Films from notables Nick Cave, Kevin Smith and Terry Gilliam, and another featuring Downton Abbey vet Dan Stevens are helping fill this weekend’s box office, despite studio blockbuster debuts for The Maze Runner and This Is Where I Leave You.

In all, 14 specialty films are debuting this weekend, at the front edge of awards season and the time of year when “serious” films hit the screens left and right. We have The Guestwith Stevens; The Zero Theorem by Gilliam; Smith’s Tusk; Tracks, the latest from the producers of The King’s Speechand Cave’s doc 20,000 Days On Earth. 

And, like a TV informercial, there’s more: the doc Pump, boundary-jumper Stop The Pounding Heart; and Swim Little Fish Swim. Just to fill out the marquees, we also have Tribeca-winning doc Keep On Keepin’ On; Flamenco, Flamenco; Hector And The Search For Happiness;  Iceman; Hollidaysburg; and Not Cool.  Oscilloscope will open its Tribeca and Montclair film festival doc Art And Craft in select locations.

The Guest

Director: Adam Wingard

Writer: Simon Barrett

Cast: Dan Stevens, Sheila Kelley, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick, Tabatha Shaun, Chase Williamson

Distributor: Picturehouse

The Guest Dan StevensDownton Abbey fans will get to see Dan Stevens in a decidedly different role in The Guest. The genre-bending thriller centers on a soldier who introduces himself to a dead soldier’s family, claiming to be his friend. They welcome him just as a series of accidental deaths take place.

“I loved the reaction at the first screening at Sundance,” said Picturehouse chief Bob Berney. “It’s a mash-up of genres. The challenge here is to let people in on the film to a small degree in advance.”

The film’s multifaceted characte is both a “challenge” and an “opportunity,” Berney said. While there is violence, the film also has funny aspects throughout, which Berney hopes will help lure a cross-section of audiences.

“As word of mouth has been building, people have heard just enough that it’s super-entertaining even though it does have some violence,” Berney said. “Our digital and social-media campaigns have given just a hint of this and luckily our reviews have backed that up.”

Stevens has actively promoted the film, perhaps surprising younger audiences with his British accent. Berney said The Guest will have an “aggressive platform release.”

The title actually opened Wednesday in 9 markets in 21 theaters, which Picturehouse hopes will fuel more word of mouth going into the weekend.

The Zero Theorem

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: Pat Rushin

Cast: Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges Mélanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon, Gwendoline Christie, Rupert Friend, Lily Cole

Distributor: Amplify (theatrical and digital), Well Go (home entertainment)

The Zero TheoremThis is Amplify’s second release (after God Help The Girl on Sept. 5). With Terry Gilliam and a very high-profil cast to boot, it’s the much higher-profile bow.

“This was one of the first films we had picked up as Amplify,” said EVP of Theatrical Distribution and Marketing Dylan Marchetti.  “We all saw the film in our previous roles. We partnered on the release with Well Go USA. We’re doing a lot of the theatrical and some digital while they will do [more] digital and home entertainment.”

The fantasy/sci-fi film centers on a computer hacker whose goal is to discover the reason for human existence, but his work is constantly interrupted by management. This time they find a teenager who becomes a lusty love interest to distract him.

“Terry Gilliam films are event films and this is no different,” said Marchetti. “It may be a slightly lower-budget film, (though) it’s been a fixture on iTunes’ top lists” for a month and has done “very well.” Overseas, it has grossed more than $500K.

“We thought the international materials were a bit off so we re-did them,” said Marchetti. “The trailer has had 9 million views. We’re promoting iTunes and other digital while also promoting its theatrical release so it’s a multi-step process for the rollout and we need to respect each part of that process.”

Gilliam’s previous feature The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus debuted in December 2009, grossing nearly $7.7 million theatrically.

Amplify will take The Zero Theorem to about 60 theaters this weekend including IFC Center and Nighthawk in New York as well as the Sunset  Cinemas and other suburban theaters in Los Angeles as well as Alamo Drafthouse locations, AFI Theaters in Washington, D.C. and others. Gilliam is participating in an Apple Store talk in New York and appearing on Charlie Rose and the Tonight Show.

“Will be at theater at IFC Center this weekend for Q&As. We want to contextualize the film,” said Marchetti. “We’ve worked a lot with many theaters showing the film with about 20 of them doing mini Gilliam retrospectives, which we hope will spur further interest. If results are there we’ll keep it going. For now we’re adding 15 theaters the following week.”

Tracks

Director: John Curran

Writers: Marion Nelson, Robyn Davidson (book)

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Lily Pearl, Philip Dodd, Fiona Press, Rainer Bock

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Tracks movie Mia WasikowskaTracks producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman’s last time around with TWC was hugely successful for all involved: The King’s Speech brought them Best Picture Oscars (along with Gareth Unwin) in 2011.

Tracks is also opening through TWC after a lengthy festival run that began at 2013’s Venice/Telluride/Toronto gauntlet before hitting criss-crossing the U.S. and abroad to maximize word of mouth. The bio-adventure follows a young woman who goes on a 1,700-mile journey across Western Australia with four camels and a dog.

