Manchester by the Sea: Final Cut to Producer Matt Damon

As written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is viewed as an Oscar front-runner in crucial categories, including Best Picture

The drama was a sensation when it debuted at Sundance Film Fest in January, sparking a bidding war that ended when Amazon Studios paid $10 million for the rights.

But the story almost never made it to screen. Matt Damon had originally been slated to play Affleck’s part until scheduling issues forced him to drop out. That caused problems as Damon is a bankable star and Casey Affleck is not.

“Casey doesn’t have a ton of bankable stats and Kenny’s a negative,” producer Chris Moore said at a panel discussion Saturday–the Produced By New York conference.

Lonergan’s career was at low point. His most recent film, “Margaret,” was entangled in lawsuits as a result of a long and tortured post-production history. As the release date got pushed back years, Lonergan struggled to deliver a movie that clocked in at two hours.

In order to appease the financiers, Damon, and not Lonergan, was given final cut on “Manchester by the Sea.”  “I was the compromise,” said Damon. “It was just a way of keeping everybody calm.”

The film was made possible because Kimberly Steward, daughter of billionaire businessman David L. Steward, fell in love with the script and agreed to finance through her new company, K Period Media.

Steward believes in giving artists a lot of freedom:  “It has to be Lonergan’s  vision.  I can’t tell him what his vision is.”

“Manchester by the Sea” seems poised to be an indie breakout when it opens in theaters next month. Its success is becoming rarer and rarer.

When studios do back more adult-oriented productions, they tend to insist on happy endings. “Manchester by the Sea” doesn’t offer that kind of closure.

Damon noted that Lonergan put it best at Sundance when he was asked why he didn’t end the film on a more optimistic now. “Kenny said, ‘some people have these things happen to them and they can’t get over it and I think those people deserve a movie too,’” Damon remembered.

“Movies are just a powerful tool for empathy… that’s why I think we all make them,” said Damon.