'The Promise': Can Armenian Genocide Drama Bring Charity Success?

The $100 million, independently produced movie starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac was backed in full by the late billionaire businessman Kirk Kerkorian.

The Promise is a star-studded period drama produced on a $100-million budget, a massive figure for an independently produced film. It's launching April 21 with an ambitious promotional campaign that has included a Vatican screening. And the producers of the film insist they won't be keeping any of the film's profits for themselves.

The film, directed by Terry George, boasts a starry cast headed by Oscar Isaac, as an Armenian medical student; Christian Bale, as an American journalist; and Charlotte Le Bon, as the Armenian woman both men come to love, and is set against the Armenian Genocide in Turkey at the outset of World War I.

It would probably have never made its way to screen if it were not for one man: Kirk Kerkorian, the late billionaire businessman and former owner of MGM who died in 2015, a month before the production began. He decided to fully finance The Promise — the first mainstream, American film to depict the Armenian Genocide — because it had become a lifelong passion project for him. His own parents left the Ottoman Empire at the start of the genocide, during which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died.

“The actual truth is so much worse than what we show onscreen, but he didn’t want it to be a preachy history lesson or a gory blood bath,” says Eric Esrailian, a producer on The Promise who worked closely with Kerkorian and runs his production banner Survival Pictures. “He wanted a love story, an epic in the same vein as some of the films that he remembered as great films from his era — Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor ZhivagoCasablanca.”

Kerkorian also wanted big stars, says Esrailian. And so George, who also directed another movie about a genocide, 2004's historical drama Hotel Rwanda, was tasked with rewriting Robin Swicord's screenplay, adding Bale's character to not only create a love triangle for added drama, but also to further depict various key events with what he calls that “old-fashioned historical epic" feel. Though the main cast's only actor of Armenian descent is Westworld's Angela Sarafyan, George says that the production employed a diverse crew.

"There were so many elements to get into this — the love story, the conflict between these people and the political characters, and the scope of the genocide — so it was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," says George, who never got to meet Kerkorian because the late businessman was ailing as the project got underway. The shoot spanned 72 days across 20 locations throughout Spain, Malta, Portugal and New York, and adds George, “We stayed on schedule. We had no choice. There was no end to the movie otherwise.”

While the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to mixed reviews, the biggest challenge it faced in finding a distributor was the fact that the genocide remains controversial. While 28 countries — as well as 45 of America's 50 states — recognize the genocide, Turkey and Azerbaijan refused to do so and have made economic and diplomat threats against those who do. In part because of those political pressures, Esrailian says, "It became clear that the government of Turkey was going to have an influence on this movie. One of the most insidious realities of our existence in the United States is that foreign governments can control art. I would say at the highest levels from different studios, we were just basically told that no matter how good the film would be, it was never going be released by certain companies. I think that that's truly shameful, but it's just a reality that we had to deal with."

In December, domestic rights to the film landed at Open Road Films, which will release it wide in the U.S. on 2,000 screens on April 21 — the week of the April 24 anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In advance of its U.S. opening, the movie has also screened internationally for Armenian, Greek and Assyrian community groups — "These were the three communities who were repressed during this time, and they've been waiting almost 100 years for this film to be made," says George — as well as for members of Congress in Washington, D.C., who have repeatedly pushed a bill asking the U.S. government to recognize the genocide. On Tuesday, its New York screening will be presented in partnership with ambassador Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, permanent representative of Armenia to the United Nations. The filmmakers also decided a PG-13 rating was crucial for its release, and so after it initially was rated R, they submitted a slightly less violent cut, which resulted in a PG-13. 

"The Armenians were killed by their own government, not by the enemy, and they were killed in this systematic way that became the legal definition of the word 'genocide,'" says George. "But this story says that a man or a woman, as small as they are in the scope of the world, can confront and overcome evil and survive and lead a better life for others to follow. I want this to be used as an educational tool as well as a piece of entertainment. It should be shown in schools."

The film recently screened at the Vatican. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and her husband, George Clooney — whose nonprofit group The Sentry will receive a donation from Survival Pictures' ticket sales — attended the London premiere. The film's ambitious promotional efforts also have included a celebrity-heavy social campaign called #KeepThePromise which recruited Barbra Streisand, Cher, Sylvester Stallone and Andre Agassi to tweet about an issue they pledge to support.

Survival Pictures' main goal is not earning back the movie's budget, the producers say, but ensuring that all proceeds from the theatrical run go to nonprofits, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation and other human rights and humanitarian groups. Kerkorian set the example by being a generous philanthropist, who donated more than $1 billion to charity, according to Esrailian. The cast was informed of this plan before signing on for the movie, and Survival is financially backing the marketing efforts along with Open Road.

That initiative has put added pressure on the success of the movie, says George: "The money is going somewhere good, not into the stock of a big corporation or whatever."

"We're not against profit — the way I look at is, the more money that comes back to Survival, the more we can help others and get more out to the world, so we certainly want it to be successful from a financial standpoint," adds Esrailian, who cites Kerkorian's initial vision. "Many times we talked about the film — obviously the process of developing a film like this takes a long time, and with every passing month, I'd say to him, 'Are you sure you still want to do this? Because we could just donate the money to charity — that's what you've always done.' And he said, 'No. We can make the movie and donate to charity. We want to do both.'"

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