Brian Brooks is a Deadline contributor.
As Sundance kicks into high gear with much of the spectrum of the indie world high up in Utah, Millennium will debut Life Of A King with Cuba Gooding, Jr. The project has been a passion of veteran producer Jim Young over a decade in the making and will open in a fairly sizable launch this weekend. Music Box will bow Generation War, a feature that was initially shown as a highly successful mini-series in Germany with a “unique” story against the backdrop of WWII. Also a project that gestated over some years, Back In The Day will bow this weekend via Screen Media Films, while Magnet releasing will open Israeli-produced thriller Big Bad Wolves. And festival favorite LGBT-centered G.B.F. will open in an initial limited run by Vertical Entertainment.
Life Of A King has roots in a segment from ABC’s Nightline over a decade ago. The drama centers on ex-felon, Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr) who establishes a Chess Club for inner city teens in Washington, D.C. “I met a sports writer named Dan Wetzel and he said I had to watch this episode of Nightline about Eugene Brown,” said producer Jim Young. “I watched it and it was unbelievable.” He attempted to track Brown down via the internet, but had difficulty at the time (we’ve come a long way) and decided to go the traditional route by hiring a private detective. “He was dumbfounded someone called and wanted to do a movie on him. I started developing the script with Dan [Wetzel] and Dave Scott,” said Young. “Eventually a writer/director I had worked with as a producer on a previous film, Jake Goldberger, [took a look] and worked on a script re-write.” That was 8 years ago, around the time both Young and Goldberger worked on an earlier project, Don McKay. Life Of A King had some sizable production outfits on board at various stages, but it had difficulty getting a final home, but eventually they received a call about the feature from a company in Atlanta. “In early 2012, after many years of toiling to get the film made, we found an amazing partner in UP Entertainment and we were off running,” said Young. Meanwhile, casting agent Mary Vernieu had contacted Cuba Gooding, Jr., who read the script, and he came on board.
Young, meanwhile, was producing Lovelace (which came out last year) and got word that the project was a go. It was shot in October – November 2012 and Life Of A King premiered at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. CAA’s Dina Kuperstock repped the film which Millennium picked up. ” It’s the first project I [began] developing as a producer, and have done others [in the meantime], but this stuck with me because the guy is a real inspiration for me,” said Young. “It’s got that flavor of classic sports movies, but with an interesting socio/political slant.” It will open in 18 markets including New York and Washington, D.C.
Generation War is told from the perspective of five ordinary German friends, which was originally released in Germany as a three-part miniseries where it played to hefty ratings via public broadcaster ZDF. “WWII is a topic that’s been mined for stories time and again, so the difficulty is always finding a fresh take on it,” said Music Box’s Andrew Carlin, head of theatrical sales. ” It’s also phenomenally well-produced and has the lush production value and jaw-dropping set pieces that American audiences expect of war films.” In addition to the 7 million Germans who tuned into each episode of Generation War (which spans over five years beginning in 1941 Berlin), the drama solicited much public debate about its portrayal of Polish anti-Nazis, Jews and non-German victims vs German perpetrators in the war. ” It’s important to remember that Americans have only been exposed to a handful of films, set against the backdrop of WWII, in which the Germans aren’t characterized as cartoonish villains. And that’s what makes Generation War so thought-provoking,” added Carlin. “It asks audiences to look back with more objective eyes and see that war is a universally awful thing to experience, irrespective of which side you fight for.”
Carlin noted that audience response in festival runs Stateside have been “overwhelmingly positive,” including at the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival where it screened as a “Best of the Fest” selection due to strong audience reaction. “I would expect to see that excitement translate into positive word-of-mouth during our theatrical release,” he said. Generation War began an exclusive run at New York’s Film Forum on Wednesday and will not expand until February, but it will head to the top 20 markets by early spring. Added Carlin: “If you’re not a contender, the run-up to the Oscars is always a challenging time to release a specialty title.”
