While waiting for last night’s 7:30 pm showing of A Hatful of Rain to begin at the Aero, Empire‘s Helen O’Hara tweeted that I owed her an apology for having written last Monday that her 3.28 story about Britain’s Icon planning to open Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life on May 4th, or several days before its expected debut at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, was “probably incorrect.”

Because O’Hara’s story is apparently correct.

Icon’s 5.4 Tree release was confirmed yesterday (or the day before?) on the Film Distributor’s Association list and O’Hara also reconfirmed the story in an update. This despite a distinct possibility that Fox Searchlight will pressure Icon into backing off because a 5.4 release in Great Britain would all but torpedo the Cannes hoo-hah they were (and still are) looking to get from debuting The Tree of Life there.

So I apologize — O’Hara was right and I was led to believe that she “probably” wasn’t. Let the record show that I never said her story was definitely wrong. I wrote that I’d been told it was “most likely untrue” by two Fox Searchlight execs and also that two key sources — Jill Jones, chief of int’l distribution for Summit Entertainment, which holds int’l rights on The Tree of Life, and Zak Brilliant, VP distribution and publicity or Icon Distribution UK — had refused to confirm or deny. I called and emailed both, pleading for assistance. It was like talking to a brick wall.

This morning I wrote Brilliant and Jones again, asking if this is really a set-in-stone plan and if there’s any chance of rescinding, etc.

A 3.31 analysis of the situation by The Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttleton says Icon’s decision “comes at the cost of screwing over their fellow distributors — a Cannes premiere seems to have been key to Fox Searchlight’s strategy for the film, and, should the date stick, they’ve now got less than two months to rejig their campaign. There’s no doubt that the studio would have been furious when they heard the news — in fact, considering their initial denial, they may have found out about it through Empire’s story, rather than being notified by Icon, and initially disbelieved it.

“Does this mean that Brits will be able to head to their local Cineworld on May 4th and buy a ticket for The Tree of Life? Possibly not. In fact, probably not. Summit International, who acted as the sales agent for the film, has major relationships with both Icon and the Cannes Film Festival, and if Icon’s hand gets forced, it’s likely to be by Summit.”

What happened, says Lyttleton, was “a case of the right hand not talking to the left hand. If one studio is releasing a film worldwide, then the timing of its release can be perfectly synchronized, but for an independently produced project like The Tree of Life, which will be released by dozens of different distributors worldwide, it doesn’t work in the same way. Once a final print has been delivered, generally speaking, only good faith and mutual interest keep the companies in sync.

“Whether they were seeking publicity by being the first territory to release the picture, or simply decided it was the most effective date for the film, Icon genuinely picked the May 4th date, and as of the moment of writing, intends to release it then.

“A British opening doesn’t rule the film out of Cannes — last year’s out-of-competition opening film, Robin Hood, started screening for the public in the U.K. on the morning of its bow on the Croisette, while Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces was in competition in 2009, despite going on general release in Spain two months earlier. But it’s almost certain that Icon will have more to lose, reputation-wise, if they stick to their guns, and they’ll likely defer to Fox Searchlight.”

Here’s my guess: (a) It is widely presumed that The Tree of Life is no one’s idea of a popcorn film and may in fact be a blatantly uncommercial property (who knows?), and given this (b) Icon decided they’d get more of an opening-week bang out of a Sean Penn-and-Brad Pitt-with-dinosaurs movie with limited critical response (i.e., with only British critics weighing in). Rightly or wrongly, they came to believe that a significant percentage of Cannes Film Festival journalists will trash it, and that this international chorus will obviously generate negative online buzz so why not open it before this happens?