Commentary: 'Adoration' arrives at challenging time for specialty films

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The idea came to Atom Egoyan, he recalled, when his son turned 15 and became consumed by his high school drama classes, just as the director had been at that age.

Also crucial to the making of his latest pic was Egoyan's memory of a 1986 news story about a man who talked his pregnant lover onto an El Al flight with the promise that he was going to meet her in Israel but, unbeknownst to her, put a bomb in her handbag.

The result: "Adoration," which opens May 8 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics.

In this, his 12th feature, a high school French and drama teacher has her class translate that arresting news report about the would-be bomber. One student presents it to the class as being his own personal family story and then takes it to the Internet, where it becomes Topic A in video chat rooms worldwide.

The drama about how people now connect with one another and with technology was written and directed by Egoyan and produced by Egoyan, Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss, with toplines Rachel Blanchard, Scott Speedman, Devon Bostick, Arsinee Khanjian and Kenneth Welsh.

"I thought this would be an amazing story for this young man to project himself into and then look at his family and the reasons why he identifies with the story," the Cairo-born and Canadian-bred filmmaker said.

Egoyan began writing "Adoration" three years ago, coming up with the idea of using Internet video chats as a way for his protagonist to discover who he really is. He presents it in a highly visual way, dividing the teenage boy's laptop computer screen into rows of individual images of people voicing overlapping opinions.

"The challenge of the film was to visually create the feeling you get when you're in a chat room," Egoyan explained. "The reality of having more than six people on screen, all of them speaking at the same time, is that it would get very confusing and no one would know how to moderate that. Now that being said, you can enjoin up to nine screens on Skype and I've seen that done with conferences. It's not as fluid and as fast as what you're seeing in the film, but it will be soon enough."

Asked how financing comes into his thinking about projects, Egoyan replied, "The first question is, 'What do you want to write about?' The next big question is, 'What budget are you thinking of making this for?' because that's going to determine whether or not a film can actually get made and the freedom you're going to have to make it the way you want. If I make a film for a modest budget there are a family of smaller distributors that would be interested enough to sell it. But after a certain budget number that becomes unrealistic."

"Adoration" was made for just $4 million.

It's very different from the film the helmer is finishing now called "Chloe," which is budgeted at $15 million. Its commercial expectations are very different, Egoyan pointed out, and its structure is much more linear. (Made for Montecito Pictures and Studio Canal, "Chloe" stars Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore and may well debut at the Toronto Fest.)

"Adoration" came to SPC thanks to Egoyan's long relationship with its co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. In 1991 when the duo were heading the old Orion Classics they bought Egoyan's drama "The Adjuster." Its cast included Khanjian, who plays the teacher in "Adoration."

"They were actually the first distributors that took me to this other level," Egoyan pointed out.

Egoyan hasn't worked until now with Barker and Bernard at SPC, but he said he still had "a really strong feeling" for them. "They saw the film before Cannes last year. We wanted them to distribute it if possible so rather than putting them in a bidding war they came up and saw the film privately, and we agreed that they would be the best choice."

It's frustrating to Egoyan and, presumably, to other seasoned specialty filmmakers that in today's crowded marketplace it's far more difficult than before to achieve commercial success for such films.

"I've seen a huge change. I think what's happened is that people are waiting to see these films at home on DVD. What they don't understand, though, is that if the films don't have a theatrical release they don't sometimes even make it to DVD. It's a very perilous moment right now."

Although dramas like "Adoration" play well enough on home screens, that's not how Egoyan -- who was Oscar-nommed for direction and screenplay for "The Sweet Hereafter" -- wants his work to be seen.

"The tragedy for me is that the films I make, certainly, are designed to be projected on a larger screen and they have a certain pace and rhythm -- and an expectation of the viewer's commitment to what they're seeing," he said.

"If you look at a film like 'Adoration,' it's very challenging, but I think incredibly rewarding for the viewer," he added.

And yet the reality is that younger moviegoers are quite content to view movies on much smaller screens.

Egoyan's teenage son's favorite film, for example, is "The Godfather" and he has it downloaded onto his cell phone. "He understands," Egoyan said, "that it's a better experience to see it visually on a screen, but he loves the film and he wants access to it. And you can't blame him for that."

In fact, Egoyan made a short film about this for Cannes as part of its 60th anni celebration two years ago.

"They asked a number of directors to contemplate the state of cinema and I dealt with this phenomenon of people watching films on cell phones, even going so far as to suggest that you can watch a movie in a theater and be watching something else on a cellphone. You can be bitter about it, but it's a reality and we have to as filmmakers address it."

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