The row over the promotion of The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line
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A Hollywood behind the scenes bust-up over a bit of promotional work for 1998’s The Thin Red Line suddenly became tabloid fodder: here’s what happened.

For those of you not avidly following cinema in the 1990s, The Thin Red Line was a very big deal. It marked the first directorial outing of reclusive director Terrence Malick, just his third feature at that time, and his first in nearly two decades. As such, big name stars were really rather keen to get involved, and an enviable cast list came together.


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Inevitably, given the prestige of the project and the relatively low commercial expectations for it, the tacit agreement was that if you wanted to appear in a studio-backed Malick project, then you were going to have to cut your fee to do so. No matter. The metaphorical queue was round the block, to the point where famously, George Clooney shot a part in the movie that was reduced to pretty much a cameo. He fared better than the likes of Martin Sheen and Gary Oldman, who had their work cut out altogether.

One further person who said yes to the film – and actually appeared in the final cut! – was Sean Penn, and in line with his co-stars, he duly cut his usual asking price to appear in the movie. He also undertook promotional duties for the film, giving interviews to support The Thin Red Line for its release at the end of 1999. He didn’t do a lot of promotion – Fox would allege that it took negotiation to get him to do two hours – but he did some.

But where the story took a turn was in the studio backing the film, 20th Century Fox, denying Penn a private jet by way of transportation to a screening of the movie.

Terrence Malick was putting on a special screening of the movie in Houston. For those unfamiliar, Houston is in Texas, at the south of the US, and thus flying to the screening was the logical way to get there. Penn, though, was keen to go along and support Malick at the event, and duly requested a private jet to get there. Penn didn’t then and doesn’t now have a reputation for asking for private jets, and perhaps that’s one reason why this story spiked.

But another is the war of words that duly erupted. Fox turned down Penn’s request, and it argued that the screening in question wasn’t a press or promotional one. Instead, it was something that Malick had organised, and Fox didn’t feel the need to stump up and get Penn there. A response in the negative was relayed to him.

In return, Penn, well, penned a letter to Fox dated 6th January 1999, and one that was leaked to the press. It offered a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Hollywood publicity politics.

Penn’s letter got to the point, and it’d be fair to say he didn’t earn himself a place on Rupert Murdoch’s Christmas card list. Murdoch at that time still owned Fox, and Penn wrote that “in my continuing effort to support our shared entity, The Thin Red Line, I have yet again run into another of the endless bureaucratic hurdles that your company relentlessly plants in my path”.

He argued that he was invited to the screening in question by Malick, and duly made plans to go to Houston. “As I have two movies, two children and (as each woman is at least two people) two wives in my distribution”, he wrote – er, quoted word for word there too – “my schedule is rather hectic. I therefore requested that Mr Murdoch’s giant corporation might be so generous (with the money they’ve earned exploiting the pain and suffering of myself and my peers in their tabloids” as to supply me with a private jet to travel to Houston”.

Fox, he said, declined for two reasons. The first was price, with a private jet costing the company $40,000 for the trip (Penn got a quote of $16,000, that would be split with Fine Line Pictures, who was distributing the other picture he was promoting). The commercial airfare for the same trip was said to be $2,000, and Penn made the point that Fox was saving itself $6,000, writing “which, against the price cut I offered in my deal to act in this movie seemed equivalent to the fair market price of one hair on Mr Murdoch’s formidable ass”.

This correspondent has neither seen Mr Murdoch’s ass and, therefore, its hair plantation, and can offer no insight there.

The Thin Red Line

The second reason Penn was turned down was simple company policy. It turns out that Penn had asked for permission to view a videotape of The Thin Red Line before the final print was locked too, and Fox had denied that too “in name of a policy”.

“Has anyone at 20th Century Fox considered that it might not be my policy to do 7-figure favors for multi-national corporate interests as I did when I took the salary you paid me on The Thin Red Line?”, he questioned. The letter was sent to all the top brass at the studio and copied – not making this up – to ‘God almighty’ as well.

Penn never attended the screening, and advised the recipients of the letter that “if my name is unfamiliar to you, you can check your computers under Movie Buff. I believe they consider me to be someone with a career”.

Who at Fox leaked the letter to the press is unclear, but it certainly turned ire in Penn’s direction rather than the studio’s. If that was the intent, then in the short term at least it worked. The New York Times jumped straight in, running a piece called ‘Dead Man Whining’, that’s still available on its site here. Some of his peers leapt to his defence meanwhile, with William Baldwin notably writing to the New York Times and protesting its article. Baldwin’s response was never printed in the paper, but instead found other ways into the world. “Sean is an actor, not a movie star”, Baldwin wrote, in response to accusations of basically an over-privileged movie star temper tantrum.

The Thin Red Line, incidentally, remains a terrific film if you’ve not had the pleasure. See it on the biggest screen you can.

In terms of what happened next, the answer was not much. I’ve found little evidence that Penn took another Fox movie for some time after the incident. More recently, he was appealing for billionaires to help fund Ukraine’s defence against Russian attacks via his social media feed.

The story still stands out just a little though as one of those rare examples of when we’re allowed a glimpse behind the curtain of Hollywood machinery. Some 25 years on, there’s not been an example since quite like it…

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