After Joker, a riddle

Why hasn't anyone bought Ledger's final film?

Heath Ledger has helped propel "The Dark Knight" to boxoffice greatness, but his next and final film is having trouble even making it to theaters.

For U.S. distributors, Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" — which centers on parallel worlds, a theater troupe and a devil-dealing 1,000-year-old doctor — presents a conundrum. On the one hand, it's a chance for the history-making opportunity — not to mention a marketing coup — of releasing Ledger's last movie.

But it also comes with challenges that lately have followed the stubbornly noncommercial Gilliam. The quirkly director has been behind a series of boxoffice flops and hasn't had a hit since "Twelve Monkeys" in 1995. Buyers who might otherwise be willing to shell out for a Ledger film are holding back.

"In this market, unless I have a reason to think a movie like this is going to be a slam dunk, I'm not going to take a flyer on it, even with Heath Ledger," one distribution executive said. One specialty exec added that few at his company had been tracking it.

Those familiar with the project said that when it comes to commercial expectations, "Parnassus" is more of a mini-major play than a studio movie. The film, which has sold in many foreign territories, is being handled by Lionsgate, which has been mentioned as a candidate to pick up the film domestically.

Financed by Grosvenor Park and produced by Samuel Hadida's Davis Films, "Parnassus" was close to having footage shown and even a deal made several weeks ago, just as the buzz for "Dark Knight" was reaching fever pitch. But as of late last week, many buyers had yet to see footage.

That hadn't stopped them from weighing in to say that the prestige value of distributing a Gilliam-Ledger film might be worthwhile — but only at a certain price.

Given that the film's budget is somewhat more than $20 million, that could take a while. Recently, another challenging $20 million release, Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," didn't spur buyers until the sellers finally decided on a more modest offer from Sony Pictures Classics.

That could put the late actor in a position of having one of the biggest- grossing movies in Hollywood history out at the same time he's in a movie hunting for an domestic distribution deal.

Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepped in to the Ledger role after the actor died in January, with the script tweaked to reflect a shape-shifting element that allowed for other actors to play his role. The trio, who have said that they're donating their fees to Ledger's family, took over as shooting moved from the U.K. to Vancouver.

The prospect of getting involved with three marketable stars makes for a relative bargain for a buyer, who might pay low-seven figures for domestic rights but get an eight-figure level of promotable talent.

But even that troika might not be enough.

Said one longtime distribution guru: "For all the elements in this film, it is a Terry Gilliam picture, and as much as you want a movie of his to be good, you have to be careful." (partialdiff)