Writer-director Michael Rosenbaum began writing the script for Back In The Day a decade ago, but had put it aside. After another movie he had been slated to direct fell through two years ago, he revisited the project. The comedy centers on Jim Owens who travels home for his high school reunion. Hoping to relive his glory days with his friends and also to reignite an old romance, however, he nearly destroys his hometown and his friendships. “It was really a culmination of all these hilarious little events that took place where I grew up in Indiana and the people that I grew up with,” said Rosenbaum. “I decided to make Back In The Day happen for a much lower budget. That’s independent filmmaking. You never know when something is going to fall apart. But everything happens for a reason.” Rosenbaum put some of his own money behind Back In The Day and sent the script to a few producers including Kim Waltrip who “love” it. She in turn sent it to an investors who Rosenbaum noted, “came through in a big way.” Rosenbaum also tapped a family friend in Indiana who also kicked in funds. The project shot for about a million dollars without any tax breaks, according to Rosenbaum who added, “Indiana didn’t have one. I’m trying to change that.” Rosenbaum tapped friends to join the cast rounding out the slate through “casting connections.” Noted Rosenbaum: “We couldn’t afford separate trailers for the actors so we had a ‘girls trailer’ and a ‘boys trailer.’ It actually forced everyone to spend time with each other and get close very fast. They didn’t have a choice.”
Rosenbaum said the production shot around eight pages per day for nearly twenty days. He contrasted that with the typical two pages per day for studios and noted there wasn’t “a lot of time for error.” “We started shooting Back In The Day just under two years ago in Newburgh and Evansville, IN. We premiered it last week and the town was just buzzing,” said Rosenbaum. ” Screen Media will open the film in 10 of the top 20 markets this week and will be rolling out the film throughout January and February to additional markets. Added Screen Meida: “The film did open to a strong box office report in Indiana in two theaters last week prior to the national opening.”
Magnolia’s genre label Magnet picked up thriller Big Bad Wolves out of last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The Israeli-produced feature centers on a series of brutal murders which put the lives of three men on a collision course. “We were familiar with their first film Rabies,” said Magnet/Magnolia exec Matt Cowal. “It’s been really well received by the genre audience, which is its core, but it has done well beyond that during its festival run.” Cowal noted the film was a “mainstream hit” in Israel and it picked up a spectacular endorsement from Quentin Tarantino who caught it at a festival in Asia. “Tarantino said it was the best film he saw last year during the Busan International Film Festival,” said Cowal. Big Bad Wolves will open Day and Date Friday. Cowal noted that Magnolia has generally found Ultra VOD works best when “audiences have a good sense of what they are with very little information such as stars or if a film is a straightforward genre title.” Foreign-language films need simultaneous publicity and reviews that will benefit a release. Along with VOD Friday, Big Bad Wolves will open Cinema Village and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York. It will move into numerous markets throughout this month and into February.
Vertical Entertainment first caught comedy G.B.F. at the Tribeca Film Festival where it premiered. The story follows a closeted gay teen who wants to join the popular girls’ clique, but his plans backfire when his best friend is forced out of the closet instead. “There’s a niche market for this type of story and everyone can relate to trying to fit in,” said Peter Jarowey of Vertical Entertainment. DirecTV also got involved with non-theatrical, though the film continued to do a large number of festivals throughout the summer and fall. “Darren [Stein] and the filmmaking team withheld rights for the festival [strategy],” said Jarowey. “Darren is very much involved with the process of getting the word out about the film and that includes the festivals. They’ve also been very much involved in the grassroots of getting the film out there.” Jarowey said they have approached various “advocacy groups” to talk up the film. They were also involved in its financing en route to the big screen. The film had a digital window ahead of its theatrical run this weekend, “Performing to their expectations,” added Jarowey. “They love the film and will be re-promoting it for the weekend. That sort of support helps these small independent films get exposure without having to spend a lot of money and therefore taking extra risk.” Stein and some cast members will join Q&As in Los Angeles this weekend after showings of the film. It will open in three theaters this weekend with planned expansions to New York and other cities including Chicago, Eugene, OR, and Atlanta. From there it will roll out further based on performance.