'Trade' ends bumpy journey to screen with UN premiere

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"Trade" twists: The road to the screen for independent films typically includes many twists and turns, but in the case of "Trade" it's been a particularly bumpy journey.

Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner and starring Kevin Kline, the powerful drama about sex trafficking in the U.S. has its world premiere in New York on Wednesday night at the United Nations to benefit the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and Equality Now, the international human rights organization. It opens in limited release Sept. 28 via Lionsgate's new Roadside Attractions specialty unit.

When I first wrote about the film here way back on March 24, 2006 it was called "Welcome to America" and was being talked about as a late '06 release with good awards potential. A title change and release date delays followed. (Read Martin Grove's original column with Kreuzpaintner, which traces the project's roots, by clicking here.)

"Trade," a Centropolis Entertainment and VIP Medienfond 4 Prod., marks the American debut for 29 year old Marco, whose award-winning coming-of-age German feature "Summer Storm" had brought him to the attention of filmmaker Roland Emmerich. Although Emmerich was initially interested in directing "Trade" himself, as things turned out Marco directed it and Emmerich and Rosilyn Heller produced.

The film's screenplay by Jose Rivera, an Oscar nominee for "The Motorcycle Diaries," was inspired by Peter Landesman's New York Times Magazine article "The Girls Next Door" about the U.S. sex trade. It was executive produced by Ashok Amritraj, Robert Leger, Tom Ortenberg, Michael Wimer, Nick Hamson, Landesman and Lars Sylvest.

After an early look at Marco's very intense and well-made film, which he began developing in 2003, I welcomed the opportunity to catch up with him recently for an update. "The movie premiered at Sundance this year," he told me, adding that while it was very well received by audiences there its mixed reviews prompted its release date to be pushed multiple times. "Before that," he said, "everybody was talking, 'Oh, it's our award movie' and so on. All of a sudden, people were in the middle of nowhere with the movie until finally we got to a point where Lionsgate said, 'We have acquired Roadside Attractions and feel that this movie needs more attention and work from the distribution side. It's not the kind of movie where you just spend a lot of money on P&A, but you really have to care about it.'

"So we ended up with Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, who will release it now on Sept. 28, a week after we premiere in New York. It's actually the first time they are doing that (at the U.N.). It happened because of this organization called Equality Now, which (focuses on) women's rights. One of the delegates of the United Nations was at Sundance and saw (the film) and had the feeling that it was exactly what they needed at a time when they are trying to get more laws passed against sex trafficking. Until two years ago, there was nothing like that existing at all (to make sex trafficking illegal). This is now changing a little bit. People are finally becoming aware that there is something like this going on and not only in the Far East but in our own backyard. So they are doing this fund raiser at the United Nations and I'm very happy to say that it is already sold out."

Although things ultimately worked out well for Marco, "Trade's" screening at Sundance resulted in some hiccups he could have done without. "What was so strange and such a disconnect is that you have a screening with a big audience and what no one wrote about is that we had a 15 minute standing ovation at Sundance," he pointed out. "At the same time, as soon as you make a movie (about serious issues) I feel that writers and critics somehow mistrust (the fact that) people want to do something that matters. I can tell you this project was really heart-felt for all of us. In Europe, we have a big distributor. Fox is releasing it in Europe Oct. 18 (and) is treating the movie as their big fall movie. I just know that I made a movie that I, for myself, can say, 'At this time I couldn't have done it better and I'm very proud of it.'"

Reflecting on the film's post-Sundance situation, Marco observed, "I certainly can understand that Lionsgate with a movie like this would depend on reviews, but on the other hand I know after having been to lots of screenings with full houses how the audience loves this movie. And it doesn't happen too often at Sundance that you have like 15 minutes of standing ovations. You know (from that) that we have a total audience movie here. To me reviews are important. I'm reading them. I'm not like other people who say they don't care about reviews. I really do (care) because I learn so much (from them). I take reviews seriously when they are written with respect (for) people who are making something that matters."

Despite those bumps in the road, Marco added, "I loved working with (Lionsgate Releasing president) Tom Ortenberg. I have lots of respect for what he does. I would work with Tom Ortenberg again at any time."

Asked how large a problem sex slavery is worldwide, Marco replied, "We are talking about 12 million people worldwide. That's the biggest number of enslaved people that ever existed in history, including the time of slavery in the United States. That (total) also includes childhood slavery and not only privately owned slaves, but people who are forced to be in brothels. I'm talking about the whole slavery aspect. The sex trafficking aspect might be like 10 to 20% of (the total), but that's still like 1.2 to 2.5 million people."

