The Crying Game: the unfortunate phone call that cost Paramount Pictures the distribution rights

The Crying Game
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The Crying Game was an Oscar winner and a hugely successful independent film – but one studio boss missed out of the rights due to the phone ringing…


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There was a point on the morning of 29th March 1993 when it looked as if a modestly-costed film might be about to pull off a major, major upset. For weeks it was presumed that Clint Eastwood’s excellent revisionist western, Unforgiven, was going to take home the Best Picture Academy Award on that day. But on the morning of the 1993 Oscars, the odds for a second pointed to a thriller that had cost just over £2m to make, and struggled to even get distributed.

That film was The Crying Game. Written and directed by Neil Jordan, it boasted Stephen Rea, Miranda Richardson, Jaye Davidson and Forest Whitaker in the cast. Stephen Woolley produced the film, that was brought to life by a legend of 80s and 90s British cinema, Palace Pictures.

Palace was a company – co-founded by Woolley – whose story is charted in Angus Finney’s fascinating book The Egos Have Landed. I’ve heard from at least one former Palace employee that it’s a far from complete history of the company, but it does get to the nub of a vibrant British film production company, that would eventually set projects running with a view of finding the cash for them as they went along. The Crying Game was one of those films. It was arguably the film too where Palace’s luck ran out.

Originally entitled The Soldier’s Wife, the film – by the time it arrived at the Oscars – had become a word of mouth sensation in America, grossing a very valuable $60m that might just have kept Palace in business. The company – which also had the UK rights to the-then unknown Reservoir Dogs when it went under – finally bit the dust in May of 1992. Who knows what might have happened had it been alive as The Crying Game began to clean up.

The Crying Game had, after all, had a long journey to get to the point it did, and Palace was hovering around it for a decade. As Finney charts, it was brought up at the first meeting between Woolley and Jordan when they got together in 1982. Jordan at that stage was in his mid-20s, but his debut feature – Angel – was garnering strong notices. Woolley was amongst its many fans.

Jordan would soon be making the first official Palace-backed production, 1984’s The Company Of Wolves, and it wouldn’t be until 1991 when Jordan pushed The Soldier’s Wife again. Woolley agreed to make the film, but it’d in part hinge on the backing of now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, and his Miramax Films. Because Miramax was the only US company at that stage with serious interest in the project.

It was going to take an estimated £2.8m to make The Crying Game, and in the end it took a complex collection of companies to bring the initial funds together. Funding to keep Palace going was coming from Europe and from Japan, and monies – some monies at least – were raised. No money at this stage was coming in from America. Channel 4 was eventually persuaded to put funds in, and the cast and crew worked for deferred fees to get the movie shooting.

When it came to sorting out distribution though, that’s when further problems hit. The movie debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September 1992, but ahead of that, Woolley had been at Cannes for its own festival earlier in the year.

While there, he bumped into another producer: a man called Al Clark, who was in town on Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert business. The pair of them had a conversation, and as Clark recalled in his own book – Making Priscilla: The Hilarious Story Behind The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert – a major Hollywood studio had passed on The Crying Game because of a phone call.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Crying Game, then it’s fair to say that there’s a degree of initial impact from the film that’s due to a twist moment in the picture. Don’t want to say more than that, as it’s a moment that’s best discovered than told about. But it also became a key hook in the way the film was ultimately promoted.

Woolley told Clark that The Crying Game was thus screened for a boss at Paramount Pictures, with the studio considering a potential distribution acquisition. Said boss was sat in the screening room by himself, when someone came along and interrupted. He was asked to step out and take a phone call, which he duly did, and then he returned to his seat to resume watching the picture.

You can guess what happened.

Said unnamed boss had left the screen during arguably – in fact, it’s not very arguable – the most famous moment of The Crying Game. He’d completely missed the ‘moment’, and as Clark notes in his book, once said scene has happened, it’s not referred to again. Unusually too, it’s a plot move that doesn’t change the way characters behave. Anybody who watched the movie without catching that particular bit would have no idea what had gone on.

And that’s what happened with this particular Paramount Pictures boss. He walked out the screen seemingly non-plussed, having decided not to put in an offer, not entirely sure what all the fuss was going to be about. It was a phone call that potentially cost the studio tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

Appreciating the quality of the film itself though, perhaps for the fortunes of the movie itself it was best to land with Miramax. Notwithstanding the fact that The Crying Game initially flopped in British cinemas in the autumn of 1992, it fashioned a very different way to promote The Crying Game, and eventually would get to sit back as it became the word of mouth sensation of the season. Week after week, its screen count and box office would gradually increase, until it left cinemas having banked over $70m worldwide. Not just that, it won a BAFTA and Oscar as well, the latter for Jordan’s screenplay.

What it didn’t ultimately do was take home Best Picture in the end. As much as the momentum was with it that awards race, it was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven that was given the top prize. But in an era where there were only five candidates for Best Picture, it was a remarkable achievement to get that close to the big gong in the first place.

The definitive telling of the Palace story still feels remained to be told, and I hear whispers that somebody may be in the midst of telling it. Even though it didn’t feel the direct benefit of The Crying Game, it was pivotal in making it exist – and for Jordan and Woolley, the next step would be Hollywood, and the big screen adaptation of Interview With The Vampire, starring Tom Cruise. Made for Warner Bros rather than Paramount, oddly enough…

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