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Inside the battle to release controversial Trump movie ‘The Apprentice’

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Controversy was near-constant for Daniel Snyder during the 24 years he owned the NFL’s Washington Commanders. Now, a year after he sold his stake in the team, Snyder has landed in a different kind of dispute: Kinematics, a film-production company largely funded by Snyder, is attempting to block the U.S. release of a pot-stirring movie about Donald Trump, five people close to the production say.

“The Apprentice,” a docudrama about Trump’s years as a New York real estate mogul, made its buzzy debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The BBC called Sebastian Stan, who plays a young Trump, “excellent,” while Rolling Stone said it was “the most brutal Donald Trump biopic imaginable.”

The movie, which serves as a Trump origin story, centers on his almost filial relationship with notorious fixer Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), who, according to the film, taught him the political playbook that he uses to this day.

But so far, the film — which includes a rape allegation made by Ivana Trump that she later recanted — has failed to pick up an American distributor. Even Francis Ford Coppola’s eccentric epic, “Megalopolis,” which also premiered at Cannes and is considered a tough sell for general audiences, has gotten American distribution. The holdup is notable because, judging by the rapt audience at its premiere and intense media coverage, interest in “The Apprentice” is high, and the timing around its release in an election year is crucial to its box office success.

Snyder and Kinematics declined to comment for this article.

Complicating matters is the possibility of a defamation lawsuit from Trump, who issued such a threat shortly after the movie debuted. A number of major studios have already declined to distribute “The Apprentice.”

Now the film has finally secured an interested U.S. partner: Briarcliff, an independent distributor whose founder, Tom Ortenberg, has a history of taking on hot-button movies, such as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight.”

Yet the deal has stalled, say the five people close to the production, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of ongoing distribution negotiations, because Snyder, the principal lender to production company Kinematics, doesn’t like the movie.

“The lesson is that if you are going to criticize a powerful person, you’d better have another powerful person who will protect you,” director Ali Abbasi, who could not speak about details of the negotiations for legal reasons, told The Washington Post.

According to a person close to Kinematics, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing negotiations, these allegations are untrue. Snyder is a hands-off lender, this person says, and has had no say in the making of or the release of the film. This isn’t about trying to stifle a movie that is critical of Trump, the person adds, but rather a more mundane Hollywood story about a production company that simply has different financial aims than its producing partners — as well as a strident disagreement over the inclusion of the rape scene — and is using its power to negotiate a better deal.

A person close to Snyder, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a window into Snyder’s position, added that Snyder has nothing to do with the movie.

The team for “The Apprentice” is now a house divided. On one end is Snyder and Kinematics. On the other are the creatives: Abbasi, screenwriter Gabriel Sherman and the on-the-ground producers and crew, some of whom have been working on this film since 2017.

However, The Post has learned that, in the past few days, Kinematics has returned to the table — and wants out of the movie, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. The person close to Kinematics says that if the company walks away, it will be reluctantly.

The fledgling Kinematics, which has worked on only a handful of small projects, is run by Mark H. Rapaport, who is married to Snyder’s daughter Tiffanie. Kinematics put up approximately half of the $16 million budget for “The Apprentice,” and, as the main U.S. financier, has approval over the U.S. distribution deal. The movie’s largest U.S. investor is, essentially, Snyder.

Snyder is not officially a producer on “The Apprentice.” His name appears nowhere among the 45 producers listed in the end credits. Members of the creative side say they have never personally interacted with him.

And yet, according to a person close to the production who spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, Ari Emanuel, the head of WME, which represents Strong, reached out to Snyder directly to ask him to approve the Briarcliff deal. (Strong’s performance was widely praised at Cannes as a possible Oscars contender.) Emanuel did not respond to a request for comment.

Kinematics has been accused of stalling on all fronts. Efforts by the other producers to buy Kinematics out of its position have so far been unsuccessful, and people close to the production believe that Snyder has final say and is holding up the deal, “which has all the makings of a catch and kill,” one of the people close to the production said, likening it to the tabloid practice of buying a story to prevent its release.

Snyder donated $1.1 million to Trump’s 2016 presidential inaugural committee and Victory Fund, as well as $100,000 to his 2020 reelection campaign.

