Brian Brooks is managing editor of MovieLine.
Two 2012 Sundance Film Festival documentaries hit the specialty market this coming weekend. Competition titles Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will add to 2012’s lineup of non-fiction fare which has seen box office success with Bully and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. LD Entertainment is attempting to make proverbial lemonade out of its NC-17 rating for Killer Joe, which has had audiences clamoring for tickets at festivals and other events. Drafhouse Films is banking on its Danish comedy Klown to cross over for U.S. specialty audiences and possibly break out further, while Ruby Sparks sailed into Fox Searchlight after an easy shoot for a story that will appeal to 18-35s (or 40s).
An American freelance journalist who lived in China from 2006 to 2010, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry director Alison Klayman first met the famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei through her roommate who asked her to put together a short video for an art show of Ai’s New York photographs while in Beijing. She quickly realized there was more to tell. “I just felt like to do a character portrait of him would really not only be entertaining but also it would illuminate something about a side of contemporary China that I felt like I was just encountering for the first time through him,” said Klayman. “So I was definitely feeling that at least I needed to follow up with this guy and he liked the video that I did for the exhibition. So that was also a good way to keep moving forward.”
The film screened in competition at Sundance as well as the Berlinale. Sundance Selects picked up the film soon afterward. “We’ve been working with Susan Norget and Fredell Pogodin on publicity [and] 360 Communications on grassroots with a focus on art world and technology as well as Julie Huang on Chinese-American outreach,” IFC Films/Sundance Selects exec Ryan Werner told Deadline. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry will open in New York this weekend at Lincoln Plaza and IFC Center as well as the Kabuki and Embarcadero in San Francisco and in Washington, D.C. at the E Street. “We have speakers at every theater this weekend,” noted Werner. The film will open in Los Angeles the following week.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is a movie the filmmaker never quite planned to make. In 2009, Swedish director Fredrik Gertten took his documentary Bananas!* to the Los Angeles Film Festival. The result was a litigious onslaught by U.S. giant Dole foods to keep it from being seen. The film details the legal odyssey of 12 Nicaraguan banana workers who sued the company for using a banned pesticide. “It was made for only $50K and when we released the trailer, we got a cease and desist order,” Gertten said. “They sent the order to LAFF organizers and their sponsors including the Los Angeles Times and American Airlines.” But undeterred, he showed up to screen the film and “all hell broke loose.” said Gretten. For the follow-up, Gertten and his team started documenting their journey from being taken to court by Dole (iby the same firm that represented Chevron in its fight against filmmaker Joe Berlinger for his doc Crude) and their campaign to undermine him. “This film [delves] into the PR industry and their tactics to ridicule me such as buying my name on Google so they can discredit me,” said Gretten. “They spent a lot of money to block my film, but we won and they had to pay our $200K lawyer fees. It was a very scary and long process. This film was not meant to be, but it told its own story.”
“This story is less about fruit and more about media and what a big corporation can do,” Gertten says. “It’s also like a thriller in many ways, but with a happy ending.” The film will play Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival later this month. Theatrical release “as an Oscar-qualifying run,” per Gertten, is set for Friday in New York at the Quad Theatre, followed by L.A. at Laemmle cinemas in Pasadena and Santa Monica the weekend of August 3rd. The filmmakers plan to announce a distributor during the Toronto International Film Festival, according to Gertten, with more dates to follow.
Killer Joe will be heading out into the world with an NC-17, star-appeal, a story packed with violence and its share of critical acclaim so far. “We thought the performances were incredible,” LD Entertainment president David Dinerstein said. “A [prominent] filmmaker in Cannes told me in Cannes that it’s the ‘most provocative thing’ he’s seen this year. With The Exorcist, French Connection and others, Friedkin is always raising the bar.” Raising the bar does not always make for an easy release and the film’s NC-17 raises red flags just like any other film branded with the unpopular rating. Still, the film has had a good run at festivals, selling out screenings at SXSW and Seattle, where Friedkin received a lifetime achievement award. The director was also guest director at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “It’s exciting because the tickets to these events went really fast,” said Dinerstein. Plus the cast “allows for some traditional reach-out like talk shows.” McConaughey appeared on the Daily Show and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in support of the film, with Gershon also doing Fallon. The film also scored a sizable feature in the New York Times. “Friedkin is also very active on Twitter,” said Dinerstein. “Unlike other artists and entertainers, he’s actually doing the Twitter himself, it’s not a publicist. Everyone’s embracing doing things differently. So we’ll see how we stand with the NC-17, but to date it hasn’t been a real hurdle.”
