Two of those, Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, co-starring Dakota Fanning, and Jake Scott’s Welcome to the Rileys, co-starring James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo, were greeted with positive notices — mostly directed at Stewart’s performances — at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Both were eventually bought by Apparition. (For Welcome to the Rileys, which sparked an e-mail campaign to get the film distributed, Apparition partnered with the Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group.)
This past Monday, May 10, Apparition co-found Bob Berney abruptly left the company, catching off-guard those at the indie distributor, including partner Bill Pohlad, and just about everyone else in the industry.
Pohlad’s e-mail to his staff was shortly thereafter made public:
To our Apparition colleagues and staff:
As some of you may know, Bob Berney has submitted his resignation to me. I suspect that this news comes as a surprise to many of you. It certainly did to me. So I can’t claim that we have a plan in place yet in the wake of this announcement. I can, however, assure you that we will be working in the days ahead to explore our options regarding his replacement. In the meantime, Valerie Bruce, our Senior Vice President of Business Affairs, will serve as interim COO.
I apologize for whatever confusion and uncertainty this news may cause, but know that we are proud and grateful for all the work that you have put into the company and appreciate your continued support.
The recently formed Apparition attempted to take off with Jane Campion’s Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, one of the hits at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The $8.5m period romance, however, ended up earning a quite disappointing $4.44 million at the domestic box office.
There were also stories about disagreements between Pohlad and Berney after Pohlad’s production company River Road sold the domestic rights to Doug Liman’s political drama Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, to Summit Entertainment. (Those stories were later refuted, at least to a certain extent.)
A dearth of ready investment funds at Apparition didn’t help matters any. But the strip of film that broke the camel’s back was apparently the way the R-rated rock biopic The Runaways was released.
"I can knock down that Fair Game, which Pohlad’s River Road financed along with Participant Media but is being distributed by Summit, [caused] the schism," Mike Fleming wrote at Deadline.com. "From what I’m told, there was no big disagreement over that film. But I have heard there was significant disagreement between Pohlad and Berney over how to release The Runaways. Berney wanted to go wide on 1200 screens. Instead, the film was platformed and supported with a viral campaign."
Concurring with that assessment, Thompson on Hollywood’s Anne Thompson asserted that "the movie that most tested the Pohlad/Berney partnership was music biopic The Runaways, which carried high expectations due to Twilight stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. In that case, after a splashy media launch at Sundance, Pohlad altered Berney’s distribution plans, drastically pulling the film back from a planned wide release to a more conservative platform."
Despite a number of good reviews for Sigismondi’s film and especially for Stewart’s performance as rocker Joan Jett, after eight weeks The Runaways has grossed a meager $3.5 million — or a little more than one third of its reported $10m cost. Its widest release was at 244 theaters on opening weekend. A planned expansion last April meant going from 84 theaters showing the film on weekend no. 3 to 204 theaters on weekend no. 4 and 243 theaters on weekend no. 5.
The film’s R rating could well be part of the problem, as it has helped to keep away Stewart’s countless teenage fans. (The Runaways should have better luck on DVD/VOD.) A number of those fans, for their part, have voiced complaints that Apparition did a poor job of raising awareness about their film.
Kristen Stewart’s Welcome to the Rileys, reportedly acquired by Berney himself, will be playing at the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival, which will also feature a special screening of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. In Welcome to the Rileys, Stewart plays a foul-mouthed pole dancer-cum-sex worker who is "saved" by a man (Gandolfini) who had recently lost his daughter.
Unless there are more upheavals at Apparition, Welcome to the Rileys is scheduled to be released in the United States later this year.