How Studiocanal Ended Up With Two Movies About the Exact Same Subject

The Mercy and Crowhurst - Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Studiocanal

The French production powerhouse’s sailing biopic 'The Mercy' was announced with much fanfare in 2015, but when the film hit delays and another similar project appeared on the horizon, studio execs did something very unusual — they bought it.

With Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz leading the cast and The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh directing, The Mercy — first announced in January 2015 — sparked an immediate buzz in the industry as a project with serious awards potential (and with three Oscar winners as headline names).

The film would tell the real-life story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur British sailor who joined an around-the-world yacht race in 1968 only to soon find he was out of his depth, attempt to cheat via falsified navigation logs and then — it is believed — commit suicide by throwing himself overboard  his boat was found abandoned and adrift more than seven months after he set off. The project came with the major backing of France’s Studiocanal, with Blueprint Pictures' Graham Broadbent and Peter Cherzin, the powerhouse duo behind the likes of In Bruges, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and, most recently, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, producing. Principal photography kicked off in the spring of 2015, with a release set for 2017.

After hitting up the film markets, in mid-2016 the first still — showing a tired and unkempt Firth in the cabin of the ill-fated boat, the Teignmouth Electron — landed, and the film, which had up until that point been known as Untitled Donald Crowhurst Project, was given its official title (taken from the last line in Crowhurst’s diaries). A few weeks later, footage from The Mercy was shown to theater owners at CineEurope in Studiocanal’s presentation, with Firth again doing his thing lost out at sea while Weisz worried from her home as his wife Clare Crowhurst.

But then, much like the subject of the film itself, there was radio silence. Not a peep was heard about The Mercy, and there was no news of a U.S. distributor (Studiocanal was looking after the film in its own territories), despite the project appearing atop most pre-sale market A-lists.

On Sept.15 in Germany, however, on the third day of the Oldenburg Film Festival, audiences finally got to see the dramatization of Crowhurst’s failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Only it wasn’t the same film.

The drama that screened at Oldenburg, titled simply Crowhurst, chronicles the exact same subject matter as The Mercy, albeit on a much lower budget.

“It’s a bit of a unique situation,” says Mike Riley, producer of Crowhurst. “There’s two films — two very different films — about the same thing.”

Riley’s Crowhurst — starring Brit actor Justin Salinger (Everest, Ripper Street) as the doomed sailor, with indie horror filmmaker Simon Rumley directing — had been in development for about a long as The Mercy, according to Riley, who describes his film as the “punky, snot-nosed, no-holds-barred” telling of the story, shot mostly around the U.K. (The Mercy used the Mediterranean waters around Malta for some of its production.) “We didn’t rush ours out knowing that they were making theirs, it’s not a cash in,” he says.

And Deep Water — a 2006 documentary about Crowhurst — appears to have been the jumping off point for both projects.

“I saw the doc years ago and loved it,” says Riley. “It’s such a cool story, such a perfect story for a theatrical feature film. And, I thought, we actually don’t need a lot of money to do this — it’s essentially a story about a guy going mad on a boat.”

Although figures haven’t been reported, Riley estimates that The Mercy has a budget of around £20 million ($27 million) and that Crowhurst’s is “about a 40th” of that, which would put it at around £800,000 ($1.1 million).

“We heard that they were finally going ahead after years of trying to raise money and getting stars attached, so either we had to ditch ours after many years of development or honing the script, or we just made it. So that’s what we did,” he adds.

Crowhurst screenwriter Andy Briggs says that they developed a “David and Goliath mentality” early on. “We were always going to be the underdog movie, we could never afford a Colin Firth,” he laughs. “We’re a small production but we had this bulldog spirit.”

But now, in a very unusual scenario, this underdog movie is also getting some surprising backing: Studiocanal, which is in the final stages on The Mercy, picked the film up for U.K. distribution earlier this year.

Danny Perkins, the head of Studiocanal in the U.K., admits Crowhurst was acquired in order to manage this potential competition.

“We worked out a deal to pick it up so we could control it,” he says. “It was easier for us to have both of them.”

While Perkins notes that there was another film about the Kray gangster twins that came out at the same time as Studiocanal’s Brit box office smash Legend in 2015, and there are more obvious comparisons to Deep Impact/Armageddon’s simultaneous releases in 1998, having the same distributor on board both The Mercy and Crowhurst, in the U.K. at least, makes this an all-the-more peculiar situation.

And the release plans are equally eyebrow-raising, with both films due to come out in the U.K. within a few weeks of each other in early 2018, The Mercy’s 2017 initial launch date having been pushed back.

Perkins claims the exact release of The Mercy is still being arranged, with an as-yet-announced U.S. distributor having now come on board, but February looks like the most likely option. And as per the stipulations of the deal, Crowhurst will follow — also theatrically — a few weeks later in the U.K.

“We were obviously terrified that ours was going to be buried, but that’s not the case,” says Briggs, who adds that there were other offers on the table but Studiocanal’s “felt weirdly right.”

As for The Mercy’s prolonged absence at sea, Perkins says it hasn’t been the easiest film to bring together.

“It’s a tough story. But we’ve given it time, we’ve kept spending money,” he says, acknowledging that there have been reshoots.

“Anything on water is tricky,” adds producer Czernin at Blueprint. While he recognizes that The Mercy has indeed taken a while, he says that the bulk of the delays were in getting the “very complicated” story of Crowhurst right.

But the main reason for pushing the film’s release back to 2018 — he claims — is something much more mundane than any high drama on the high seas: scheduling.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a really good cast and really good director, you want to position it in the appropriate time,” he says. And with Firth having been tied up in Kingsman: The Golden Circle promotional commitments and Marsh currently in post on Working Title’s crime film about the Hatton Garden jewelry heist (which Studiocanal is also fully financing), an obvious bow in one of the big August/September festivals wouldn’t have worked.

“There’s no point doing festivals without the cast there,” says Perkins, adding that Studiocanal also has the Paddington sequel this winter, which will keep them busy. And while February may not seem the perfect landing spot for a film with clear awards ambitions, he says it’s still going to get the necessary push.

“We’ll be having a major campaign,” he says. “Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz love it and it’s going to get a hell of a lot of support. Weirdly, after a long delay, there’s going to be loads of news very quickly on it.”

There’s also another reason for releasing both The Mercy and Crowhurst next year: 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the ill-fated yacht race.

“Quite frankly, it’s in all our interests to support one another," says Briggs. "No matter if it’s great or I hate it, it’s still in my interest for people to think, 'oh, Crowhurst, that’s a cool story.' And I like the fact that it’s almost impossible to talk about [The Mercy] without advertising our [film].”

And while The Mercy may be released ahead of Crowhurst and get the full awards campaign treatment, in having its world premiere in Oldenburg, the smaller David has managed to get one up on the all-star Goliath.

“We’re going to be out to the world before them, which is interesting,” says Briggs. “I guess there’s some kind of Donald Crowhurst spirit in there somewhere – the plucky underdog coming out first.”