Round about the time we were all waiting breathlessly for “The Tree of Life” to finally land, the idea of a Terrence Malick film bowing simultaneously in theaters and on VOD and iTunes would have seemed pretty far-fetched. But the journey for his follow-up, “To the Wonder,” has been different from the off.
Unveiled at Venice without a US distributor, the esoteric love story garnered enough damning reviews to scare off bigger distributors like Fox Searchlight (who had nurtured “Tree”), and was left waiting for some time before finding a home with niche outfit Magnolia Pictures. They were in no hurry to release it, either, wisely skipping the pressures of the 2012 awards season and waiting until the spring — allowing the UK to be the first territory to release the film, last month. Meanwhile, critical reception for the film has warmed up somewhat since its chilly festival debut, with further champions joining the early defenders.
Magnolia have traditionally been pretty progressive when it comes to releasing prestige films on multiple formats — 18 months ago, Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” was made available on VOD prior to its theatrical release. So it’s not a huge surprise to hear that they’ve opted to offer “To the Wonder” on VOD and iTunes day-and-date with its theatrical release on April 12.
That’s good news for Malick acolytes living outside the usual realms of arthouse distribution, and makes sense for a film that is unlikely to gain much traction in theaters — the film has been a quiet performer here in the UK, grossing just over $300,000 in a month, slightly less than German-language critics’ darling “Lore,” released on the same day.
Still, it has to be said that VOD is not the ideal format for a first encounter with any Malick film, and this one is arguably more dependent on its visual and sonic marvels than most. As with “The Tree of Life,” Emmanuel Lubezki’s staggering cinematography deserves the widest screen possible. I’m a fan of the film, but I can concede that its poetic indulgences could grate more in a less immersive viewing environment. Still, good to finally get the film out there before the suddenly prolific Malick springs his next opus upon us — possibly as early as May’s Cannes Film Festival.
Meanwhile, Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles has confirmed that the VOD release will not interfere with the film’s Oscar eligibility — though I suspect he knows as well as anyone that, unless the cinematographers really think for themselves with regard to Lubezki, “To the Wonder” will not be troubling Academy voters at all.