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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We have a story about the recession and an industry long thought to be recession-proof: Hollywood. Well, no more. At the center of this story is a movie, "The Maiden Heist." It's a comedy starring three Oscar winners, Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, Marcia Gay Harden, and one Oscar nominee, William H. Macy. The movie's wrapped and ready for theaters. There's just one problem: You can't see it.

NPR's Cory Turner explains.

CORY TURNER: "The Maiden Heist" is a love story trapped in the body of a caper. Freeman, Walken and Macy play security guards who have worked in 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. Here they are practicing their repelling skills for the big break-in.

(Soundbite of film, "The Maiden Heist")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN (Actor): (As Roger) You sure about this?

Mr. WILLIAM H. MACY (Actor): (As George) Of course I'm sure. Let her rip, soldier.

Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): (As Charles) Good luck, Roger.

Mr. WALKEN: (As Roger) Okay, here goes.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. FREEMAN: (As Charles) Roger, are you okay?

Mr. WALKEN: (As Roger) I'm not sure.

TURNER: That's Christopher Walken, dangling off the side of Freeman's apartment building, stuck. The film is now similarly stuck, or as William H. Macy puts it…

Mr. MACY: We're waiting for a miracle now.

TURNER: "The Maiden Heist" was financed by Bob Yari, the money man behind a handful of modest box office successes, including "Crash," which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Yari got tired of depending on the big studio distributors to put his offbeat movies into theaters, so he created his own distribution unit, which was set to release "The Maiden Heist" last fall. The shoot went well, no last-minute rewrites, the movie wrapped without incident and headed to the editing room.

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

Mr. ROB PARIS (Producer, "The Maiden Heist"): You usually start to have those conversations, you start working on your poster ideas, your TV spots, and there was nothing. And so we sort of thought, you know, each month went by, we started getting more and more nervous.

TURNER: Paris says it was two months later in August that he was told Yari's distribution company had hit a hiccup. The money Yari had set aside for what's known as P&A — for prints and advertising — had dried up. Bob Yari.

Mr. BOB YARI (Movie Financier): The bigger funds, hedge funds and other funds like that that were investing in independent-film P&A kind of overnight, they went away.

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

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

Mr. MACY: If you spend a little bit of money, you get nothing for it. You're kind of stuck. You've got to do a big campaign in order to get lucky.

TURNER: 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 financial disaster for everyone involved. Yari tried everything to raise the ad money.

Mr. YARI: Even putting the company up for acquisition or partial acquisition and even financing our library of films.

TURNER: But Yari found no takers, and his distribution company was forced into bankruptcy. That left few options to save "The Maiden Heist." Among them, go back to the big-studio distributors. There was just one problem. Yari had already sold the DVD and pay-TV rights for "The Maiden Heist" to Sony. And according to Yari, that's a problem because…

Mr. YARI: The general rule of thumb is you're not going to make your money back theatrically unless you have a runaway hit.

TURNER: You make your money back when the 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 the DVD and pay-TV rights, but 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, but that didn't keep Yari, Paris and Macy from asking. Sony's response, according to Paris, was firm.

Mr. PARIS: It's water under the bridge. We've taken the loss already. We don't really care to re-open this very painful chapter.

TURNER: I reached out to Sony for its side of the story but was told the company had nothing to say on the matter of "The Maiden Heist."

Mr. PARIS: I haven't been compelled to throw my head into the oven yet. Now, that doesn't mean I won't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TURNER: Producer Rob Paris.

Mr. PARIS: I guess if I had to frame one person for this, for this heist, it would be Bernie Madoff. There you go. There's the villain. There's the CEOs. It's the CEOs that took down "The Maiden Heist." There you go. Now that's a third act.

TURNER: William H. Macy is hoping for a different third act.

Mr. MACY: This film ain't dead.

TURNER: And he's right. Even if "The Maiden Heist" never makes it to a theater, it will likely land on DVD and TV some day. Sony wouldn't say when, but when it does, says Macy:

Mr. MACY: You can never tell. It just could tickle people's fancies, and it'll fly off the shelves.

TURNER: Speaking of shelves, there's a moment in "The Maiden Heist" when you realize that if their 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, but waiting for an audience that may never come.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

BLOCK: Even if you can't see "The Maiden Heist," you can watch a few scenes from the movie. They're at our Web site, the new npr.org.

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