Loewy to Stand Alone and The New Wicker Man

Loewy to Stand Alone and The New Wicker Man

Last weekend’s Report on Business in the Globe and Mail dropped a huge bomb on the Canadian film industry. After resigning as the Chairman of Motion Picture Distribution LP, the distributor that is 51% owned by Alliance Atlantis (and the wellspring that continually provides its various cable TV channels with big-name content), Victor Loewy has now leaked his intention to set up a stand-alone film distribution company. This new company, which sources close to Loewy say he’ll be announcing this week, will compete directly with his old employer.

So what does this all mean?

Well, quite a bit really. Loewy’s departure triggered a “key man” clause in MPD’s distribution contract with New Line Cinema, the firm’s largest supplier. The clause states that New Line can cancel its agreement with MPD anytime before 2008 if Mr. Loewy, their “key man,” is no longer with the company. New Line, who are directly linked to roughly 15% of MPD’s revenues, are to discuss their future relationship with the firm in September. But if they were to move their business to a Loewy stand-alone, or to another firm, the aftershocks in the industry will be huge. According to the Globe, Westwind Partners analyst Ben Mogil expects that a cancellation of the New Line contract would affect Motion Picture’s agreements with Weinstein Co. and Focus Features as well.

It seems that Loewy has been considering such a move for a long time. Ever since his good amigo, Alliance partner Robert Lantos, handed over control of Alliance Atlantis to Atlantis head Michael MacMillan in their 1998 merger, Loewy’s been itching to move on. Recent events though were what broke the camel’s back. On July 19, Loewy arrived at a board meeting to find that it had fired two executives: CEO Patrice Theroux and counsel Paul Laberge. It seems they didn’t like the way the two men were shopping the firm to outsiders in New York and Dubai. Hearing that the board had met and acted without his knowledge, Loewy cried “constructive dismissal” and quit.

The big question now is whether Alliance Atlantis will hold onto its stake in Motion Picture Distribution. The company is apparently in the midst of completing a “strategic review.” Obviously they want to keep a hold on the Motion Picture pipeline that currently feeds their specialty stations, but this decision might ultimately come down to a battle of egos between Michael MacMillan and Loewy, two men who were just not destined to get along.


My pulse started racing when Molly Parker told me that she’d just finished shooting Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. I mean, my heart was kinda racing already, seeing as I was talking to Molly Parker, but the second she mentioned the name of what is perhaps my favourite ’70s British film of all time, the ole sucker went into overdrive.

This was back in the spring, when a pregnant Parker was in town to promote her husband Matthew Bissonette’s second feature, Who Loves the Sun (a film mysteriously absent from the Canadian program at TIFF). Once we got on the topic of The Wicker Man, though, all conversation about the quiet but touching drama starring her, Lukas Haas and Adam Scott, went right out the window.

If you haven’t seen or heard of Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, now is the time to get yourselves educated. In 1972, Christopher Lee, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (the brother of the better-known Peter), and Peter Snell, the head of the British Lion film company got together to discuss bringing a 1967 book called Ritual, about various ancient British pagan beliefs, to the screen. Gradually, it became apparent that the book wasn’t much good. But as they talked, the germ of an idea began to grow about another, far better, film. This one would examine the clash between pagan values and Presbyterian Christian ones. “Yes”, they thought. “There’s surely a movie there. And in the end, we can flay someone! That’ll be fun!”

The Wicker Man tells the story of a strictly religious Scottish police officer (Edward Woodward) who is called to a small, forgotten Hebridean island to follow-up a missing persons report on a little girl named Rowan. When he arrives, the officer finds a strange, backwards place where May Pole worship has replaced Christian study. The island (called Summerisle) is ruled over by a dashing and densely-eyebrowed aristocrat (played by Lee), who tells of how his people gave up on the cross when their crops failed. Only tossing aside their guilt complexes and embracing greater mental and bodily freedom could ensure greater yields.

But what of the girl? No one acknowledges ever knowing her. Gradually, the young cop grows increasingly convinced she must have been sacrificed in the prior year’s harvest festival. Instead of bolting back homeward, he stays put, pretending to participate the traditional, pagan festivities (the filmmakers made Summerisle’s paganism a fusion of a number of ancient British beliefs and traditions). It turns out, however, that he’s not as in the know as he’d thought. I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say, his rescue plan goes up in flames.

It’s a great film for a number of reasons. One, it handles the clash between staid, Presbyterian morality and revisionist paganism with great intelligence, engaging a number of questions that swirled about the public consciousness in the wake of the ’60s. Second, it’s bloody scary. Not in a camp way. And not in a gorey way. But in a truly psychologically frightening way. Thirdly and finally (for this post at least), it’s great because of the way it mines British history and iconography, resurrecting its most peculiar and wonderful elements in a way that is simultaneously alluring and horrifying. The songs, arranged and performed by Paul Giovanni and the band Magnet, bring together everything from old nursery rhymes to Middle English festival songs to Scottish and Irish ditties, evoking a mood that is uncannily enchanting and sinister.

That Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbours) would be involved in re-making The Wicker Man was, originally at least, pretty exciting. Here was a guy who had grown up a strict Mormon and had spent much of his creative life publicly struggling with that upbringing. Who better to place the religious questions at the heart of The Wicker Man in a fresh, modern context?

Now that I’ve seen the trailer to LaBute’s film, I’m not so sure. When you arrive on the site, a little bee flaps its wings as the Flash presentation loads. This bee has great significance, as the hero, a cop played by Nicolas Cage, is allergic to bees. The allergy has replaced the fact of the officer’s virginity, since, apparently, the idea of a 40-year-old virgin is now insanely funny. With that, LaBute has essentially removed the religious core of the film.

This new Wicker Man has been described by some as a feminist film, with the role of Lord Summerisle now filled by Ellen Burstyn. The island (now off the coast of Washington state) is run by women who rule over enslaved men and possess all kinds of mystical, Hollywood-style powers. They bring Nicolas Cage’s California patriarchal policeman to the island to teach him, and all other men, a lesson.

If LaBute can make the feminist angle work as well as the religious one did in the original, then terrific. But there is still something wrong with using modern Hollywood special effects to revivify a Luddic ’70s horror film. There was an intelligence, liveliness and charm to The Wicker Man that I fear will be lost in this re-make. Hardy’s film didn’t need effects to be scary. The islanders were frightening because of what they were capable
of and willing to do. They didn’t need to bend the parameters of reality. They were scary because they were themselves uncanny visions; they were the past rearing its ugly head to challenge the present. They were scary because they were real.

Both Hardy and Christopher Lee have expressed dismay at the details of the remake. I won’t go that far without seeing LaBute’s film. Nonetheless, anyone who’s been intrigued by the trailers and subway posters for The Wicker Man—go out and pick up the original on DVD before September 1st.