Darren Bousman Explains How Sitting on a Shelf Made ‘Mother’s Day’ Go From 2,000 Screens to 3

By  · Published on May 15th, 2012

“In some cases however, the passage of time is a blessing…Time heals all wounds, makes us forget, or, allows us a chance to reflect. Three years is an abundance of time. A lot can happen in 36 months: wars have been fought and lost, relationships have blossomed and then been destroyed, children have been conceived, born, and taken their first steps. In the case of Mother’s Day, 3 years was the amount of time it took me to become disillusioned with the filmmaking process.”

That’s director Darren Bousman revving the horror engine on a nightmare. It doesn’t involve a reverse bear trap or a team sent back for your organs, so it’s probably scarier. It’s the story of how a movie that Bousman made that simultaneously met his creative vision and received high praise from testing audiences went from a huge potential opening to a release last weekend that no one heard about.

Bousman goes into deep detail, chronicling the journey of a movie that wrapped in 2009 and didn’t see the light of day until 2012. It’s a must-read piece for how candid Bousman is regarding a hell on the other side of development. Let’s call it Post-Production Hell. His segment on what watching a test audience react to his work is especially enlightening.

Ultimately, the train of events looks something like this:

What’s fascinating here, beyond the faith a creator has to put in the business side to craft an image for the work, is the larger story that takes place all too often in these kinds of deals. The Weinstein Company is a major villain for keeping purchased prints in storage, but no matter what, the effect of any company’s shelving action is that the movie itself is tarnished. It’s easy to assume that the company is keeping it away from the public for intelligent reasons like quality, but that isn’t always the case.

It’s also astonishing to realize what it takes for a movie to get out of that storage closet and be successful. Earlier this year, The Cabin in the Woods rode a popularity wave created by Chris Hemsworth and Joss Whedon as well as near-universal praise aimed squarely at a niche group. After years of collecting dust, Lionsgate released it on 2,811 theaters. It currently stands as a success story with $54m in the bank and more presumably on the way, but even so, it’s a mild success story with a budget of $30m and a not-inconsiderable advertising pile. It’s probable that Lionsgate was hoping for the next Scream – a niche horror film with mainstream appeal beyond its core audience. So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s also not clear whether that would have happened if Cabin had been released when it was originally scheduled to in February 2010, but it was almost undoubtedly soul-wracking for its creators to see it caught in MGM’s bankruptcy limbo.*

Regardless, it survived shelf stigma because 1) those that knew about it were mostly clear that the film was stuck out of theaters because of MGM’s disaster, and not because of a quality problem and 2) those that knew about it were willing to give it a chance when it came out and 3) it was bolstered by a ridiculously high rate of enthusiastic praise.

Mother’s Day had none of those things. It toured around festivals, but the reasoning behind why it was delayed was never clear; those that knew about it weren’t given a chance to give it a chance because it only hit 3 screens; and the reviews on it were split between the wildly positive and the thoroughly negative (like Fure’s review, which is linked above).

Bousman’s story is worthy of hand-wringing. It’s a classic tale of commerce spitting on art’s grave, but it’s also a cautionary tale about how powerful perception can be. Even with a truckload of praise, Cabin still isn’t a run-away popular success. As a movie, it doesn’t have to be. But as a product, it’s essential, and it’s easy to see how much easier it would have been to sell it when it was fresh. When momentum is lost, it’s hard to get back. After months and months of pressing Mother’s Day and earning hype for it, the film never came. The energy for it died away, and what was left? Three screens out of two-thousand, a furious director, and a hell of a great story.**

*Ironically, Cabin in the Woods would have arguably done better in the Fall (a more natural time for horror) after the release of The Avengers. Then again, Lionsgate would have had to bet big on Marvel knocking it out of the park and audiences making the Whedon connection. Funny how all this works.

**Oddly enough, while known for his candor, Bousman’s personal blog has been offline since at least last week.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.