The Curious Case of ‘Tulip Fever’
In July 2013, it was reported that director Justin Chadwick, the man behind The Other Boleyn Girl and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, would helm the adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s bestselling novel Tulip Fever, which had been in the works for around a decade by that point. The project seemed like another attempt at Oscar glory from its distributor The Weinstein Company, with all the markings of success: A two-time Oscar winner in the villain role (Christoph Waltz); a rising star from Sweden in the lead who was destined for greatness (Alicia Vikander); a script by legendary playwright Tom Stoppard; and a supporting ensemble of plummy British greats united under a story of passion amidst the tulip mania of 17th century Holland. What could possibly go wrong?
When the film was first screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, responses weren’t glowing but it was still early days, and by that point in time, Vikander was well on her way to Oscar glory, which would surely help sell the film. Then nothing else was heard about the project until stills were released at the end of the year, and a release date set for the decidedly non-awards friendly July of 2016. The release was delayed by a whopping seven months, and then it was pulled from that schedule and set for August 2017. AND THEN it looked as though that release may never happen as The Weinstein Company scheduled a schlocky horror film about an evil Polaroid camera for that date. That film has since been shunted to the end of the year, and now critics have been doing double takes all day as they receive invitations to press screenings for Tulip Fever. By this point in time, most of us had begun to delve into fantasies about the potential badness of this film. How much would it have to suck for Harvey Weinstein to keep it hidden? This is the guy who dumped Grace of Monaco on Lifetime, after all.
Obviously, none of this bodes well for Tulip Fever. Films get bounced around the schedule all the time for a number of reasons: Strategic moves to avoid tough competition, filling vacant slots, getting the right time for Oscar season, and so on. Harvey Weinstein used to be a dab hand at this. Yet the man who once ruled the indie scene with an iron grip seems to have lost his place at the top of the pile. Once upon a time, he was the man guaranteed to lead you to Oscar gold. Now, he seems almost toothless, and nothing exemplifies his baffling decisions of late quite like the treatment of Tulip Fever.
The past couple of years haven’t been kind to The Weinstein Company. Their films aren’t getting the box office and awards hauls they used to, and the former master of the campaigning game has lost his touch as of late.
Carol was a critics’ darling but stumbled on the landing, and even Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was written off early on in its release as a financial disappointment, despite the director being one of Weinstein’s more reliable sources of revenue. Lion brought the distributor back into the good books, even though it left Oscar night empty handed, but at least that film saw the light of day. Three Generations, the drama about a young trans man and his family starring Elle Fanning in the lead role, was pulled from its original release date in September 2015 just three days prior, and was eventually dumped in a handful of theatres this year to lukewarm reviews. Keep in mind that The Weinstein Company paid $6m for the rights to it, yet treated it with impunity. Suite Française, the World War II romantic drama starring Michelle Williams, had its UK release two years ago but ended up on Lifetime this May in the US.
Even with the films that made it to theatres, The Weinstein Company’s decisions have baffled some and angered others. The distributor was served with a $15m lawsuit over its muddled releases of The Founder and Gold, both of which were juggled around the 2016 schedule to little success. The Founder, a biopic of Ray Kroc of McDonalds fame that had been positioned as the possible Oscar success for Michael Keaton, suffered the worst from this: Its schedule shifted from November 25th 2016, to August 5th of the same year, and then settled January 20th 2017, but with a brief awards qualifying run the previous month. The film itself wasn’t even that bad. Indeed, with a focused campaign, Keaton very well could have snagged a Best Actor nomination in what was generally considered a less crowded year for the category.
Weinstein is well known for many reasons in Hollywood - his stronghold over awards campaigning, his frequently questionable tactics to snag awards, and his temper to name but three - but the most infamous of his traits may be his penchant for spite. Nicknamed ‘Harvey Scissorhands’, Weinstein became notorious for demanding cuts to films that did not fit his vision for a successful film. Various movies suffered this indignity under his reign, but the most damaging example may be the sad case of 54.
Originally intended as a Boogie Nights style insight into the hedonistic heyday of Studio 54, Mark Christopher’s film was slashed to pieces in the edit by Weinstein, who ordered a staggering 40 minutes of cuts. This removed various important plot points like the lead character’s bisexuality from the film, and ordered reshoots forced a heterosexual love triangle into the equation (by the time of reshoots, the actors were out of shape and needed to wear glaringly fake wigs). Reviews were negative and the box office low, but the film received its due a couple of years ago as Christopher got to release his director’s cut, which showed a totally different film from what Weinstein ordered.
Not every director has hated Harvey’s ‘suggestions’ - Martin Scorsese has remained reasonably respectful of Weinstein’s push to get Gangs of New York below three hours, and Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade was a critical and commercial success - but for every director who agrees with the changes, there are those who dissent and suffer the consequences. James Gray’s The Yards was dumped in American theatres with no advertising, despite landing a competition spot at Cannes, and when the director refused to tack on a happy ending to The Immigrant, he let that film languish unreleased a year after its Cannes debut, only to be given the bare minimum North American release (eventually, it received a minor push for awards consideration when critics started to rally around Marion Cotillard’s performance). Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer went swiftly to VOD after he refused to take out 20 minutes of the film. Neither of these films have received a UK release.
Harvey doesn’t mind holding a grudge, but his public behaviour over the past couple of years suggests an active attempt to defuse his boorish reputation. He jovially took part in the talk-show circuit to promote The Imitation Game, and his admissions of under-performing releases have been remarkably candid for a man who strikes fear into so many. There’s been an air of defeatism around a lot of his efforts recently, but it would be foolish to entirely write him off. His slate for 2017 releases outside of Tulip Fever has potential: From the critically celebrated drama Wind River to the very baity Thomas Edison film The Current Game to the inevitably controversial Mary Magdalene.
A lot of this will rely on money, which may not be in ready supply at The Weinstein Company right now. Last year, The Hollywood Reporter cited industry sources who said TWC ‘has failed to make payments and won’t respond to inquiries until specific legal threats are made.’ The biggest problem for The Weinstein Company is that they’re not the only game in town. The indie market has greatly opened up over the past couple of years, with places like A24, Annapurna and even Amazon making great gains in the market and taking home Oscar gold with efforts that never would have been considered safe bets even five years ago. Why bother taking your film to the guy who may demand cuts then dump it into oblivion if you disagree when you can see it flourish with the bright young upstarts?
Tulip Fever could be a surprise critical hit. It could be the disaster of the season. Most likely, it’ll be a middling period drama you’d usually keep on in the background on a Sunday afternoon while you iron your clothes and think about other things. Whatever the case, the film has become shrouded in mystique simply because we can’t see it. Harvey Weinstein used to be the master of this game, but now the curtain has lifted and it’s all a little boring. As Oscar season kicks into gear, we can’t help but wonder if he can regain that magic touch.