Still, there has been some pushback in terms of where the company can advertise, though the film is opening in New York this weekend at venues Lincoln Square, the AMC Empire and the Sunshine Theatre. “These are some of the best screens in Manhattan,” noted Dinerstein. “There’s nothing wrong with saying this is a film for adult audiences and we hope to grow it. It’s going to make them laugh and make them hold onto their seats. It’s a crazy but entertaining film.” It expands next weekend to LA, Austin, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC.
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard
Writers: Casper Christensen (screenplay, story), Frank Hvam (screenplay, story), Mikkel Nørgaard (story)
Cast: Frank Hvam, Casper Christensen, Marcuz Jezz Petersen, Mia Lyhne
Distributor: Drafthouse Films
The folks at Drafthouse Films (the distribution label under started under Austin-based exhibitor Alamo Drafthouse) first saw the Danish comedy Klown at the Fantasia Film Festival and later screened it in Austin at Fantastic Fest. The film is the culmination of a popular Danish television show of the same title that ran for six years “We link it to The Hangover, it has some of the same outrageous behavior,” Drafthouse Films exec James Shapiro said. “There’s a lot of humor that breaks social taboos, but has a lot of heart to it.” Shapiro said it’s not necessary to have seen the show that spawned the film to understand it and the humor should be accessible to Americans. “The filmmakers themselves had a lot of American influence growing up and that formed the [basis] for Klowns,” he said. “So we think it has some breakout potential because it’s one of the funniest of the year.”
Drafthouse Films will open Klown in New York, Austin and Los Angeles (at The Cinefamily) with expansions planned for San Francisco, Portland, OR and Seattle. “It’s our first release with a VOD strategy, which will make the film available on demand Friday,” added Shapiro. Drafthouse Films is going for the mainstream, but will focus on crowds that are at the core of Fantastic Fest and their regulars at the Alamo Drafthouse. “We also think it can cross over and we have our fingers crossed for that. We think it’s really one of the funniest things you’ll see this year.”
Ruby Sparks producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa noted that one of the most unusual aspects to creating the feature on the logistical side was that it happened rather seamlessly. They first spoke with Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in L.A. and then everything proceeded from there. “This is an amazing film because things went so smoothly from the get-go,” Yerxa said. “We met with Zoe and Paul at Rose Cafe in Venice and we met with directors and Jonathan and Valerie read script several times and they worked with Zoe. We were only the producers.” Initially, they weren’t sure how to finance the film (more typical) but then Fox Searchlight stepped up (more atypical) and we made it all in L.A., which is everyone’s hometown.”
Ruby Sparks shot last year over 30 days and Berger, who also produced Little Miss Sunshine, said the budget came in around the same as that film (about $8 million) and the production sported much of the same crew. Kazan and Dano were pre-destined to star in the project, and Searchlight stepped away when the production added the rest of the cast. “They had a point-of-view, but it was good as you can get with a studio,” added Berger. “We had the freedom you have with an indie film and but with their support.”
“Obviously with Little Miss Sunshine we had Sundance with a launching point but we don’t have that with this,” added Yerxa. “But Jonathan and Valerie are traveling around to do word-of-mouth screenings, so it will be interesting to see how this type of [marketing] will go against the grain. We get a sense that this is working.” Berger and Yerxa said the 18 to 35 or 40 audience is its “core” due to its “smart examination of relationships.” Ruby Sparks opens in five markets in 13 theaters Friday and will begin expanding in about 10 days. Noted Berger: “With the Olympics and Batman as competition, there will be some big guerrillas to weave between, under and around, but we think it will stand out in its counter-programming sense and we think we have a good shot.”