Big Sony is opening Russian epic Stalingrad in a record number of IMAX theaters this weekend. The roll out may be a watershed for Russian filmmaking in the U.S. and it marks another blending of “specialty” and “Hollywood” though that isn’t really new as the grey areas have mounted for years. Hollywood’s biggest stars have long had indies intervals between studio cash cows. Cinedigm will open The Bag Man with Robert De Niro and John Cusack theatrically, while the Universal acquisition will remain with the studio’s non-theatrical lineup. Lionsgate/Codeblack will bow Repentance with Anthony Mackie and Forest Whitaker in over 150 theaters, targeting its primarily African-American audience. On the traditional end, Sony Classics will platform Cannes debut The Lunchbox this weekend, while Velvet Films will open an exclusive engagement at Film Society of Lincoln Center for Raoul Peck’s Fatal Assistance.
The Bag Man
Director-writer: David Grovic
Writers: Paul Conway, James Russo, Marie-Louise von Franz (inspired by her short story, The Cat)
Cast: John Cusack, Rebecca Da Costa, Robert De Niro, Crispin Glover, Dominic Purcell
First-time feature filmmaker David Grovic landed quite a cast for his crime thriller The Bag Man. Starring John Cusack, Rebecca Da Costa and Robert De Niro, the title centers on a criminal who bides his time at a seedy motel, waiting for his boss after killing several men and making away with a mystery bag. “We were incredibly fortunate to get essentially first choices in all the roles,” said Grovic. “Unless you’re a studio paying huge money, I think the only way you can get this quality of cast is by making it a passion project.” Grovic said that the cast responded to the script’s non-stereotypical traits including De Niro’s hair and eccentric dialog as well as Da Costa’s wonder woman outfit for starters. “All the cast really responded to our film noir/Shakesperean comedy,” added Grovic. “They loved the fact that we created tension and then relieved it with humor. We worked hard on getting the right yin/yang balance. We tested the movie 5 times, tweaking it as we went along.” He added that “about 75% of people get it and love it while 25% hate it. Either way we provoke strong emotions.” Grovic and his writing partners worked on the script for six months before three months of pre-production. It took some time to find the right motel which is at the center of the story and then the cast and crew had to fight an onslaught of insects at the location. “Preparing for the somewhat unique car fight scene may have been our biggest challenge,” said Grovic. “Getting John Cusack and Sticky Fingaz to change driving positions in the middle of their fight was no mean feat.”
Foreign sales propelled the production. Red Granite sold the title in many territories worldwide. Grovic gave kudos to the company’s sales team, headed by Danny Dimbort and Christian Mercuri. Universal picked up the movie in the U.S. and then brought in Cinedigm to handle theatrical, while maintaining control of other media. The Bag Man will open at AMC Empire 25 in New York and AMC Citywalk in L.A. before heading out to other markets next week based on performance. It will also be available day and date/VOD.
Director-writer: Philippe Caland
Writer: Shintaro Shimosawa
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Forest Whitaker, Sanaa Lathan, Nicole Ari Parker, Ariana Neal, Denise Milfort, Selma Pinkard
Codeblack Films picked up Repentance after seeing the feature at the Pan African Film Festival. The horror/thriller follows a successful author who takes on a troubled man as a client, completely unaware that the man’s fixation on his mother’s death will soon put his life in jeopardy. Codeblack, a division of Lionsgate which aims to serve the African-American consumer market, is targeting its awareness campaign via BET and social media to fuel interest in the film’s roll out in 152 theaters in 12 markets this weekend. “It’s our philosophy that once there’s a message to our community it’s going to go national,” said Codeblack president Jeff Clanagan. “Our audience is online and once they see it, they want it [right away].” Clanagan said that films with recognizable names, such as Repentance with its proven Hollywood cast, fit the model for a mid-sized roll out. Using traditional and social media, awareness among its core African-American audience can be accessed quickly and it maximizes its bottom line to open the film in a relatively large number of theaters as opposed to going a more word-of-mouth route, which Clanagan says still works for films it works on with relatively less known cast. “If we had a movie with non-recognizable names, it would be a different strategy because the news wouldn’t move as fast,” he said. Clanagan said the film will expand based on performance, but will likely hold it in about the same number of theaters for the time being even if it proves an initial winner at the box office. “We’ll be in the major markets already. We have a solid spread and we’re focused on profitability and hold down the P&A costs. Our basis for success is to focus on those core markets and if we can stain in our 150 screens for six weeks or so, that is successful.”
