The mystery of Michael Flatley's directorial debut, 'Blackbird'
Michael Flatley's directorial debut was first announced on Independent.ie on March 14th, 2018.
Between mentions of his enormous wealth and his restoration of an 18th century home, the piece revealed the title of the movie - 'Blackbird' - and a one-sentence plot synopsis. It also extolled the cast, including Eric Roberts of 'The Dark Knight', Patrick Bergin from 'Sleeping With The Enemy', and - naturally - Michael Flatley himself. According to the piece, Flatley described it as "a spy thriller of the classic genre."
On July 6th, the first poster for 'Blackbird' debuted online via Michael Flatley's Twitter account.
Michael Flatley, who'd spent his life as a dancer and is best known as "that guy from 'Riverdance' and 'Lord of the Dance'", was now moving into the world of cinema. You can see the thinking behind it, to a certain degree. He's an entertainer. A performer. Plenty of actors began life as dancers and moved into acting. Gene Kelly, right? Sure, why not.
Of course, Michael Flatley had - up until this point - no experience in the movie industry. Other than his credits for 'Lord of the Dance' and 'Riverdance', he is only mentioned as an actor in one instance - as a gag credit for '2001: A Space Travesty', a spoof parody starring Leslie Nielsen. The joke is that Michael Flatley is 'Not In This Movie'.
The reaction to the poster for 'Blackbird' ranged from curiosity to bewilderment. After all, how do you parse Michael Flatley, the guy who dances, to what appears to be some kind of over-the-top action spectacle with unnamed, bikini-clad women and exotic locales?
The prescient quote on the poster says it's "Michael Flatley as you've never seen him before." He is glancing off to the left, with a look of indeterminate disdain. Eric Roberts' finger hangs over his mouth in silence. The unnamed blonde smiles longingly at Michael Flatley. Beneath them, two men are firing off pistols at unseen enemies.
It's perfect, and in that moment, I know I've got to see this movie.
The normal procedure for a film's release involves a poster release, followed by a teaser trailer, followed by some production notes and maybe an interview here or there. You might see the cast turn up on late-night talk shows in the US, or partake in some kind of viral marketing to drum up interest. A few months later, press will get an e-mail telling them where and when they can see the film for review purposes. In some cases, it's screened at festivals first for select audiences before the wider press gets to see it. Embargoes are common, especially when studios are keen to gauge audience reaction.
Sometimes there are other tactics taken by studios. Namely, films are dropped into cinemas with little or no marketing fanfare in order to fulfil a contract requirement made in the pre-production process. They pray no critic or journalist comes near it, or in some cases, will even schedule press screenings for the day of its release, ensuring people miss print deadlines.
Studios and distributors are generally keen to get their movie in front of audiences or reviewers, because - if it's positive - it's marketing they don't have to pay for. A good review can help just as much as a billboard campaign or a snazzy poster.
That's the normal route. 'Blackbird' is anything but normal. In all my years of working as a film critic and a journalist, I have never worked so hard to see a movie.
The day the poster was released online, I rang around to the usual suspects on the Irish film distribution scene to see if anyone was handling its release. No joy. Not unusual at this point, but I was determined nonetheless. So I began to dig into who was actually producing 'Blackbird'. WestOne Entertainment were one of the listed producers, and after a quick bit of Googling, I found myself on the phone with one of the producers who told me that a press campaign would be mounted in the coming weeks.
All good, I said. How about a screener? (A screener is the industry term for either a DVD, Blu-Ray or a link to view a movie before its initial release)
No, not yet, I was told.
That was fair enough. Plenty of movies begin their marketing campaigns long before the actual picture is locked and printed. This wasn't wholly unusual.
After a cursory examination of Michael Flatley's Instagram account, I discovered that a "cast-and-crew screening" of 'Blackbird' had taken place in the Stella Theatre in Rathmines in June of 2018. Later that same month, Flatley posted a set photo from 'Blackbird' and announced a private screening in London for the movie. Evidently, or so it seemed, the movie was complete and had already been screened for Flatley's friends, colleagues, employees and family.
But still no word of a press screening. No mention of a screener either.
Nobody, as far as I could and still can tell, has been contacted about the possibility of seeing 'Blackbird' outside of a select number of people.
In August, Flatley - again via his Instagram - posted a series of images of him meeting with the China Film Group. Flatley gifted its representative, a Mr. Jung, one of his own paintings. China Film Group is a state-run monopoly and has cornered some 30% of China's cinema market. Movies like 'Pixels', 'The Great Wall' and 'The Fate of the Furious' have all been produced with China Film Group's help.
Whoever's advising Flatley, they know their stuff. The China Film Group are solely responsible for the import of all foreign-made movies into China, all of which have to meet stringent censorship rules concerning their content. The Motion Picture Association of America believes that in just a few short years, China will be the largest market for movies in the world.