“Harvey (Weinstein) saw it last year and flipped,” said TWC president of theatrical Erik Lomis. “It’s a great story about how a woman finds herself and does it on her own.”

Similar to TWC’s The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, which opened last week, Lomis expects this weekend’s audiences to skew toward women. The company is looking for “strong reviews” to lure the art house crowd and the “older sophisticated audience.”

Director John Curran’s previous feature Stone opened in 2010, and grossed over $1.8 million. His 2006  release The Painted Veil grossed just over $8 million. TWC will open at Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika theaters in New York and the LA Royal and Arclight theaters in L.A. this weekend.

Keep On Keepin’ On

Director-writer: Alan Hicks

Writer: Davis Coombe

Cast: Clark Terry, Justin Kauflin, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Herbie Hancock, Phylis Kauflin, Frank Kauflin

Distributor: RADiUS-TWC

Keep On Keepin' OnThe folks at RADiUS first caught doc Keep On Keepin’ On at the Tribeca Film Festival  last April. The moving non-fiction film follows jazz great Clark Terry over several years,chronicling his mentorship of 23-year-old blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin as the young man prepares to compete in an elite international competition.

“[There’s this] young wunderkind pianist and he forms one of the most unlikely of friendships,” said RADiUS co-president Tom Quinn.

The company hit Oscar, box office and VOD gold last year with another music doc, Twenty Feet From Stardom, which grossed nearly $5 million at the box office and $1.3 million on demand. Now, Radius is striking up another music doc.

“It’s a huge crowd pleaser that [potentially] appeals to a very similar audience as Twenty Feet From Stardom,” said Quinn. “It’s gripping — probably more gripping — than Twenty Feet. It features the heavyweights of jazz.”

That includes multi-hyphenate Quincy Jones, who fell in love with the project and story, coming on board as a producer to help finish the five-year project.

RADiUS will open Keep On Keepin’ On at the Landmark and the Arclight in Los Angeles this weekend and will follow with New York.

“We’re going Off-Broadway before the bright lights of NYC,” joked Quinn. “We’re trying to build momentum to build word of mouth.”

After Tribeca, where Keep On took the Best New Documentary Director prize, the film screened in Seattle, winning the “Golden Space Needle Award” and then in Telluride.

“That never happens for a film that played festivals already in this country,” said Quinn. Telluride famously bows (somewhat unofficially) new work along with curated classics. Now that it’s hitting the distribution circuit, Keep On will have a traditional window, rolling out slowly. Said Quinn: “We’re going to take it as far as we can and ‘eventize’ every place we can.”

20,000 Days On Earth

Directors-writers: Iain Forstyth, Jane Pollard

Writer: Nick Cave

Subjects: Nick Cave, Susie Bick, Warren Ellis, Darian Leader, Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, Arthur Cave, Earl Cave

Distributor: Drafthouse Films

Image (12) 20000-days-on-earth__140126051909-275x154.jpg for post 671058Drafthouse Films picked up doc 20,000 Days On Earth out of Sundance in January. The film centers on writer and musician Nick Cave and, as the title suggests, it marks his 20,000th day on earth (that lands at around 54).

“Our mission at Drafthouse Films is pretty simple: Share the movies we love with as many people as possible,” said Drafthouse Films CEO Tim League. “We saw it, we loved it, we bought it. We want people to trust our curation at Drafthouse Films, and this is a film that I think everyone should see.”

The obvious audience for 20,000 Days On Earth is Nick Cave fans, though Drafthouse hopes to go beyond that base of alternative music lovers. In the lead-up to this weekend’s release, the company has recruited “top-tier music outlets” and reached out to the art community (filmmakers Pollard and Forsyth are big names in the art world) to spread the word.

“The film is being exceptionally well reviewed, including Critics Pick in the New York Times, which will also add interest for our art-house crowd,” said League. “We’ve also planned several events which, like the film, deliver something special for Nick Cave fans but also appeal to a larger audience, especially to the art-house audience, which would largely be interested in the exploration of the artistic spirit and creative journey of an artist.”

Those events include a summer preview series timed to Cave’s summer concert tour with his band   The Bad Seeds, as well as “eventized” screenings in LA and NYC paired with what League said are “rare solo piano performances by Nick Cave.” Given the strength of his fan base, those events sold out in minutes.

“To celebrate our opening weekend in New York we have partnered with Film Forum and Vice Media’s Noisey to host an additional one-night-only encore screening and solo piano performance this Saturday at the Town Hall venue in Manhattan,” added Sumyi Khong Antonson, VP Marketing & Distribution. “Nick also will be joined by the directors, Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth, for a post-screening conversation with the audience and for fans across the country.”

20,000 Days On Earth opened exclusively at Film Forum in New York Wednesday and will roll out to the top-tier markets next Friday. It will expand to another dozen markets Oct. 3 and will be in 40-plus markets by the end of next month.

