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Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Heath Ledger star as cowboys — and ill-fated lovers — in “Brokeback Mountain.” As an independent film with limited prints available to theaters, it won’t make it to overseas military screens, officials say.

Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Heath Ledger star as cowboys — and ill-fated lovers — in “Brokeback Mountain.” As an independent film with limited prints available to theaters, it won’t make it to overseas military screens, officials say. (Focus Features)

“Brokeback Mountain,” the movie about a gay cowboy love affair that recently won four Golden Globe awards and is expected to be in the Oscar hunt, will not play in any U.S. military theaters in Europe.

And not because it’s a gay cowboy love story.

The movie, which has received almost universally glowing reviews and was the nation’s top grossing film per theater last week, suffers from the same problem that kept many of last year’s Academy Award winners — “The Aviator” and “Sideways” among them — out of AAFES theaters: It was released late in the year by a small, independent movie studio.

When the Army and Air Force Exchange Service selects first-run movies, films from independent studios usually aren’t considered, said John Walters, AAFES motion picture program manager.

Arrangements for first-run movies, shown on military bases within two weeks of their stateside openings, require that distributors send AAFES 11 prints of the film. But movies such as “Brokeback Mountain” — which open on a relatively few screens, unlike blockbusters like “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and hope to build momentum — do not have an adequate number of copies.

Distributors send prints to theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, where they think they can maximize profits — not to AAFES, where ticket prices are far less, Walters said, and the audience demographic more challenging.

“There’s a big investment on the distributors’ part. It’s a gamble,” he said. “In the last eight years, I don’t think there’s ever been an independent offered on a first-run.”

“Brokeback Mountain” is being shown on 683 screens in the U.S. By contrast, “Narnia,” a major studio release, is showing on 3,224 screens.

“All the major studio first-runs are pretty much available,” Walters said. “Walk the Line” was a first-run. “Casanova” was a first-run. “The Chronicles of Narnia” generated a lot of discussion and it was on the first-run program, he said.

In addition, AAFES chooses its first-run movies two months in advance, hoping for a movie with broad appeal, based on “studio buzz,” before it can be known how well the movie is received, either by audiences or reviewers.

The timing has to do with advertising. AAFES advertises first-run movies 30 days in advance, Walters said, unlike most theaters, which advertise their offerings only a week or so in advance. Why AAFES must advertise so early, Walters said, “is the million-dollar question.”

If a movie such as “Brokeback Mountain” or “Sideways” does pick up momentum and opens on more and more screens, more prints become available from the distributor, including those that have left stateside theaters for newer movies. Those movies may then appear at AAFES theaters — if they’re deemed to have wide AAFES customer appeal — some weeks or months later, in what AAFES calls regular release.

But if the movie becomes available within 30 days of its home video and DVD release, AAFES doesn’t book it. While “Brokeback Mountain” is due for an April DVD release, theoretically it could be selected for regular release. But, Walters said, “I’ve already committed to movies up through April for Europe.”

The Navy has no plans to show the film at its theaters either. According to its policy, it does not select for presentation any movie that is more than seven weeks old, according to Ron Rossman, director of the Navy Motion Picture Service.

“Brokeback Mountain” is currently in its sixth week of release.

Reporter Sandra Jontz contributed to this report.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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