It hasn’t been a week since this year’s Oscar winners had their names chiseled into their trophies, but the race for 2013 is already heating up, at least for documentaries. Sony Pictures Classics announced yesterday that it has acquired global distribution rights for West of Memphis, about the trial and eventual release last year of three men imprisoned for the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993 (known as the West Memphis Three). The film, produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Amy Berg, premiered to great reviews at Sundance in January.
West of Memphis is not the first film to examine the case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelly, who were accused as teenagers of murdering the three eight-year-old boys as part of a cult ritual. The Paradise Lost trilogy, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, has followed the case for nearly two decades, and is widely credited for bringing public attention to the trial and for helping secure the men’s freedom last August through an Alford plea, in which they were released in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges while still maintaining their innocence.
Berlinger and Sinofsky have said themselves that they began the project with the belief that their three subjects were guilty, although they changed their minds over the course of filming. The first Paradise Lost was released in 1996; the third, subtitled Purgatory, was favored at this year’s Oscars, but lost the Best Documentary award to Undefeated.
With still almost a year to go until the next ceremony, the Oscar buzz is already beginning for West of Memphis, with its airtight pedigree. Jackson, who produced the film along with his wife Fran Walsh and Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, is obviously no stranger to the circuit, taking home three awards for the final Lord of the Rings film in 2004. While Berg was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2007 for Deliver Us From Evil, which looked into child abuse in the Catholic church.