This weekend’s slate of new specialty films runs the gamut. Among the newcomers are examples of classical art house fare that have picked up accolades ahead of their release, while others are less traditional. Searchlight will open Belle, about a mixed-race woman who grew up amidst Britain’s aristocracy. Music Box Films is releasing Ida, a winner in Toronto and London about a woman who discovers her roots. First Run Features is bowing the documentary More Than The Rainbow, which hopes to capitalize on positive box office for docus about photography, while Gravitas is opening Bad Johnson, about a good-looking lad who is a hit with the ladies but gets into trouble when his appendage takes on human form no less.
The roots of Belle begin around 2005 after producer Damian Jones came across a story that eventually would be at the center of Belle. Set in 18th century England, the film was inspired by a painting commissioned by the Earl of Mansfield. The story centers on an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle.
“I live close to Kenwood House [where the painting hung],” said Jones. “We teamed up originally with HBO [on the project], but then we came back to the British Film Institute Film Fund and I brought on [filmmaker] Amma Asante and we put it together.” The project had its challenges putting together financing, and Jones said that had the team tried to put it all together some years ago, he doubted whether a story about a mixed-race woman in aristocratic England would have been a sell. “[Film sales company] Bankside saw it as an asset, so they were the first part of the puzzle, and Pinewood group completed the puzzle,” said Jones. “It was typical UK financing with regional help and presales, which completed the financial plan. We made it through with $10 million. We did remarkably well considering the price.” Asante came on board in 2010, and the project wrapped around Christmas 2012. Jones added that his work as a producer on The Iron Lady also helped pave the way in getting Belle up to speed. Shooting took place on the Isle of Man and London over seven weeks. “Production pulled off a minor miracle,” he added. “We gave Kenwood House [where it’s set] a palace feel.”
Fox Searchlight picked up Belle last summer ahead of its Toronto premiere after Jones and Asante screened the title for potential buyers in London, New York and L.A. “Searchlight was the most enthusiastic and aggressive,” he said. “They bought it before Toronto. It was lovely being there without the pressure of needing a sale.” Jones added that Searchlight is opening Belle in a similar window to box office hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which the company opened in May 2012. That film went on to gross more than $46 million in the U.S. Belle will open Friday in four theaters in New York and L.A.. It will expand in limited showings during the next month.
Polish-language drama Ida takes place in 1962. Anna, an orphan raised by nuns has to see her only living relative before she herself takes her vows, but then she learns of her Jewish roots. She and her aunt then take a journey to learn about their tragic roots. “It is already one of the most anticipated foreign-language features of the year with alert U.S. critics, and we believe their enthusiasm will translate with discerning U.S. audiences,” said Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz. “The level of artistry and intelligence, thematic impact, historical awareness and emotional involvement made it an obvious choice for us to pursue.” The company picked up the title out of last year’s Toronto where it won the International Critics’ Award (FIPRESCI). It went on to won Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival in addition to other festival nods in the lead-up to its U.S. rollout. “There are some obvious affinity groups — Poles, Jews, Catholics, inter-faith organizations — that we are specifically targeting in grass-roots outreach,” said Arentz. “[Its audience is] intelligent viewers who crave the aesthetic excitement of a great director working at the top of his game.” His previous film, The Woman In The Fifth, bowed in July 2012 via ATO Pictures, grossing $113,800 in the U.S. Music Box will open Ida at Lincoln Plaza and Film Forum in New York as well as the Royal in L.A. on Friday. It will head to art houses in the top 50-75 markets within the next several weeks. Said Arentz, “We project box office will be somewhere between our previous releases Lore, about $1 million, and Monsieur Lazhar, about $2 million.”
First Run had a seamless time finding More Than The Rainbow. The documentary feature came via a staff member, Judith Mizrachy. who served as an associate producer. More Than The Rainbow chronicles the life and times of street photographer and former New York cabbie Matt Weber, who began taking photos from his taxi and captured street scenes that found an audience. “When we saw this film, we were impressed with how it captured this photographer in a unique and unconventional biographical way,” said First Run’s Marc Mauceri. “It tells his story through photographs and voice and does so in a poetic and evocative way. It’s not a conventional doc on the art of photography. What hooked us is that he’s a street photographer.” Mauceri said First Run has flexibility to take chances on films that may be challenging to fit obvious box office molds, but it will take on certain titles since it’s a truly indie company. “We are a company [that’s] not beholden to a corporate parent,” he said. “We can fall in love with films that we don’t see as obviously commercial and still work on them and put them out. And they often do business.” Photo-centric docs have done well of late. IFC Films’ Finding Vivian Maier opened in three theaters, grossing more than $63K ($21,200 PTA) and has cumed more than $700K to date. Zeitgeist’s Bill Cunningham New York opened in March 2011 and cumed $1.5 million-plus. “What Bill Cunningham has is celebrity,” said Mauceri. “This film doesn’t really have as much celebrity. It’s not a celebrity/popularity kind of film. It’s an authentic and experiential. Vivian Maier is probably the best comparison. That is discovery. This doesn’t have the same dramatic art; it’s something else.”
Wechsler, a rare-book trader, recently found some notoriety after discovering rare Shakespeare writings and has touted the film with subsequent media coverage. It will open at New York’s Quad theater and will expand based on performance. Said Mauceri, “We’re doing the obvious places of interest with photography. We’re banking on good reviews, and we’ll do the common sensical thing.”
Bad Johnson is an apropos title. The comedy follows a charismatic womanizer whose manhood takes on human form and leaves his body. “We discovered that this film was coming up before AFM of last year, and we wound up going to a private screening and talking to sales agent. We acquired it before the end of 2013,” said Gravitas Ventures’ Melanie Miller. “We knew the concept would resonate, specifically in the VOD space.” Gravitas also worked with Bad Johnson star Cam Gigandet on 5 Star Day in 2010. Gravitas opened the film (perhaps also appropriately) on April 1 in an ultra-VOD window, which it sees as a possible boon to its limited theatrical run. “Bad Johnson has a mainstream concept,” said Miller. “We’re actually doing a lot of AMC theaters across the country including the AMC Empire in New York and AMC Burbank. I know it would skew into a rom-com/Judd Apatow flavor. AMC is also one of the few chains that are OK with a day-and-date release model.” Miller said that co-star Nick Thune also has been an asset getting word out through his connections in the comedic world. He appeared on Conan and on Playboy Radio. Writer Jeff Tetreault, who has worked as a stripper, also had an article in Vulture. “It’s funny to read in his own words how he came up with this,” added Miller. Clips of the film are appearing on Fandango and USA Today, and the movie is being featured in Entertainment Weekly. Gravitas will open Bad Johnson in 11 markets in North America including New York and L.A. as well as two theaters in Chicago, where the film takes place. It will bow in 12 runs altogether this weekend.