Will Ledger's last role get U.S. play?

Challenges loom as film seeks domestic distribution

Backstage at the Oscars on Sunday night, Kate Ledger told reporters that her family is very much in the loop on her brother's final movie.

"We've seen a little bit of the footage," she said of Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," Ledger's last film. "I think it's going to be amazing."

But the comments only highlighted a larger question: When will U.S. audiences get to see it?

The head-trippy "Parnassus," about a traveling magician who gives customers more than they bargained for, is a joint production of financial entity Grosvenor Park and sales mogul Samuel Hadida of Davis Films. It was gliding along as just another independently financed production, and product of Gilliam's funhouse imagination, when Ledger died early last year in the middle of production.

The project's fate was thrown into question until Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp stepped in, with all three part of an elaborate workaround that has the actors playing different parts of Ledger's role.

That saved the production. But the sales process since then has been nearly as complicated.

A number of U.S. buyers during the summer and early fall were said to be interested in acquiring stateside rights -- Lionsgate and Overture were reportedly among the potential suitors -- but word of a potential deal quickly quieted down.

That has fueled all sorts of rumors in indie circles, ranging from dissent over finances on the producers' side to outsized expectations on the part of filmmakers.

Many of those rumors have yet to be substantiated. But the film has nonetheless run into more concrete obstacles.

The presence of a key marketing element like Ledger makes sellers and investors aim for higher dollar figures -- especially true for a film whose budget is thought to be upward of $20 million.

And the pic presents a marketing challenge. Even with the Ledger hook, a distributor would have a hard time with marketing. Gilliam has grown more experimental in recent years with such fare as "Tideland" and "The Brothers Grimm," and marketing experts say that retailing "Parnassus" as a Ledger film risks running a word-of-mouth problem with general audiences unaccustomed to that kind of material.

A U.S. deal is expected shortly, with a mini-major or larger indie expected to make the play. (The movie already has a deal for Mandate International to release it in the U.K., where Gilliam tends to fare better, and is expected to open there in the summer.)

Still, the absence of a sale nearly six months after talks began speaks to the difficulty of selling art house films to the domestic market. "This movie stars Heath Ledger in his final performance -- it will get a deal and come out in the U.S.," said one indie film veteran. "But it's no accident that it's taking this long."