Brian Brooks is a Deadline contributor.
It may be blockbuster season, but the Specialties are parading a number of new titles into theaters this weekend. After ruling the box office last year, Joss Whedon‘s modern take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing will open in limited release. Similar to many of this weekend’s new offerings, the title does not have high-named stars. Sundance and Tribeca docs Dirty Wars and Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie join the fray Friday along with Precious writer Geoffrey Fletcher’s Violet & Daisy. Joel Edgerton stars in Australian film, Wish You Were Here, opening Stateside via eOne, while Freestyle Releasing will bow two features, Hello Herman and Tiger Eyes. And SXSW doc competition film Hey Bartender will also straddle up for a shot at the box office.
Much Ado About Nothing
Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Joss Whedon (screenplay)
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate
Roadside’s Howard Cohen is returning to a Shakespeare he knows well, having been involved with Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version two decades ago. The latest, which debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival is a black and white re-telling of the story with a modern edge. “It has a great combination of upscale art house appeal and fun modern, hipster vibe,” noted Cohen. “The actors are Americans doing Shakespeare. Joss breathes a fresh air into Shakespeare. People love Shakespeare, but you have to breathe new air to re-invent 400-year-old plays.” Shot over 12 days at Whedon’s Santa Monica home while taking a short break filming The Avengers, the undertaking was something of a passion project for Whedon who used actors that have participated in Shakespeare readings at his home. “There’s a real purist aspect to it. It’s not like he randomly decided to do a prestige movie. It’s aspirational because it’s Shakespeare, but it’s with actors he works with,” added Cohen.
After screenings at SXSW and more recently Seattle, Cohen expects a mixture of crowds are potential audiences for the film including classic art house as well as some Whedon fans. “It’s very much [of an appeal] to women. It’s Joss of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly than Joss of The Avengers. His shows have very strong female characters. It will also appeal to Shakespeare fans who may not necessarily be regular moviegoers.” For this title, Roadside/Lionsgate will stick to a classic art house roll-out with two locations each in New York and Los Angeles as well as one run in San Francisco. On the 14th, it will expand within those three markets and will then head to a 150 run on June 21st in the top 25 markets. “It’s without stars, but we’re giving it a chance to grow,” said Cohen. “We played at a ton of film festivals and we think it has a lot of potential. Joss has been communicating with his fans and he’s done a lot of press, so we’re feeling good about it. We’re utilizing all the special assets the movie has but being cognizant of what it is — a black and white Shakespeare film.”
Director: Rick Rowley
Writers: David Riker, Jeremy Scahill
Subjects: Nasser Al Aulaqi, Saleha Al Aulaqi, Muqbal Al Kazemi, Abdul Rahman Barman, Sheikh Saleh Bin Fareed
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Documentary Dirty Wars “plays like a Zero Dark Thirty,” noted IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring. The Sundance debut — where the distributor picked up the title — follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill who is pulled into an unexpected journey as he chases elusive truths behind America’s covert wars. “It’s really intense and throwing the curtains back on something most Americans don’t know or don’t want to know,” said Sehring. “We argued [internally at IFC Films] about the movie which is what I loved about it.” Eerily timely given the recent focus on the extensive use of drones in recent weeks and even Thursday’s revelation that the government has been secretly collecting data on U.S. citizens’ phone usage, Sehring said the film plays across party lines because covert activity has transcended Democratic and Republican Presidents. “It upsets people vis-a-vis the Constitution unless it’s their president,” he said. “The more we talked about it you begin to question so many things.”
Scahill has helped spread the word ahead of this weekend’s initial roll-out while touring promoting his latest book. He’s also been on talk shows and most recently appeared on Morning Joe, Bill Maher, Colbert and others. “People want to talk to Jeremy. It’s been great in terms of the coverage the film has received,” said Sehring. “It’s a documentary and you can’t always count on that, but it’s subject matter that’s been on the front page of every newspaper recently. We had this debate of whether it’s right or left. I think it’s everybody. It could be very broad, but I think it’s the kind of movie audiences will talk about.” Sundance Selects has hosted screenings in various cities in the lead-up to its release, which Sehring described as very lively. Dirty Wars will head to two NYC theaters Friday in addition to one location each in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. It will head to Chicago, Bay Area locations and expansions in New York and L.A. the following week. “We have 50 to 60 dates booked so far for Dirty Wars and pre-sales have been particularly strong,” added Sehring.
Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
Directors: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger
Writer: Daniel A Miller
Subjects: Gloria Allred, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, Herman Cain
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
After debuting their 2008 Sundance feature The Linguists, directing trio Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger were looking for another project that would appeal to their psycho-analytical IDs. The three discovered that they had all shared admiration for one of TV’s original in your face talk-show hosts, the late Morton Downey Jr. “As fanboys we decided this would be a passion project,” said Miller. “We met with Bob Pittman from Clear Channel who had created the Morton Downey Jr. show who had in storage all the tapes from the program and handed us the keys.” Évocateur, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes a look at the rise of fall Downey, a populist loud-mouthed heavy-smoking personality who is credited as a forerunner to today’s personalities including Glenn Beck and others.
“Morton Downey Jr. was the starting point for a lot of these people who appear in the film,” said Miller. “What appealed to us about him was that it was about current topics dressed up as professional wrestling. These people would fight as if they were in a gladiator pit. Gloria Allred, Pat Buchanan and even some of his contemporaries would speak about him.” The filmmakers’ passion for the subject extended to their wallets, financing the project themselves, pouring over 400 hours of tape. “There’s crazy stuff that nobody knows about and it’s still shocking and MDJ holds up,” added Miller. Magnolia Pictures picked up the doc out of Tribeca last year and will open the film in one theater in New York City in addition to three suburban locations as well as one run in L.A. in addition to VOD Friday. The film will have a limited regional expansion over the next few weeks in Miami, Denver, Seattle and others, with additional theatrical sites added based on performance.
Writer/director Geoffrey Fletcher began writing the story Violet & Daisy before writing Precious and finished it after the film went on to the big screen, eventually receiving multiple nominations including an Oscar win for Mo’Nique. “Writing didn’t happen every day,” said Fletcher. “The distance was helpful and every time I returned to work, I’d have a fresher perspective. I finished the script for Precious and then started the ground work for Violet & Daisy and had a first draft done before Precious came out. My formal training is as a director and have made short films since 14. And I had always had this in mind to direct.” The film revolves around two teen assassins who accept what they think will be an easy job, but an unexpected target throws them off their plan. Production began in late 2010 in New York and the final cut completed in 2012. An earlier cut screened in Toronto in 2011, but Fletcher and team re-visited the edit room after the festival. “I’m proud of the earlier cut, but it was a bit longer,” said Fletcher. “It delved more deeply into the psyches of the characters that we’ll make available at some point.”
Social media and the release of the film’s trailer, posters and teasers have helped propel awareness, according to Fletcher, who added he’s done a lot of press in both print and online. “We also did a college tour of the film which went remarkably well”, he added. “Young people have connected so powerfully with this film and I thought they might like it, but the extent to which they like it is nearly overwhelming.” Violet & Daisy will head to 17 markets this weekend.
Australian director-co-writer Kieran Darcy-Smith began to look for a lower budget project to pursue after a larger budget movie fell through. “I wanted it to be personal and something I could sink my teeth into,” said Darcy-Smith. “My wife Felicity had also been looking for something and she found an idea that we felt could be a vehicle for both of us.” After Felicity Price formulated a treatment in 2007, the two thought they’d put together a $100K project that would star them both and began to look for houses for the shoot. “Our producer said [the story] was too good to go down that track, so we got into a writing lab and met advisors while others came on board.” The filmmakers sought a bigger platform, but needed to surmount some requirements in order to qualify for Australian government funding, including a local distributor and sales agent. “We took the package to Cannes and got a distributor on board,” said Darcy-Smith. “It was a fairy tale Cannes trip. We had a few offers and did a deal on the beach and came home with money and that was the final hoop to go through. The budget was set at $1.8 million then it went to $2.3 million. It was a very traditional Australian path for government funding.”
