'The Maiden Heist,' A Comic Tragedy In Three Reels

William H. Macy, Morgan Freeman and Christopher Walken in cat-burglar gear i i

Can't Get Arrested: William H. Macy, Morgan Freeman and Christopher Walken star in The Maiden Heist, a museum-caper comedy that's stuck in Hollywood limbo. Yari Film Group hide caption

itoggle caption Yari Film Group
William H. Macy, Morgan Freeman and Christopher Walken in cat-burglar gear

Can't Get Arrested: William H. Macy, Morgan Freeman and Christopher Walken star in The Maiden Heist, a museum-caper comedy that's stuck in Hollywood limbo.

Yari Film Group

One industry has long been considered recession-proof: Hollywood. Well, no more.

It's true Americans are still buying movie tickets. But the trouble isn't getting people to see movies, necessarily. It's persuading an ever-shrinking pool of financial companies and individuals to pay for them — particularly for independent films.

Case in point: The Maiden Heist. The feature-length comedy stars three of the best — and best-known — actors working today: Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken and William H. Macy.

That's two Oscar winners and one nominee, not to mention a third Oscar winner, Marcia Gay Harden, in a supporting role. The movie's wrapped and ready for theaters. There's just one problem: You can't see it.

In the film, Freeman, Walken and Macy play security guards who've worked at the same art museum for so long that they've fallen in love — with the art. When the museum announces that it's suddenly shipping much of its permanent exhibit to Denmark, the three men conspire to steal their favorite pieces.

At one point early in the film, the three men practice — awkwardly — their rappelling skills for the big break-in. Walken's character has particular trouble, and he finds himself dangling off the side of Freeman's apartment building — stuck.

The film is similarly stuck, or, as Macy puts it, "We're waiting for a miracle now."

The Breakdown, Or: Why You Can't Play With No P&A

The Maiden Heist was financed by Bob Yari. He's the money man behind a handful of modest box-office successes, including Crash, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Yari grew tired of depending on big studio distributors to put his offbeat films into theaters, so he created his own distribution unit, which was set to release The Maiden Heist last fall.

The shoot went well. There were no last-minute rewrites. The movie wrapped without incident and headed to the editing room.

But in June 2008, producer Rob Paris noticed something wasn't quite right. Though the movie was set to hit theaters in November, there hadn't been any talks with Yari about how the movie would be marketed.

And as the clock ticked down, Paris says, "we started getting more and more nervous."

Bob Yari i i

Bob Yari's production credits include such films as The Illusionist, The Hoax and the Oscar-winning Crash. Yari Film Group hide caption

itoggle caption Yari Film Group
Bob Yari

Bob Yari's production credits include such films as The Illusionist, The Hoax and the Oscar-winning Crash.

Yari Film Group

It wasn't until two months later, Paris says, that he learned Yari's distribution company had hit a "hiccup." The money Yari had set aside for what's known as P&A — for print and advertising — had dried up.

Says Yari: "The bigger funds, hedge funds and other funds like that that were investing in independent-film P&A, kind of overnight they went away."

They went away because the U.S., along with much of the rest of the world, had found itself on the brink of the worst recession in decades.

The Tab, Or: Why A $20 Million Movie Costs At Least $40 Million

The Maiden Heist had cost just under $20 million to make, and Yari believed it would take at least that much to market the film.

Marcia Gay Harden with a hilarious hat i i

Marcia Gay Harden plays Walken's dutiful hairdresser wife, who dreams of a Florida escape. What may get in the way of that getaway is that her husband is in love with another woman — or at least a painting of another woman, called The Lonely Maiden — and he plans to steal her from the museum he is supposed to be guarding. Yari Film Group hide caption

itoggle caption Yari Film Group
Marcia Gay Harden with a hilarious hat

Marcia Gay Harden plays Walken's dutiful hairdresser wife, who dreams of a Florida escape. What may get in the way of that getaway is that her husband is in love with another woman — or at least a painting of another woman, called The Lonely Maiden — and he plans to steal her from the museum he is supposed to be guarding.

Yari Film Group

Star William H. Macy admits that even for a film with three of the best-known actors working today, it's important to have — and spend — those marketing dollars. "If you spend a little bit of money, you get nothing for it," Macy says. "You're kind of stuck. You've got to do a big campaign in order to get lucky."

A movie that hits theaters without marketing is like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods. It's still a movie, even if no one shows up to watch it. But it's also a potential financial disaster.

Yari tried everything to raise the ad money, including putting his company up for acquisition and trying to mortgage his library of films. But he found no takers, and his distribution company was forced into bankruptcy.

That left Yari few options to save The Maiden Heist: Among them: go back to the big-studio distributors. There was just one problem: He had already sold the film's DVD and pay-TV rights to Sony.

These days, movies rarely break even based on theatrical revenues alone. Studios generally don't make their money back until a movie lands on DVD and cable. And no studio wants to put a movie in theaters without that ancillary safety net.

As for Sony, it owned those home-video rights — to a movie that had no marketing or theatrical distribution. If the studio had agreed to pick up the tab, it would have been taking on even more risk.

That didn't keep Yari, Paris and Macy from asking. Sony's response, according to Paris, was firm. It considered its deal for The Maiden Heist a "painful chapter." And it had already moved on.

NPR asked Sony to comment for this story, but a representative declined.

The Future, Or: Is It Still Art If No One Can See It?

Producer Paris is taking the glass-half-full approach. "I haven't been compelled to throw my head into the oven yet," he says. "Now, that doesn't mean I won't."

Sony does still plan to release the film, after all — if only on video. (Though the studio has not yet decided on a release date).

Macy hopes that even if The Maiden Heist never makes it to theaters, it will one day find a loyal following on the small screen. "This film ain't dead," Macy insists. "You can never tell. It just could tickle people's fancies, and it'll fly off the shelves."

Speaking of shelves: There's a moment in The Maiden Heist when it becomes clear that if the heroes' caper succeeds, the three museum guards will have their beloved artwork all to themselves. No one but them will ever see those pieces again.

In much the same way, The Maiden Heist now sits on a shelf — much loved by a few, waiting for a crowd that may never come.

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