Surely, a press screening would have to be on the way if he was at this stage of deal-making for 'Blackbird', right?
In October, Flatley gives an interview with vaunted industry bible, The Hollywood Reporter. Established in 1930, THR, as it's commonly abbreviated, was the first daily entertainment trade newspaper in the world. A feature in THR is a substantial step in a film's release. In the interview, Flatley discussed the nature of the movie industry and how 'Blackbird' was self-funded.
Flatley emphatically stated that he didn't self-finance because he wanted to make "a vanity project" but instead because he believed "it would have just taken too long to raise the money, and I didn't know what I'd be doing next year. And when the window was there, we had to get it done."
He talked about "several offers already for people to come in and take the film, which is really good." No release date or strategy was mentioned.
The topic of the bikini-clad ladies on the poster for his movie came up and Flatley flatly denied his involvement. "As soon as we realized the mistake for the young lady, Nicole Evans, we immediately put her name on the poster," said Flatley. "It could actually be argued that she's the real star of the movie, in my opinion. But the posters were nothing to do with me."
During this time period, 'Blackbird' had its premiere at the Mayfair Hotel in London as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Established in 1993, it hosted the world premiere of Lasse Hallstrom's 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' during its first year. The second year, it hosted the UK premiere of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction'.
Judging by the red carpet photos from the premiere of 'Blackbird', it looks to be a lively affair. Curiously, however, no reviews were published following the screening. No audience reaction can be found on Twitter.
On January 16th of this year, 10 months after the film's initial announcement, I redoubled my efforts to obtain a screener for 'Blackbird'.
After discovering that one of the production companies involved was also involved in 'Cardboard Gangsters', I made contact with Richard Bolger of Five Knight Films.
When I asked if he knows anything about the distribution of the movie, or has any idea when it will be released, Richard said that he was not involved in any of it and that he was acting merely as a "service producer" on 'Blackbird'. Consulting Five Knight Films' website for some answers or production notes, one was previously met with a WordPress blog that hasn't been touched. As of today, it's a 'Coming Soon!' holding page.
I then spoke to Debi Zornes, who is introduced as Michael Flatley's "executive assistant". She initially told me that the movie was still in post-production and that there was no word on a release date. I asked her for a screener copy or a link to watch the movie. She wasn't able to give me one, nor was Bolger.
So far, as best as I'm able to determine, the movie has been screened multiple times for private audiences, but not once for the general public - and certainly not for journalists and critics. But having screened at Raindance in London, somebody must have seen it, right? After all, it's a film festival that generally tends to attract large audiences of film-lovers.
Not so, it seems.
David Martinez, a festival producer with Raindance, explained the situation.
'Blackbird' was screened 'Off-Competition' at the Mayfair Hotel, according to Martinez. 'Off-Competition' simply means that the movie being screened is not being put forward for any prizes in a film festival, nor will it receive any consideration by the festival's jury. In most cases, film festival juries are made up of journalists, critics, directors, actors and technical luminaries in the industry. More on that later.
Over 200 people attended the screening of 'Blackbird', and so far as can be reasonably determined, none of them were journalists or critics. When asked if perhaps the jury of Raindance Film Festival may have seen 'Blackbird', Martinez says this did not take place. He also added that Michael Flatley was on the jury of Raindance Film Festival.
There's more. All Raindance Film Festival screenings take place at the Vue Cinema on Leicester Square in London and they're open to the public - meaning anyone could have picked up a ticket and see 'Blackbird' there and then. However, because 'Blackbird' was screened at the Mayfair Hotel and received a preferred rate through the festival, nobody from the public - outside of the selected guests on the night - got to see it.
By this point, my likelihood of seeing the film was rapidly shrinking. Upon contacting every distributor and studio in Ireland and asking if they are planning to release 'Blackbird' or know anything about it, the response was firm and consistent.
I contacted Patrick O'Neill at Wildcard Distribution. As well as releasing 'Cardboard Gangsters', they recently distributed 'The Hole In The Ground', the Irish horror movie starring Seana Kerslake which debuted at Sundance Film Festival this year. He says that Wildcard have no plans, currently, to distribute 'Blackbird'.
The next local distributor I contacted is Element Pictures. As well as producing such movies as the Oscar-nominated 'Room' and 'The Favourite', Element Pictures also distribute movies on behalf of StudioCanal and their own productions also. They responded with a definitive no regarding 'Blackbird'.
Next, I contacted Eclipse Pictures who have distributed Irish folk horror 'A Dark Song', and the critically-acclaimed documentary 'Citizen Lane'. They said the same; that they have no plans to distribute it and have not been offered it as part of any distribution deal.
Out of the international studios, Fox were the only ones who confirmed that they have no plans to distribute 'Blackbird'. Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Lionsgate gave no response.
