Ron Holmstrom was caught off guard when he learned that "The Frozen Ground," an Alaska-made film starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, would open in just a handful of markets -- none of them Anchorage, where most of the movie was shot.
"I only found out last week," he said. "I don't get it."
Holmstrom plays mass murderer Robert Hansen's lawyer in "The Frozen Ground." Filming took place in 2011 and included hundreds of Alaskans in the roster of actors, crew and support staff. It has received mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic since it opened in England last month, some critics finding it slow and predictable, others calling it elegant and compelling.
Reviews aside, the lack of fanfare or wide release for a film with two major stars baffles Holmstrom, Anchorage-based board member of the Seattle Local of the Screen Actors Guild. A studio typically holds a complimentary pre-screening for local cast and crew in a theater near where it was shot. The reason that Anchorage is being skipped, he thinks, has to do with a fight among theater chains, producers and distributors that involves, among other things, the video on demand (VOD, home pay-per-view) release of "Frozen Ground" on the same day that it opens in American theaters.
"I spoke with both Lionsgate, the theatrical distributor, and Grindstone, the VOD distributor," he said. "They assured me that because of the VOD release, the big cinema chains refused to do a wide release."
Holmstrom said he tried to set up a screening at Bear Tooth Theatrepub, where it will likely run after the national first run, limited as it is. But the popular Anchorage cinema was booked. He also tried to rent the Wendy Williamson Auditorium for the event, but was thwarted because that venue didn't have the right kind of "projection certificate."
Anchorage fans can still see it on the big screen, but it will take a trip to Wasilla where The Valley Cinema is having five showings every day. Anchorage is dominated by two big chains, Century and Regal, which aren't particularly flexible, Holmstrom said. But the Wasilla theater is owned by a smaller chain, Coming Attractions Theatres, which has jumped on the chance.
"They're ecstatic that they will be the only house with the film in Alaska," Holmstrom said. "This will certainly be the biggest payday ever for (Valley Cinema)."
About half of the 200-plus seats were taken for the inaugural showing at 1:15 p.m. Friday.
The thumbs-down reviews of the film have complained about the predicable plot -- think of an "NCIS" episode with a few Hallmark moments thrown in. In real life there are few more horrific things than the Hansen killings on which the movie is fairly closely based -- which is to director Scott Walker's credit; Hansen took women to remote locations and hunted them as if they were game. (A hit-man subplot is among elements added to the historical record.)
But moviemakers have discovered they can squeeze a lot more tension in if they push a story way beyond the realm of reality, throw in many explosions and have characters do impossible things that involve computerized special effects.
The positive reviews have referred to good acting and the camera work; the same dark, snowy shots that some found boring are exciting and provocative to others. Online audience reviewers seem to like it better than the professional critics.
Alaskans get the bonus of seeing stunning aerials of the Chugach Mountains and the Knik River, which Cage pronounces "KEN-nick" more than once. Old timers may try to catch a glimpse of Anchorage as it really was in 1983, but won't get many clear shots of the old downtown red light district. The Fourth and C action encompassed five or six blocks, but here it seems to stretch for miles with snowy sidewalks more crowded than Times Square. But the only clear anachronism that I spotted was the chain link security fence at Merrill Field, added well after Hansen was behind bars. (I can't remember when the new Knik River bridge on the Old Glenn Highway was built.)
Of the Alaska actors, Holmstrom seems to have the most words, including the last one, I think. But he's in scenes that total maybe three minutes combined. Robert Forgit, as Sgt. Wayne Van Clausen (at least some of the characters have the names of real people involved in the events) gets more camera time, but he's mainly the detective silently standing next to Cage, who does most of the talking in most of the scenes. Leo Grinberg, apparently part of the prosecution team, gets a couple of reaction shots, but says nothing.
Katie Wallack, who previously had a role in the Oscar-winning "The Artist," gets a nice long scene with Cage as the sister of one of the victims, who supplies the police with an item key to breaking the case. Bostin Christopher gets a few words in as a buddy of Hansen's.
But most of the other locals in the cast list are on screen so briefly -- if not lost in the editing process -- that they were hard to spot, even though they include some of the most experienced thespians in the state: Wayne Mitchell, Jill Bess, Kevin T. Bennett and Mark Robokoff. The last two could probably have handled the lead roles as well as the stars did, though Cusack is pretty darned creepy.
Few characters other than the leads have much opportunity to flesh out their parts. 50 Cent is a stock pimp from central casting and the main female role, Vanessa Hudgens as the girl who gets away from Hansen, is treated in a reserved manner. Kevin Dunn, as another detective on the case, stands out, perhaps because he gets a couple of good lines in a script not terribly strong in the dialog department.
Valley Cinema has stuck up fliers trumpeting the 10-city opening of the film. "New York, Dallas, Philadelphia ... and WASILLA!" Holmstrom said there's always a possibility that the film will catch on and make some money, causing the powers that be to rethink their strategy.
"I'll be surprised if that happens," he said. "I'm not sure what they'll do then."
Because of changes in the law that gives tax incentives to filmmakers, Holmstrom predicted that "The Frozen Ground," produced for an estimated $27 million, would be the last big movie made in Alaska, at least for the foreseeable future.
"It's sad," he said. "For a lot of Alaskans, it's their only chance at ever being in a major film."
And for many who may have had a blip on the silver screen, several -- including Bennett and Mitchell -- were uncredited.
Also uncredited is the mandatory bull moose that appears in an Anchorage alley at what may have been an attempt to create a moment of epiphany.
But Anchorage moviegoers who prefer realism to the pixillated re-imaginings of history or sci-fi fantasy promoted in the previews will probably like the show and certainly like the venue. Valley Cinema is a new, sparkling clean multiplex with arena-style seating, modern, comfortable rockers and lots of legroom.
There's also an attached cafe, the Backstage Bistro, open late afternoons and evenings with hot sandwiches, bar food, desserts, wine and beer.
It's worth the drive to the Valley -- and down memory lane.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing