I don’t know what exhibitors and distributors felt about Terrence Malick‘s Badlands or Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line or The New World when they first saw them, but I’ll guess they weren’t swooning. Exhibitor and distributor types are always bitching about art films, and that’s the only kind of movie Malick makes so he and they are natural-born adversaries. Industry guys have always hated ambitious cinema — Francis Coppola once told me about exhibitors complaining about how dark and gloomy The Godfather was — so their views need to be taken with a grain.

I was reminded of this mindset by a producer pal when I told him yesterday that a journalist friend, quoting a US distribution source, had told me that a group of foreign distributor-investors saw Malick’s The Tree of Life almost exactly a year ago (i.e., March 2010) and felt that it was commercially catastrophic — a movie ostensibly costarring Sean Penn and Brad Pitt “and they’re not even in it,” according to one complainer. (Possible translation: the source felt that Penn and Pitt aren’t in it enough.)

On top of which a second journalist friend told me two or three months ago that he happened to be sitting near a table of distributor types at last September’s Toronto Film Festival “and they had a furious, angry attitude about the movie,” my friend says. “It was really a sense they had that it was beyond repair…they didn’t want anything to do with it, and they couldn’t imagine what any legitimate distributor could do with it.”

Again — that’s par for the course when guys whose main goal in life is to sell popcorn are talking about an art film. It doesn’t mean The Tree of Life doesn’t have value in and of itself. Knowing Malick and his abilities and inclinations as I do, it seems unlikely if not inconceivable that he could create a film utterly lacking in artistic/spiritual value.

It was reported in May 2009 that The Tree of Life had been sold to a number of international distributors, including Europacorp in France, TriPictures in Spain, and Icon in the UK and Australia, but that it lacked a US distributor. In August 2009 it was announced that the film would be released in the US through Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad‘s Apparition. There had been speculation in Screen Daily and elsewhere that Tree might be ready for Oscar contention release in late 2009, but nope. Then came talk of its possible debut at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and the subsequent squashing of that dream due to “it’s not ready.” And yet it’s believed that Tree of Life was “absolutely finished” in the spring of 2010, and that it had been seen by European distribs who bought pre-sales rights, and they “were shocked and appalled and rejected it” after that alleged March 2010 screening.

Summit Entertainment sold distribution rights to EuropaCorp in France, Icon (UK and Australia), TeleMuenchen Group (Germany), Svensk (Scandinavia), O1 (Italy,) Belga (Benelux) and TriPictures (Spain). Journalist friend #1 “was told by two more people in the Euro biz” that the appalled or angered reactions about a supposed catastrophe “were absolutely true, but I was not told this by anyone with one of the rejecting companies. That’s where I got stuck. Three sources, but none direct.”

“This is like the 9/11 conspiracy theory,” journalist #1 concludes. “How could so many people be keeping this secret?”