How's this for a true Hollywood mystery? Last Friday, when I visited the Internet Movie Data Base's Movie Meter, which ranks the hottest films and TV shows of the moment in terms of searches by IMDB users, I found a movie ranked at No. 4 -- higher than "Get Him to the Greek," "Shrek Forever After," "Robin Hood" or "Glee" -- that isn't even playing in theaters and hasn't been released on home video.
Called "Unthinkable," the film stars Sam Jackson as an enigmatic former Army interrogator brought in to question a U.S.-born Muslim terrorist, played by Michael Sheen, who has planted nuclear devices in three American cities. With the clock ticking and FBI, military and CIA operatives on hand angrily debating the wisdom of his actions, the film focuses on just how far Jackson's character should go in terms of brutal interrogation tactics to force the terrorist to reveal where he has placed the bombs.
The movie, which I saw the other night, isn't for the squeamish, since Jackson's character has no scruples about what extreme methods he'd use to get the information he needs. Let's just say that what he does tops anything that unfolded at Abu Ghraib. But it's fascinating to see a film that offers a graphic depiction of an issue -- the use of torture to gain invaluable information -- that is normally only debated on the op-ed pages.
In fact, if you go to the IMBD message boards, you'll see an incredibly lively, intellectually stimulating debate about the movie's depiction of Jackson's character's techniques, with some people appalled by his actions, others convinced that what he did was necessary to save millions of people's lives. Under normal circumstances, "Unthinkable" producer Cotty Chubb would be delighted to see that his film has provoked such an intense storm of discussion.
There's just one tiny problem: The reason "Unthinkable" has drawn all this attention is because a pristine digital copy of the film surfaced on the Internet late last month, which in turn was quickly made available on a variety of torrent-style downloading sites. So all of the enthusiastic fans who've been debating the merits of the film are arguing over a movie they've seen for free. "Unthinkable" will be available in video stores Tuesday, distributed by Sony Home Video, but since untold thousands of Web-savvy fans have been able to watch the film online for the past two weeks, its unclear whether the movie's sales will be helped or hurt by the free exposure.
"I've been unbelievably torn over the whole thing," says Chubb, best known for having produced such films as "Eve's Bayou," "Dark Blue" and "To Sleep with Anger." "It's tremendous to go on IMDB and see that our user rating is 7.3, which is the highest rating of any movies in the current Top 10 there -- you have to go down to 'Iron Man 2' to find a higher rating. But on the other hand, while everyone is debating all these important moral questions, I want to ask them another important question -- hey, guys, what about the morality of watching this movie on the Internet for free?"
So how did "Unthinkable" end up in such a strange state of affairs? It has a pretty fascinating backstory. Back in 2006, an agent gave Chubb the original script, written by the British actor-writer Peter Woodward, telling him, "You'll probably hate me for making you read it, but call me in the morning and let me know what you think." Fascinated by the script's compelling storyline, Chubb got the movie set up at Sidney Kimmel's production company, where it attracted a director, Tarsem Singh, and a star, Forest Whitaker. But Kimmel ended up getting out of the business, and by the time Chubb had a new draft of the script, Singh and Whitaker had moved on.
Chubb finally secured financing from Senator Films, which believed the film could attract strong interest overseas, especially when Jackson agreed to play the leading role, supported by Sheen and Carrie Anne Moss, who plays a FBI agent with grave misgivings about Jackson's character's extreme interrogation tactics. The film ended up being directed by Gregor Jordan, an Australian filmmaker best known for making "Ned Kelly." Jordan shot the picture in fall 2008 with a budget of roughly $11 million. But Senator collapsed before the film could be released. With the foreign rights already sold and Sony already on board to release the film on home video, Chubb was unable to attract a domestic distributor who'd put up the kind of marketing money needed to support a theatrical release.
"I think people underestimated its popularity," says Chubb. "Everyone would say, 'Oh, it's a political film' or 'Oh, it's torture porn,' and it certainly didn't help that it was coming out after films like 'Rendition' and 'In the Valley of Elah' that didn't perform in the marketplace. But I always saw it as a film that you could sell as a ticking-bomb movie. The one time we previewed it in Pasadena, positioning it as a suspense picture starring Sam Jackson, basically saying, 'How far would you go to defend your country?' we recruited 350 people and turned away another 250 at the theater. That told me it was a picture people would go to see."
But either because of the subject matter or the money needed to mount a campaign, Chubb couldn't find a distributor, so he resigned himself to a direct-to-video release. But even that release is now under a cloud after the film found its way onto the 'Net. Chubb says he has no idea how the film leaked out. "There are no fingerprints on it. It certainly didn't come from the editing room, since we'd already been shut down. So your guess is as good as mine."
Meanwhile, Chubb has engaged the people who've been buzzing about the movie by steering the discussion to a vital economic issue, or at least a vital one for anyone who thinks there has to be a new economic model for film releases. Here's a condensed version of what he wrote on the IMDB message board:
"I've heard a lot of reasons why streaming or downloading movies is a good idea, why everyone concerned should be happy with the attention (and in fact I am grateful for it), and how it's the new real world, but I haven't heard how the folks that paid for the picture are supposed to make their money back. So here's one question, expressed a couple of different ways: Is there a fair price, fair in YOUR eyes, that you would pay for a download? 'Hey, take a chance, it's only a buck?' 'People tell me it's great, I'll drop two bucks?' 'Here's three bucks, I can afford it and it's only fair?' What number seems right to you? 'Or is it zero, screw it I don't care?' "
The responses have been fascinating, though I suspect they might also be profoundly disturbing to studio executives bent on protecting the windows model of releasing a film first in theaters and then on home video, all long before copies are available for downloading. Some viewers said they use downloading as a screening process to determine which movies they are willing to buy. Others suggested that studios embrace an iTunes model, with movies costing $2 or $3 to download. But everyone wanted the movies right away, not long after their theatrical release. And hardly anyone had any qualms about watching a pirated copy of the movie on the Web. It was certainly hard to find any enthusiastic supporters of the DVD model, since many consumers resent having to sit through the endless piracy warnings and trailer-ads that crowd the front of every new DVD.
If there's any moral to this story, it's that a new day is coming to the movie business, regardless of whether it's prepared for it. "We've got to come up with a new model, because the old one just isn't working anymore," says Chubb. "You just can't fight against a model where the movie is available for free. People clearly want to download movies online, so it's time we figured out how to get some money out of it.