from his family, struggles to survive alone on the streets of Kolkata. The second half is set in Australia as the adult Brierley tries to piece together his fractured memories of the home he lost decades before, in order to reunite with his biological mother. It’s a story about ties that transcend oceans, borders, and language barriers.

“It’s about motherhood,” explains Kidman. “It’s about saying, ‘You and I were meant for each other, however we came together — whether it’s through birth, whether it’s through adoption — I’m your mother.

There’s an unintended irony to “Lion.” The film celebrates the power of technology to traverse borders and bring people together despite long odds. After all, without Google Earth, Brierley’s search for his family would likely have been fruitless. At the same time, the rise of the internet is the very thing that’s leading to sweeping changes in the movie business and making smaller, personal movies like “Lion” something of an endangered species.

“It’s just harder to get them seen by people in a theater,” Mara notes. “It’s not the way people are watching things; they’re watching on their phones or their computers or their televisions.”

The actors seem torn about the impact of technology. Kidman says she never googles herself but has used Google Earth to look at her backyard.

“I love where technology is taking us, but you need a balance,” she says. “I love nature, and I love the slow life as well. The instant gratification of technology can mean you’re missing out on life.”

As the indie business has been battered by the rise of Netflix and streaming services, Weinstein and his company have seemed more vulnerable. There have been layoffs, reports of cash crunches, and speculation about the future of the studio.

But Weinstein isn’t having any of it. “It’s the biggest joke in the world,” he says.

He notes that the company has been putting a greater emphasis on television projects, signing deals for shows from Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), David O. Russell (“The Fighter”), and Jay Z.

“The TV company pays the bills,” he explains. “There are two separate companies. One is a bonanza, and one is a movie company. It’s slow, and it’s an old-world business, but at the end of the day [The Weinstein Co.] has 515 films in its library.”

Clearly, one thing Weinstein isn’t ready to do is turn his back on the movies. In addition to “Lion,” he has awards hopes for “The Founder,” a biopic starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who brought McDonald’s to the masses.

“There are four or five movies a year I’d like to do,” he says. “It gives me the time to concentrate. I’d rather do less and do it just as well.”

© 2016 Variety | Written Brent Lang | No copyright infringment intended

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