Brian Brooks is a Deadline contributor.
Roadside/Lionsgate’s Girl Most Likely and RADiUS-TWC’s Only God Forgives will be among this summer’s largest weekend rollouts among the Specialties. Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss starrer Girl Most Likely will continue Roadside’s strategy of opening indies with named actors in theaters numbering in the hundreds in order to capitalize on media attention, a move they have had success with earlier this year. Two docs from Magnolia Pictures and Drafthouse Films join the Specialty newcomers, with Blackfish facing push-back from SeaWorld about its doc spotlighting marine animals in captivity. The Act Of Killing, meanwhile, received a heap of praise in its festival run and has the likes of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris backing up the film, which takes a unique twist on the non-fiction form. And Well Go USA is targeting the Chinese-American community with its Jay Chou Taiwanese feature, The Rooftop.
Producer Lene Borglum founded production company Space Rocket Nation with Nicolas Winding Refn following their successful collaboration on Valhalla Rising in 2009 and was naturally on board Only God Forgives from the beginning. The Cannes premiere divided audiences, but made quite an impression at its world premiere. The film revolves around a Bangkok drug smuggler whose life is complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. “I really like the visual style and universe of Nicolas Winding Refn,” said Borglum. “It’s unique and innovative. I am also very attracted to the psychological layers of the film and the way of working with the different layers, as well as his way of working with sound and music rather than explaining everything in dialogue.” Initially, the plan had been to go with an up and coming U.K. talent due to the project’s low budget, casting British actor Luke Evans who later dropped out to appear in The Hobbit. At the time, Refn had been given the Best Director Award at Cannes for Drive, which starred Ryan Gosling, who stepped in to star.
Kristin Scott Thomas also joined the project early on along with the main Thai actors. “The remaining Thai cast was found on the streets of Thailand,” noted Borglum. “It was wonderful to shoot in Thailand. It was moody and atmospheric as well as mysterious. The Thai crew was fantastic, and everything went really well. We never had any problem. We shot at night for 9 weeks, and of course that was hard, but it also gave the film it’s unique feeling of Bangkok after dark.” RADiUS-TWC will open Only God Forgives in 32 markets in 80 theaters in addition to Day & Date via iTunes and on demand everywhere. It will expand based on performance.
Girl Most Likely
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Writers: Michelle Morgan
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss, Christopher Fitzgerald, Natasha Lyonne
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate
Roadside has caused a stir among some specialty distributors who adhere to a platform orthodoxy with their limited releases. But the company has had some success this year with the likes of specialties that also boast stars in opening films, such as Mud, in hundreds of theaters in order to maximize media attention. The company will do similarly with Girl Most Likely, which has stars Kristen Wiig and Matt Dillon on the talk show circuit. “The summer is a good time for independent films,” said Roadside chief Howard Cohen. “We’re not trying to chase awards and by now the audience is tired of the 14th sequel to the whatever.” The comedy centers on a failed New York playwright who awkwardly navigates the transition from “next big thing” to “last year’s news.” It’s a bit more mainstream and has stars,” said Cohen. “It’s a comedy, crowd pleaser. It’s very promotable and advertises well on TV. This is a case for our strategy of a modified platform.” Girl Most Likely will have the largest initial release for a specialty this summer, opening on 353 screens this weekend with a subsequent expansion based on performance.
“We have a lot of confidence in this strategy,” said Cohen adding, “We had success with it in Mud. Not every movie is going to do $20 million, but it’s still a good strategy for one that will do half that number. Cost-wise, it’s a lot more money to support the expansion when a movie will eventually get to the same number of screens we’re opening at… We think with stars it will play major multiplexes in America. Why would you not want to be in River East in Chicago, why would you not want to be there. Why wait three weeks?”
Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite had been a patron at marine animal parks, taking her children to the likes of SeaWorld, but became interested in the behind the scenes angle after the death of a professional killer whale trainer by one orca, Tilikum while in captivity. The orca had killed before and her Sundance feature uses footage and interviews to present a case against keeping the animals in captivity. “I just had thought they all got along and especially at a place like Sea World,” said Cowperthwaite. “So I started peeling back the onion. The idea that they’re committed to preservation and education was also something I believed and grew up thinking about SeaWorld. What I came to understand is that they actually miseducate and there’s no data that they are committed to environmental conservation.” Access was a challenge since Cowperthwaite said she couldn’t talk to anyone inside SeaWorld. The film focuses on Tilikum and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. “It’s difficult to talk about a story that deals with a death,” said Cowperthwaite. “The idea that this great person is the entry point to a story. The autopsy report reveals how deliberate the attack was. It’s pretty dark and being mired in that world for two years was not fun.” The filmmaker claimed that SeaWorld would grant her an interview but later declined. SeaWorld acknowledged that she reached out to them, but has no recollection of agreeing to a conversation, adding about the film: “Blackfish ignores everything in our long history that shows the dedication and skill of our zoological staff, our commitment to education, research and conservation, our work to rescue and rehabilitate animals in need, and the inspirational impact of seeing these animals and others up close.” SeaWorld hired publicity company 42West to strategize its response to the film.
Cowperthwaite was introduced by two women who served as executive producers for the film. Judy Bart and Erica Kahn came on board the project with financing. Submarine’s Josh and Dan Braun saw a rough cut of the film last summer and repped the film at Sundance where it sold to Magnolia. The company will open Blackfish at the Arclight in L.A. as well as the Sunshine Cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York. It will head to 18 more locations in California, New York, D.C., Florida, New Jersey, Chicago and Boston July 26th before going wider throughout August.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling yet beautiful documentary The Act Of Killing had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film may be a tough sell given its topic, though it has won praises for being shocking and entertaining from audiences in the film circuit. “It was surreal and bizarre with hula dancers,” said Drafthouse Films’ Evan Husney. “I was getting chills and knew this was the movie for us.” In the film, Oppenheimer challenges Indonesia’s former death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios to lavish musical numbers. “I was working with this community to create a documentary, but every time we filmed we would be stopped. The military would come, the police would come, and village officials would stop us and detain people and their community,” said Oppenheimer. “So one of the survivors told me, ‘Josh, you should film the killers. I can introduce you. He killed my aunt. He will boast. He will take you where he did it. I know this because he will tell members of the family where and how he did this.’ And indeed, that happened.” Drafthouse Films closed the acquisition deal shortly after its TIFF premiere, though not without a bit of a struggle. The distributor had learned they had fallen to second place in the bidding, but Drafthouse head Tim League had sent along a note saying they needed to get the film. Doc veterans Werner Herzog and Errol Morris also serve as executive producers and have been involved in telling the story.
“It is always a challenge talking about this commercially,” said Husney. “The difference is that because of its response and the praise, this is a film that demands to be seen not only because of the socio-political aspects, but the filmmaking, surrealism and beauty are all there. The last 20 minutes are like nothing I’ve seen before.” League sent an email to insiders pleading for the film, urging people to spread the word. “I have never done this before, and I promise that I will not be making such an ask very often, if ever again,” the email says. Drafthouse Films will open The Act Of Killing in New York exclusively at Landmark Sunshine before heading out to 30 cities in the coming weeks. “This film DEMANDS to be seen,” League said in his email. “The Act Of Killing is not just one of the best documentaries ever made; it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. Not only that, this film has the power to spur on significant political change and expose a present day regime and society founded on the celebration of crimes against humanity. Because of this, I am reaching out to everyone I know to help us spread the word.”
Well Go VP Jason Pfardrescher calls Taiwanese produced action feature a “Moulin Rouge meets Greece” movie that is a Chinese musical within a sub-genre of action-comedy. Written, directed and starring Jay Chou, Well Go caught wind of the film through its Taipei office. “We went on set,” noted Pfardrescher. “Jay has an audience within the Chinese community [in the U.S.] due to his work on The Green Hornet (2011).” Acknowledging that there are “not a lot of Chinese musicals out there,” the film had its North American premiere at the recent New York Asian Film Festival and is running its PR campaigns alongside its festival runs which includes the Asian Film Festival of Dallas which ends Thursday. “In terms of advertising, we’re going to Chinese publications that target that population,” said Pfardrescher. We hope reviews will get to a wider audience, but we’re realistic too. It’s not going to be a film for everyone.”
Pfardrescher said the film opened against Pacific Rim in Taiwan, placing second at the box office there. The Rooftop will open in 15 markets with 17 runs Friday and will expand based on performance. Added Pfardrescher: For Chinese focused films, the widest you can achieve is 30 markets.”