Centered on four friends who go off for a care-free holiday in Southeast Asia, only three return leaving family members desperate about the whereabouts of their lost mate. The shoot began in 2010 in Sydney and then production headed to Cambodia. “The shoot in Cambodia was off the charts,” said Darcy-Smith. “I could write a whole book on that experience. I fell into a sewer up to my neck covered in everything you can imagine. I got very ill and caught dysentery. It was as hard as it could possibly be but at the same time it was exhilarating and the material was everything it could possibly be because of the things that were being thrown at us. Also the cast and crew didn’t speak English and I was so ill but so adrenalized. There were certainly some tears shed along the way, but I would never have changed doing it.” The film played at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where distributor eOne came on board after winning a bidding war between two other companies. Wish You Were Here had originally been slated for a fall release, but was pushed back so cast member Joel Edgerton could concentrate on The Great Gatsby. The film will open in 10 markets in 11 theaters this Friday.
Hey Bartender filmmaker and 4th Row Film partner Douglas Tirola has long been fascinated by bar culture. He initially set out to make a film about corner bars, the kind that once lured a regular clientele in places like New York and other cities. “Younger people are more interested in what’s new than becoming a regular in a bar community,” noted Tirola. After a bartender departed from his favorite NoLita establishment in NYC, a friend pointed him to an uptown place called Employees Only and was introduced to Steve Schneider who became a subject in the film. “Schneider introduced me to others and I almost instantly knew that there was a story I wanted to tell and could be made into a movie,” said Tirola. “The story is that there is an entire culture that people didn’t know about.” The project began shooting three years ago and continued until February 2013 just as the filmmaking team found out it had been accepted to screen in the Documentary Competition at the SXSW Film Festival. Tirola financed the film through 4th Row, which gets its bread and butter making marketing and branding films, including projects for Spirit companies, which also gave Tirola entree to personalities in the hospitality industry.
4th Row Films has pre-booked over 40 theaters throughout summer for Hey Bartender and is partnering with digital entertainment curator FilmBuff for a release on iTunes and other leading VOD platforms. It will open at Village Ease in New York and will head to ten markets including L.A., Denver and San Diego on June 14th.
After reading an early novella by writer John Buffalo Mailer, filmmaker Michelle Danner became interested in Hello Herman, which is set in a town that could be in almost anywhere in the U.S. Sixteen year-old Herman Howards enters his suburban school and kills thirty-nine students, two teachers and a police officer. Just before his arrest he emails his idol, famous journalist Lax Morales, sending him clips of the shootings captured with Herman’s own digital camera. “I thought it was a very socially relevant story,” said Danner. “When I made it, it wasn’t as prevalent in the news, sadly, as it is now. It’s so much more in the forefront.” The production came together in 2009. Concerned parents, both inside and outside the industry came on board as executive producers, providing funding. Production suffered what could have been a fatal blow when its star — and subsequent financing — fell through just two months before shooting began, but after Norman Reedus came on board, the entire project found new life “The project was meant to be,” said Danner.
The film debuted at the Hollywood Film Festival and later at the Monaco Film Festival where it won an award for social relevance. It had been slated to open earlier in the year, but was pushed back after the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred out of respect. Freestyle Releasing will open the title in 12 cities in 12 theaters including New York and L.A.
Freestyle’s head of acquisitions had been tracking Tiger Eyes in the lead-up to the company’s formal role in the project. Based on the novel by Judy Blume, the story centers on Davey, whose father is killed in a hold-up. Following his death, Davey, her mother and brother visit relatives in New Mexico where she befriends a young man who helps her find the strength to carry on and conquer her fears. “Everyone in the company is a huge Judy Blume fan and we were excited to have the first movie based on one of her novels,” said Freestyle president and co-founder Susan Jackson. “About six months ago, we did a deal with George Cooper, one of the producers and [director] Lawrence Blume.” Blume’s fan base also appealed to Freestyle. “She’s like having an A+ actress. You can get her books on television shows etc., and from a VOD and DVD point-of-view, she’s a known quantity, which helps when you aren’t working with a big marketing budget.”
Blume has also been active in promoting the film, taking part in a hefty number of interviews as well as taking on the talk show circuit in addition to radio and satellite conversations. “She’s been booked solid,” said Jackson. Tiger Eyes will open in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Denver, Portland, Phoenix and San Francisco for a total of about 20 theaters this weekend. “We’ll see how we do, but we’ve had a ton of demand for bookings,” added Jackson. “It’s not going to be a mass market [release] but we want to get the picture and move around the country.”