Among the upcoming Easter weekend’s new specialty releases is a feature about a fictional election of a reluctant pope, a fan’s view of a uber popular summer festival, a Willem Dafoe starrer set in one of earth’s most remote corners and a long awaited return of Metropolitan director Whit Stillman. Morgan Spurlock explains why he firmly remained behind the camera in Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. IFC Films is playing up the humor factor in its latest Cannes release We Have A Pope. A producer from The Hunter explains how the harsh elements in one of Australia’s most remote areas posed both a challenge and a reward for their production and Damsels In Distress producer Martin Shafer offers insight on the slow but evolving process to bring Stillman’s latest to the screen.
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
Director Morgan Spurlock
Writers: Joss Whedon, Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick
Subjects: Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith, Eli Roth, San Lee and more
Distributor: Wrekin Hill
A veteran both in front of the camera and behind for his previous documentaries including Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock pitched the idea for Comic-Con Episode IV to potential investors as one in which he would firmly stay behind the limelight. “As much as I’m a fan of Comic-Con, I didn’t want it to be about me going in,” Spurlock told Deadline. “I wanted it to be about real fans attending this event.” Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope is a behind-the-scenes look at the fans who gather by the thousands each year in San Diego, California to attend Comic-Con, the world’s largest comic book convention. “It’s Spellbound for geeks,” Spurlock said, adding that when he and his producers first approached five or six investors they thought would jump at the concept, they were turned down. “We thought it would be a no brainer because [Comic-Con] has a built in audience, but they would only do it if I was in it.” After an initial round of turn-downs from potential investors, Spurlock said that he read an article in Wired magazine about Legendary Pictures exec Thomas Hull which prompted Spurlock to contact Micah Green at CAA to arrange a meeting. “It was amazing. He helped produce the film and helped get the financing together,” said Spurlock, adding, “and I said I wouldn’t be in it and he said, ‘yeah, I get it.'”
With financing essentially in place, the next challenge was how to tackle a festival that attracts thousands featuring multiple overlapping events over just a few days. Spurlock solicited the efforts of fellow filmmakers and others who dove into the event, with up to 15 crews and 28 cameras going at any given moment. “The moment you miss something you can’t worry about it,” said Spurlock. “Camera problems, crew problems or constantly having something to deal with was part of it all, but you just have to power on and deal with problems as they come up. Every night we’d watch footage for hours and hours. We watched every character to see if we’d get what we hoped to get… It was one of the most gratifying films I’ve done.” Spurlock said that his experience last year with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold showed him that even with great press, there is only a small window in which to capitalize on publicity. “I was doing all kinds of national press, but the movie only opened on 18 screens. In today’s society you have two weeks in which to capitalize on something, but we weren’t able to do that,” he said. “The movie got lost to likes of Fast and Furious, Harry Potter and The Green Lantern so I decided we’d collapse that window.” Comic-Con Episode IV will roll out in Los Angeles and San Francisco Thursday, followed by Portland, OR on Friday in addition to day and date VOD as well as availability on every digital platform. Spurlock will also attend Tugg screenings in theaters around the country where a minimum of tickets have been sold. “With the small marketing budget we have to work with, I think we’ve been able to do a great deal.”
Damsels In Distress
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman (screenplay)
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody and Analeigh Tipton
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Whit Stillman had not made a film since The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, but the director who debuted in 1990 with Metropolitan found financing through Castle Rock, which came on board for his previous stints behind the camera. “We did The Last Days Of Disco twelve years ago and he pitched us Damsels In Distress about six years ago,” Martin Shafer of Castle Rock told Deadline, adding something that may be clear, “He doesn’t work that quickly.” Stillman took time writing the story about a trio of girls who set out to change the male-dominated environment of the Seven Oaks college campus, and to “rescue their fellow students from depression, grunge and low standards of every kind.” Developed via Castle Rock, the project received financing independently, including by Shafer. Originally, it was assumed by Castle Rock that the film would eventually be released via its sister Time Warner specialty unit Warner Independent Pictures.
