Movie publicists don’t cancel press screenings of their films very often, and you can probably hazard a guess as to why — when you decide not to show a film to people who write about films, they’re gonna make that the story. Usually such “eh, never mind” moves are a hint that distributors have lost faith in the quality of their film, preferring bitter sniffles to bad notices (as with the trashy thriller No Good Deed earlier this fall). But in the case of yesterday’s cancellation of the press screening for the DOC NYC premiere An Open Secret, dodging a turkey seems unlikely; it is, after all, the work of Amy Berg, who has proven her chops with the Academy Award nominee Deliver Us From Evil and the acclaimed West of Memphis. Frankly, it seems a bit more likely that its financiers have gotten a little spooked — either by the film or the sacred cows it’s taking on.
The picture first came on our collective radar back in the spring, when X-Men and Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer was accused of sexual abuse by Michael F. Egan III, who claimed to have been plied with drugs and raped by Singer when Egan was 17. His suit further detailed a Hollywood sex ring that targeted underage would-be actors — which is the subject of Berg’s documentary, in which Egan is a participant.
The film’s world premiere at DOC NYC (an annual showcase for nonfiction films, now in its fifth year) was announced last month; in the time between Egan’s original suit and that announcement, his credibility was called into question, his lawyer withdrew from the case, and Egan attempted to withdraw the suit (without prejudice, which would allow him to refile at a later date). It’s unclear how much of An Open Secret relied on his testimony.
What is clear is that it was set to screen for press Tuesday morning (in advance of its November 14 public screening), and less than 24 hours before that screening, critics received the following terse email: “DOC NYC regrets to announce that tomorrow’s [Nov. 4] press screening of An Open Secret is canceled at the request of the film’s rights-holder, Esponda Productions.”
The film’s publicist did not respond to our request for further comment, and a source close to the festival who wished to remain anonymous would only tell us, “I don’t fully know what the exact dispute is.” Whatever the case, it’s certainly put Esponda Productions (which produced the film with Berg’s production company) and the filmmaker at odds. Berg also issued a statement, calling out the company: “I’m proud of the film that I made and the cut that I delivered to Esponda Productions,” Berg stated. “I had hoped that DOC NYC would give the victims the opportunity for their story to at long last be told and am disappointed in Esponda Productions’ decision to cancel the DOC NYC screening of an An Open Secret.”
You can only read the tea leaves so closely here, but it seems safe to bet that one of two things is happening. The powers-that-be at Esponda may be worried that the film leans too heavily on Egan, whose suits against Singer and several other Hollywood muckety-mucks have been (to put it mildly) problematic. Or they may simply be afraid of Berg’s film, worried that its implications and accusations against Hollywood power players will open up the small production company to blackballing and/or lawsuits of their own.
For her part, Berg isn’t backing down. Though festival spokesperson Susan Norget is “still hopeful that the rights-holder, Esponda Productions, will deliver the film in time for the public screening,” that seems increasingly unlikely, particularly since Berg’s statement seems to have already ceded that loss (she speaks of the decision “to cancel the DOC NYC screening,” not a press screening). But she shared a clip (above) with Elle last month — a clip, significantly, that interviews an actor other than Egan — and has announced her intention to self-release the documentary, which currently does not have a distributor. According to The Hollywood Reporter, although Berg had told Elle that An Open Secret would see theatrical release at Los Angeles’ ArcLight Cinemas on November 7, “a spokesperson for the theater said that the film is not currently slated to show there.”
The source of the dispute — the film’s contents — and its fate are all guesswork at this point. But Berg is no hack, and she’s not careless either. Her Deliver Us From Evil is one of the most powerful docs of the last decade. If her film is sloppy, or reliant on the testimony of unreliable witnesses, then it should be held and, at the very least, revised. But if it is being suppressed out of fear and intimidation, then that’s just one more layer of the shameful story it tells.