Taken on their own, none of these events are particularly unusual. It's perfectly standard practice to have a private screening or two of a movie before it's released. Festival screenings can be limited to private guests. And there have been plenty of movies that have had lengthy post-production cycles, especially when a lot of CGI is involved. Is this the case here, perhaps? It's impossible to say.
Eventually, I caught a lucky break. Through industry contacts, I am finally able to talk about the movie in detail with someone who has seen it. We never meet in person. The source was at one of the two screenings that I know about, and will only speak to me on condition of anonymity. They explain that the movie was - in their opinion as an industry professional - in a finished state. They detail a litany of issues with the movie, all of which confirm my suspicions on the movie - but none of it gets me closer to seeing it.
To this date, there hasn't even been a trailer, let alone a featurette or any kind of footage from the movie. By the production's own statement, picked up by Screen Daily, filming on 'Blackbird' ended on March 7th. So between now and as of writing, no journalist or film critic has reported on seeing the finished product. Surely, somebody has answers?
Armed with all this information, I made another push for a screener with Debi Zornes.
I asked her about the production budget for 'Blackbird'. I asked her if there are any plans to release a trailer for 'Blackbird'. I asked if there was a screener copy or DVD for 'Blackbird'. I asked for an electronic press kit which might answer any and all of these questions. After a few hours, she responded and pointed me to Philip Moross, who is the CEO of Cutting Edge Group. He's also listed as an executive producer on the Tom Cruise-starring thriller 'American Made'. Their website confirms involvement with 'John Wick: Chapter 2', 'Drive', 'Sicario', 'Whiplash' and some 400 other movies.
If anybody can get me a screener, it's him. After exchanging pleasantries, I explained my reason for contacting him and pleaded my case. Philip, I'd hoped, understood my plight.
"I got involved with the Michael Flatley business at the end of last year," he told me. Philip said that he's known Flatley a long time, and added that he is keen to have 'Blackbird' sit inside "a broader plan" for Flatley's career. "It's a bigger picture than just the movie itself," Philip emphasised.
According to Moross, there has been a fair amount of interest in the project from a number of people, but when it comes to actually releasing the film, he's advising caution to Flatley. He gave an example of how badly distribution can be handled, citing a fairly high-profile movie that saw its distributor go under during awards season, and then points to his involvement in the 'John Wick' franchise - all with the same producer, but different distributors handling the process.
I put it to Philip that there's a certain smell around 'Blackbird', considering that Flatley wrote, directed, produced and starred in the movie all by himself. I didn't bring up Tommy Wiseau and 'The Room' as an example, but it's enough just to mention someone filling all these roles on a film to know that it's not the done thing. Philip pointed to Flatley's commitment to self-determination; that he self-financed his own shows, built his own dancing empire off his own two feet, and designed and curated the experience from the very beginning."
"The fact that he did this, this way, that's just part of his make up," said Philip. "When you refer to the aroma, Hollywood is a horrible place. People are always looking for a reason to denigrate. Would it have been better in the traditional form to construct a movie with an independent writer, an independent director? Sure. Should any talent finance their own work? No. Acting, dancing, whatever it is - and finance is finance."
"Would I have advised him to make 'Blackbird' in this way? No, but I don't think that would have stopped him," Philip argued. "Do I think 'Blackbird' will make money? Yes. Do I think it should be a launchpad for his brand? No, I don't. It should be part of the package, rather than the package itself. My advice would be hold off, let's put the plan together in a much bigger play, and fit 'Blackbird' in as part of the jigsaw going forward."
Moross made the point that Michael Flatley has a large fanbase and that it is "key" to get 'Blackbird' in front of people who'll want to see it. "It's not a film for everyone," Philip admitted. "It's a hard film to market. In my opinion, it needs to be recut in certain ways to bring certain elements, and it needs to be targeted to a very specific audience." He cited Christian films as an example of movies with a specific audience.
"Having done the hard work of making the movie, what Michael must not do in - in my opinion - is to put it out to a distributor who's just effectively going to get it out there, sell some tickets, and get some reviews. We need to target a market that says, 'I don't care what you think of it, Mr. Reviewer', I'm watching this movie because I love Michael Flatley.' I think in Ireland, it will be very well-received because we market it to those people who, to be frank, Michael can't do anything wrong by."
So far, 'Blackbird' hasn't announced any release date in Ireland. As of writing, no distributor in Ireland has announced 'Blackbird' as part of their release schedule. The official 'Blackbird' Instagram page has been dormant for months. The account itself has 319 followers.
The most recent image is of Michael Flatley, on set, directing a scene. The caption reads "Exciting times ahead for Blackbird." On Michael Flatley's personal Instagram on February 25th, he posted a black-and-white image of himself, wearing a fedora below a face of languid contemplation. The caption reads "We have to re work a few scenes from the movie. Should have news before the autumn. Are people ready for an old fashioned love story??"
Whether people are ready or not remains to be seen. Michael Flatley, however, is not ready to show it to people.