Abbasi first met with Rapaport aboard Snyder’s yacht during the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Initially, the financiers and creatives agreed that it was worth rushing to finish the film to submit to Cannes 2024 — where it earned a prestigious slot in the competition — because that would set it up best for a U.S. sale and a fall release before the November presidential election. According to a person close to the production, Rapaport assured Snyder that the film would be “down the middle” and fair. Several people close to the production say that after Snyder saw a cut, Kinematics became antagonistic toward its own producing partners.

The film’s most shocking moment comes when Trump is shown raping his first wife, Ivana, played by Maria Bakalova, during an argument. According to the 1993 book “Lost Tycoon,” Ivana made the rape accusation in a 1990 sworn divorce deposition, but later clarified her earlier statement, noting that she did not mean those words in “a literal or criminal sense.” She added, “As a woman, I felt violated.” Trump has denied the allegation. Ivana died in 2022.

The person close to Kinematics says that Snyder saw 20 to 30 minutes of a rough cut of the film in March and that “he didn’t like it,” but that he has had no creative input. People close to the production say that this paints an inaccurate picture of Snyder’s sway, and that Snyder’s point of view has been communicated through Kinematics on many occasions.

The billionaire was “furious” over what he viewed as its negative portrayal of Trump, Variety reported.

That sentiment was confirmed by a person close to the production, who told The Post: “He flipped out and went to war against us.”

Further strife between the financiers and the creatives arose just before the Cannes premiere, when Kinematics sent a letter to the other producers demanding that the rape scene be removed or toned down, along with other changes and concerns raised by their lawyer, per their rights of mutual approval over the final cut. They were taken by surprise, because it was not in the approved script and were spooked by their potential legal exposure, says the person familiar with Kinematics’ internal conversations, and worried about Trump filing a defamation suit against them.

People involved with the production say the scene was in no way a surprise; it was in the shooting script that Kinematics approved before production, and, they add, the Cannes cut of the scene is actually less violent than the version in the approved script.

All of the other requested changes were made, but the creatives were adamant that the rape scene stay, according to people on both sides.

“This is a very important turning point in the story,” Abbasi says.

After the Cannes premiere, European distribution deals quickly followed, as did another legal letter — this time a cease-and-desist from Trump’s lawyers. Viewed by The Post, it accused the filmmakers of “direct foreign interference in America’s election” because Abbasi is Iranian Danish and the film had overseas sources of funding. The letter also accused Sherman, a Vanity Fair political reporter who has written extensively on Trump in the past, of having “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

U.S. distribution, though, has been hard to come by, despite fervent efforts from power agencies WME and Creative Artists Agency to find a buyer. Nobody in Hollywood appears to have the stomach to take the risk of incurring the wrath of the potential future president of the United States, Puck News’s Matthew Belloni reported.

“Usually when you get the kind of reception we’ve gotten, … there would be a bidding war,” says Abbasi, whose last Cannes movie, “Holy Spider,” about a serial killer in the holy city of Mashhad, sold in two days even as he was condemned by the Iranian government for making “an insulting and politically-motivated” film This time around, he says, he’s getting constant praise for Strong’s performance and had interest from potential buyers who brought in 15-person teams filled with lawyers, but still couldn’t get anyone to bite.

“It seems like either [the distributors] are worried about Trump sending the Justice Department or Commerce Department after them and weaponizing the government against them,” Abbasi says, “or they’re worried about MAGA nation and what if 80 million people who voted for him get angry at their streaming service.”

Apple, Amazon and Netflix passed. Disney is coming off a protracted battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Sony tangled with politics and lost after a Seth Rogen comedy, “The Interview,” about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, led to a debilitating hack on the studio.

Briarcliff is the only independent distributor to make a viable offer. But, according to the person familiar with conversations at Kinematics, the financiers feel that the offer — a small advance to release the film in exchange for a decent-size percentage of the box office revenue — is not good enough to guarantee a profit. And if they can hold out for a better upfront offer with a later release date, they will.

According to the same person, the other producers’ offer to buy out Kinematics isn’t substantial enough to make up for their investment of time and money and needs to improve. A person on the other side, though, counters that it covers the $5 million the company still has sunk into the film, as well as provides a $2 million premium for Kinematics’ investment return.

“The film isn’t being held up by Kinematics. It’s being held up by economics,” says the person close to Kinematics. “It’s being held up by Hollywood’s fear of angering Trump.” Had offers been more abundant, the movie would have a deal already, the same person adds.

The loser in all this bickering, Abbasi says, is U.S. audiences, who are, essentially, being denied the chance to vote on the film. “Why is it that we’re not even given the chance to present this to the public so that they can decide?”

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