War-action title Stalingrad will have the largest foreign-language opening at IMAX theaters in the United States this weekend, bowing in over 300 theaters this weekend. Set during one of the most epic battles of WWII, the Russian-German-language feature follows a band of Russian soldiers who fight to hold a strategic building in their devastated city against the German army. They become deeply connected through it all to two Russian women who have been living there. “IMAX has been interested from the very beginning,” said Rory Bruer, president of Worldwide Distribution at Sony Pictures Releasing. “We didn’t anticipate it would be the biggest hit in Russia. We always felt it would be incredible in IMAX and 3D and that it would lend itself to both of those formats. It was a good match.” Bruer said Stalingrad was Russia’s biggest opening at IMAX when it opened at home, eventually grossing about $52M. The film also played well in Chinese IMAX theaters, grossing $11M. “What is great about Stalingrad is that it appeals to a diverse audience because of its action and enhanced 3D,” said Bruer. “Fanboys can get invested into it. It is one of the most important stories [of the era] touching so many people’s lives so [history buffs] will enjoy it. It also has romance, so there are many facets to it.”
SPC bought Indian feature The Lunchbox out of Cannes where it premiered last May. The romantic-drama revolves around a mistaken delivery in Mumbai’s otherwise efficient delivery system, which connects a young housewife to an older man in the dusk of his life as they build a fantasy world together through notes in a lunchbox. “We’re excited about [Lunchbox] and expect it to do very well,” said SPC co-president Michael Barker who saw the film at its first Cannes screening. “It’s one of those engaging foreign films that has a potential to cross over [audiences]. It’s culturally Indian, however the story crosses all borders.” Barker said that Sony Classics was “disappointed” the film was not India’s choice for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration this year, but added that the title nevertheless “had not lost profile in the marketplace.” He noted that it was well received in Telluride and Toronto last fall. The film also picked up various accolades and wins at film events globally. Indian films have crossed some box office milestones Stateside in the past year, including Dhoom 3, which opened in 236 theaters, growing over $3.3M its first weekend in December surpassing Chennai Express which broke the record in America in August, taking in over $2.225M. Barker noted that The Lunchbox is “not a Bollywood film,” though he said it’s “romantic.” “The Indian community will come out for it, but I also think it’s the kind of film that appeals to women of all ages,” added Barker. “It has the thing that you experience in engaging [classic] foreign films like Shall We Dance and Cinema Paradiso.” The film will not get the same kind of opening weekend numbers the two most recent Bollywood record-breakers had, simply because it will bow in a classic platform release. It will play four theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will head to up to a dozen markets the following week, eventually playing the top 50 markets within five weeks of this weekend’s initial roll out. “It did very well in India,” said Barker. “But there are still [a number of countries] waiting for our release.”
Haitian-born filmmaker turns the lens on his homeland in his latest documentary Fatal Assistance, which begins a limited engagement in New York. The film offers a searing indictment of the international community’s post disaster idealism following the Caribbean country’s devastating earthquake that killed up to 159,000 people. “As one of the world’s pre-eminent documentary filmmakers, Mr Peck has had a strong audience following his works, including Man On The Shore, Sometimes In April, Lumumba and others, and we can’t wait for them to see his latest work,” said Michael Tuckman who is working on the release on behalf of Velvet Films, explaining the company hopes to capture attention from audiences familiar with Peck’s work. “Extensive efforts have also been undertaken to reach out directly to the Haitian community and human rights organizations, efforts that were launched this past summer with the film’s Centerpiece screening at New York’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.” Its roll out coincides with the fourth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, which ravaged the poor French-speaking country. The film has had limited engagements in Boston and at the AFI Silver Theater near Washington as part of a Peck retrospective. Fatal Assistance will have an exclusive run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this weekend before heading to Miami later in March. It will be available across other platforms later this Spring.