An angry Focus Features is doing a bit of air-clearing this morning, the day after it premiered its Oscar-chasing biopic Milk to an adoring hometown crowd in San Francisco and offered its first screenings to press in L.A. and New York. But it's a few people who haven't seen the film who are of particular interest to Focus president James Schamus, who all but firebombed Hollywood Reporter headquarters Tuesday in a letter to the editor denouncing its coverage of his film — a screed conveniently CC'd to the rest of the Internet as well.The contretemps started yesterday morning when THR reporter Steven Zeitchik — who mostly sounded ticked off he wasn't invited to the first press screening — wrote about "the Milk marketing conundrum," suggesting that Focus had "eschewed publicity" while pushing director Gus Van Sant and star Sean Penn's biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the country, who was assassinated in 1978. The main point of comparison was Focus's Brokeback Mountain, which THR noted was a lightning rod for conservatives months before it was released in 2005. Citing no festival appearances, limited press exposure and, bafflingly, a Las Vegas test screening in which two senior citizens reportedly sought to leave during a love scene between Penn and co-star James Franco, THR's big picture showcased a movie that Focus depoliticized on purpose, lest the early backlash hinder its box-office and awards chances. "With all the politicking going on (not just the election but, here in California, with Proposition 8, a subject that mirrors eerily one of Harvey Milk's battles)," Zeitchik wrote in a blog follow-up, "the company was eager to avoid talk-radio defining the movie for it."
Not a terrible theory, we guess — except it was wrong, Schamus (right) wrote in a letter sent THR's way last night:
That's a pretty serious charge, especially made by a reporter who did not call us to get his facts, so to speak, straight. First of all, to the charge of "hiding" the film (for which, given its post-production schedule, we have only had finished prints at hand for a couple of weeks - a fact conveniently missed by your reporter), I can only say that I happen to be writing this while on my way to the airport for a flight to San Francisco, where we shall world-premiere the film tonight at the Castro Theatre, across the street from the storefront where Harvey began his political career. [...] The after-screening gathering will be held at San Francisco's City Hall, and today has been proclaimed "Focus Features Day" by the Mayor – who clearly didn't get The Hollywood Reporter in time to understand our underhanded, apolitical approach to marketing the film. [...] Following the debut of that trailer way back on September 12, our marketing campaign mobilized an early online media push timed to all four presidential race debates –- the mornings after, we had specially commissioned Milk ad buys on the political pages of the websites of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, and many more. [...] I expect that more thorough journalism on our Milk campaign will be published in THR soon.
By the time Schamus had dashed off his signature, though, the damage was done. The new-and-improved Radar had distilled the story (without attribution) to "Milk will seem a bit too politcal and preachy," while our cousins at Gawker surmised that "Milk just isn't very good. [...] [W]hen a studio declares it must be very, very quiet in promoting a film, it pushes us toward another conclusion: Milk is going to be so bad Sean Penn won't have a chance at Oscar time no matter how many full page ads Focus runs." Classy, guys. Of course, Focus didn't declare that, and the author hadn't viewed Milk either. David Poland did last night, however, filing afterward that it's "a brilliant, powerfully humane piece of work that reaches well beyond the issue of gay rights or any idea that this is a gay-only film." We don't necessarily think all of America might see it that way, but we'd expect professionals with access to have the good sense not to make it worse. Alas. Next time, THR!