February 24, 2009 / 6:18 AM / in 8 years

Heath Ledger's last film awaits deal for U.S. release

<p>'Heat', an oil on canvas by artist Vincent Fantauzzo, is seen in this image provided by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney May 8, 2008.Art Gallery New South Wales/Handout</p>

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Backstage at the Oscars on Sunday night, where her brother was awarded a posthumous supporting actor's award, Kate Ledger told reporters that her family is very much in the loop on his final movie.

"We've seen a little bit of the footage," she said of Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," Heath Ledger's last film. "I think it's going to be amazing."

But the comments only highlighted a larger question: When will U.S. audiences get to see it?

The head-trippy "Parnassus," about a traveling magician who gives customers more than they bargained for, is a joint production of financial entity Grosvenor Park and sales mogul Samuel Hadida of Davis Films. It was gliding along as just another independently financed production -- and product of Gilliam's funhouse imagination -- when Ledger died early last year, in the middle of production.

The project's fate was thrown into question until Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp stepped in, with all three part of an elaborate work-around that has the actors playing different parts of Ledger's role.

That saved the production. But the sales process since then has been nearly as complicated.

A number of U.S. buyers during the summer and early fall were said to be interested in acquiring stateside rights -- Lionsgate and Overture reportedly were among the potential suitors -- but word of a potential deal quickly quieted down.

That has fueled speculation concerning such matters as dissent among producers over finances. Rumors aside, the film, whose budget is thought to be upward of $20 million, does present challenges.

Even with the Ledger hook, a distributor would face marketing difficulties. Gilliam has grown more experimental in recent years, with such fare as "Tideland" and "The Brothers Grimm," and marketing experts say that retailing "Parnassus" as a Ledger film risks a backlash among general audiences unaccustomed to artier material.

A U.S. deal is expected shortly, with a mini-major or larger indie expected to make the play. (The movie already has a deal for Mandate International to release it in the United Kingdom, where former Monty Python member Gilliam tends to fare better. It is expected to open there in the summer.)

Still, the absence of a U.S. distribution deal nearly six months after talks began speaks to the difficulty of selling art-house films to the domestic market.

"This movie stars Heath Ledger in his final performance -- it will get a deal and come out in the U.S.," said one indie film veteran. "But it's no accident that it's taking this long."

Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters

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