The project came about, he said, after Emmerich saw his earlier German feature "Summer Storm" and brought him to Los Angeles: "He gave me a couple of scripts. I said, 'Roland, it's going to be tough to decide on something that is existing because the last three or four years I think through my travels I grew up quite a lot. I'm looking much more at the bigger picture now, so I'm pretty much undecided (as to) what I want to do.' But then I read Jose's script and I was so unaware that this was going on and I was so touched. It doesn't happen too many times that you cry over a script and you feel you really have to sit down after reading and think, 'How can this be?'

"I knew about sex trafficking, but what was new to me was that people were getting auctioned off on the Internet. When human beings get sold just because other people have the money to buy them, that's a very interesting (issue). People don't get sold if other people don't buy them. We're talking about amounts of $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 or more for a person. This was very disturbing that this happens in the middle of our neighborhoods. And when I was getting into it more by getting hold of Peter Landesman's research materials, it got even more disturbing. I have seen those web pages and it's hard to believe really that this is going on. But I really saw with my own eyes the kind of (sex slave) auctions that happened."

Asked how it was having as a producer Emmerich who's also a high-profile director with hits like "Stargate," "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," Marco explained, "Roland never came to set. Roz was on set. This was a kind of agreement between us because Roland said, 'When I come to set I just feel (I'm there) as a director and I don't want to intimidate you by being there' and I found that very classy. Roland invested quite a lot of everything in this movie. It was a baby of his because he first wanted to direct it. He was more or less in the background, backing me up, giving us the freedom to make the movie that we wanted to do. He always said, 'Just do me a favor -- don't bore me' and I said, 'OK.' That was not my intent. Once in a while I had to send him edited scenes and he loved those. So I had a good time actually shooting this movie."

How did they cast Kevin Kline? "He was critical (of the project) in the beginning," Marco recalled. "I think Kevin has a reputation for declining (films and in fact) he's nicknamed 'Kevin Decline.' I flew to New York and was supposed to have a half-hour meeting with him. But it turned out (to be much longer) because we talked about everything. We started talking politics and talking about directors and actors relationships and what I thought wasn't working with the script at this moment. (I was) just being myself and being honest about this stuff. I had the feeling I had convinced him (to come on board) at one point. He said at the end of the evening, 'Marco, most likely I'm going to do it' and the next day after he saw 'Summer Storm' he signed. That was a big step because this made the movie go (forward)." That was around September 2005.

The title change came about, he said, because of concerns that the title "Welcome to America" might "lead into a wrong direction because they thought it either seemed too much like a comedy or they didn't like the sarcasm in it."

Despite the film's struggle to reach the screen, Marco's happy with the way things finally worked out and noted, "I am staying in the United States and am going to continue making movies here and am not going back to Germany."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Nov. 29, 1989's column: "Until MGM/UA launched 'Rocky IV' to $31.8 million at Thanksgiving 1985 this was never a big boxoffice holiday. 'The fact of the matter is that there were a lot of objections to going for the Nov. 27, 1985 playdate,' Richard B. Graff, who headed distribution for MGM/UA at the time and is now president of worldwide theatrical distribution for Weintraub Entertainment Group, told me.

"The 'Rocky' pictures previous to that had been very, very successful and none had played at that time with the exception of the first one, which had opened on a limited run in November (1976) and then broke wider later on. At any rate, the insistence at that time was to open it right at Christmas. Finally, after all kinds of discussions with the producers and everybody else who was involved with the film, my suggestion of Nov. 27 was accepted.'

"The Thanksgiving date was selected far in advance of the film's opening. 'I remember that (then marketing chief) Greg Morrison and his people created a trailer without any footage from the film before, I believe, the film was even in principal photography,' Graff notes. That trailer was attached to prints of MGM/UA's 1985 Memorial Day release, the James Bond adventure 'A View to a Kill ...'

"Why hadn't studios put major product into wide release at Thanksgiving before that? 'Well, nobody thought, up until that time, that a picture could go from Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas,' replies Graff. 'Prior to that, the first week in December, the original 'Star Trek' opened to tremendous business. But nothing had ever gone at Thanksgiving and stayed in the marketplace through Christmas.

"'Now, one of the ways I convinced our company as well as the producer to do this was that I assured them that the movie was going to play all the way through. We told that to exhibitors. We insisted that that was the way in which they would have to buy the picture and there would be no exceptions to that. There wasn't any resistance. We did not go into 2,000 theaters immediately because I didn't think that 2,000 theaters could go six or seven or eight weeks on any picture at that point. So we opened in 1,325 theaters.'

"If 'Rocky IV' hadn't done blockbuster business would Hollywood have passed on Thanksgiving? 'I don't think so,' says Graff. 'It just might have taken a little longer. If it hadn't been in 1985 it might have been 1986. Sooner or later it would have happened because Christmas starts very early. And why shouldn't it start early in our business?'"

Update: Richard Graff, who I always enjoyed talking to and getting together with for lunch from time to time, passed away last spring at the age of 82.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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