“We developed Damsels with the understanding Warner Independent would do it,” said Shafer. “‘Regular’ Warner wouldn’t be the natural place for this film. By the time he started putting [the project] together, Warner Independent existed, but then by the time the film was ready, it had closed.” After WIP exited from the specialty scene, producers looked to Sony Pictures Classics as a potential suitor. “I knew SPC was interested so we made the deal with them,” said Shafer. Following the 32-day shoot, Stillman spent a good deal of time in post-production. “He’s even been making changes in the last couple of days,” said Shafer. After closing Venice, the feature headed to Toronto followed by other festivals in Europe and later Hong Kong. “I think over time there’s been an appreciation of his films like Metropolitan,” noted Shafer. “He’s a unique voice and I think there’s an appreciation of him.” Damsels In Distress will open in two theaters each in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, with more cities added slowly across the country over the next five weeks.
Director: Daniel Nettheim
Writers: Julia Leigh, Wain Fimeri
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Morgana Davies
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Shot primarily in Australia’s remote island state of Tasmania, overcoming the elements were among the biggest challenges for the crew behind adventure/drama The Hunter. The production decided to take on Tasmania instead of substituting for another locale despite the physical hurdles it posed. The Willem Dafoe starter centers on a mercenary who is sent from Europe by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness on a hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger. “Remonteness has prevented much production from happening there,” Vincent Sheehan, producer of The Hunter told Deadline by phone from Australia. “Half the island is world heritage land so you can’t even fly over it except after extensive approvals. It was also tricky because the population of the large island is only 500,000 and it only has a very emerging industry at best, so little to no infrastructure. So we had to import everything in.” Aside from logistics, the weather in some areas of the Tasman wilderness can go from summer conditions to wintery within a day, though Sheehan said director Daniel Nettheim decided to capitalize on that phenomenon to give effect to the story. “This is an area that can have four seasons in 24 hours,” said Sheehan. “It can be hot and then suddenly there’s a blizzard. But, I’ve never seen a director more happy to see a blizzard come through. We wanted the weather to be its worse. We’d shoot inside when it was sunny and then go outside when there was [extreme] weather.”
Though the production had fairly solid financing via a consortium of groups including its sales company eOne Films International as well as credits from Australia’s system of subsidies and tax rebates, the producers had to make some creative choices. One expense not spared were aerial shots of Dafoe traversing the terrain by the late pilot and photographer Gary Ticehurst who was killed in a helicopter accident not long after production. “He was probably the only pilot who could do that,” said Sheehan. “I knew at the time we had to get these shots. They were so important to the film and we were happy to get an actor who would be up for it.” The Hunter took in $1.2 million in Australia and has sold throughout the world, but did especially well in Japan, noted Sheehand. “It was a bit of a samurai film,” he said. Magnolia Pictures will open The Hunter in 20 markets in the U.S.
We Have A Pope
Director: Nanni Moretti
Writers: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Frederica Pontremoli
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti and Jerzy Stuhr
Distributor: IFC Films
IFC Films picked up Italian director Nanni Moretti’ We Have A Pope (Habemus Papam) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival where it screened in competition. The New York-based distributor noted its “broad appeal” as far as foreign-language films go in the U.S. for its desire to bring the title Stateside. “We are big fans of Moretti…,” said IFC Films’ Ryan Werner. “[It is a] film that is both funny and respectful of religion.” After its Cannes debut, IFC Films hit the festival route in North America to begin getting the word out about the feature centering a fictional papal conclave which elects a new pontiff who is very reluctant to take on the duties as the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope. We Have A Pope played as a special presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and screened as the closing night film at the New Italian Cinema series in San Francisco in addition to numerous other festivals and special events around the country. IFC Films also scored features in a slew of nationwide publications including the The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and more. “It was an even more aggressive PR schedule than our recent [fellow Cannes] release The Kid With A Bike,” said Werner. “We hosted a premiere with Peggy Siegel which got great coverage. Guests included Neil Simon, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Gay and Nan Talese, Terry George, Paul Schrader and Lois Smith.”
Beyond word-of-mouth IFC decided to use the film’s U.K. trailer which, “Played up the humor and the ‘analyze this’ like scenario of a pope getting therapy,” said Werner. “We are positioning it as a fun comedy [and] we have done outreach to Catholic and Italian groups.” In New York, the distributor helped organize a retrospective of Moretti’s work, selling out six shows and the filmmaker came over from Italy for frequent appearances. IFC Films will open We Have A Pope Easter weekend in New York at Lincoln Plaza and IFC Center as well as the Landmark in Los Angeles. “The roll out is similar to the Dardenne’s The Kid With A Bike,” said Werner.