Pump

Directors: Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell

Writer: Johnny O’Hara

Subjects: Adhemar Altieri, Dr. Greg Anderson, Edwin Black, David Blume, John Brackett, Todd Brashaw

Distributor: Submarine Deluxe

Pump documentary posterPump comes from Submarine Deluxe, the distribution label of New York sales outfit Submarine, which is spearheaded by Josh and Dan Braun.

The doc focuses on America’s oil addiction, chronicling its “corporate conspiracy beginnings to its current monopoly today.” The film also gives its view on how to end U.S. reliance on fossil fuels.

Submarine Deluxe has released several cause-related docs, including Chasing Ice and GMO OMG. 

“We have a history of success with this kind of documentary,” said Dan Braun. Chasing Ice grossed $1.3 million domestically, while GMO OMG had a $47,558 cume. “This is the first movie that breaks down for the audience what they can do to make us oil independent and lower the price of fuel: that is, to demand alternatives. And it shows you what individuals can do now to start the dialogue and take action.”

Submarine Deluxe has undertaken a “thorough grassroots campaign to hit a crosssection of targets,” and plans a second campaign for its iTunes release. Target audiences include car enthusiasts, environmentalists and veterans.

“We had screenings at the ALT Car expo, LA Yoga Fest, GreenFest and IBT1,” added Braun. “We are staging an outdoor event in Times Square this Thursday before opening day with a live demonstration by engineer John ‘Labjack’ Brackett — who is in the film — to show how you can convert your car to flex fuel merely with a software upgrade to your car’s computer.”

Additionally, there is paid media on NPR, a “robust print campaign” focusing on news, politics and entertainment sections and ads in automobile publications.

“We will also be taking out ads in glossies such as Car and Driver and other auto-enthusiast monthlies, primarily promoting our transactional window,” said Braun.

Pump did not debut at a U.S. festival but is hitting some foreign events, including  the Zurich Film Festival and the Rio International Film Festival.

Pump is opening at AMC 42 and Cinema Village in New York and the Laemmle Royal in L.A. It will add locations in Salt Lake City, Boston, Santa Fe, Seattle, Houston and other cities in its second week, reaching 20 markets by its third frame.

“We will be doing an exclusive iTunes window 30 – 45 days after opening,” said Dan Braun. “Educational and non-theatrical will be very important to the film and will start 90 days after [its initial] theatrical release but we will be having strategic screenings at universities across the country to get the message out.”

Stop The Pounding Heart

Director-writer: Roberto Minervini

Writer: Diego Romero

Cast/Subjects: Sara Carlson, Colby Trichell, Tim Carlson, LeeAnne Carlson, Katarina Carlson, Christin Carlson, Grace Carlson

Distributor: Big World Pictures

Stop the Pounding HeartItalian-born filmmaker Robert Minervini completed his ‘Texas trilogy’ of films with Stop The Pounding Heart, a narrative/documentary hybrid that tells the story of a rural Christian fundamentalist family in rural Texas.

The doc/drama unfolds through the eyes of Sara, a home-schooled girl who lives on the family goat farm along with 11 siblings. The values she’s grown up with, however, are challenged after she meets Colby, an amateur bull rider.

“I always work with people I’m comfortable with and have established a relationship with,” said Minervini. “So with the Carlsons — I met them years ago at a farmer’s market. I worked with them on a scene in The Passage and only then did I become familiar with their beliefs and passions.”

The Passage (2011) and Low Tide (2012) comprise the trilogy’s other parts. Pounding Heart unfolds alongside Sara Carlson’s life. During filming, Minervini would regularly meet with the young woman as he decided on how to progress the story and plan production. The shoot took place over 54 days.

“Almost every morning Sara and I would have a breakfast meeting to talk about how to proceed,” said Minervini. “Feedback was vital to the film. And maybe in a way, [the family] co-directed the story.”

The director designed production to be minimally invasive in terms of equipment and crew and gave himself ample time despite limited resources.

“I knew the challenges before even starting. My shoots are made so they’re not so difficult,” he said. “They were not ambitiously planned. The technical and the aesthetics of the film were influenced by our limitations.”

Stop The Pounding Heart won the Donatello Award (Italy’s Oscar equivalent) for Best Documentary after screening in Cannes and New Directors/New Films. It will open exclusively at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York with Minervini present for post-screening Q&As at select showings Friday and Saturday.

Swim Little Fish Swim

Directors-writers: Ruben Amar, Lola Bessis

Writers: Brian Paccione, Kate Kirtz

Cast: Lola Bessis, Dustin Guy Defa, Brooke Bloom, Anne Consigny, Olivia Costello

Distributor: Under the Milky Way

Swim Little Fish Swim posterFilmmakers Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis worked on a series of short films in Israel and New York the past three years before developing the feature that would become Swim Little Fish Swim.

The resulting project is a dreamlike journey from childhood to adulthood, depicting three intertwined characters at turning points in their lives.

Swim focuses on the domestic life of Leeward (Defa) and Mary (Bloom), a young married couple at a crossroads. When 19-year-old French artist Lilas enters their lives trying to escape the shadow of her famous painter mother, she upends the couple’s fragile relationship.

“We focused on the actors and worked with them over two months,” said Amar.

Bessis said she and Amar worked with the cast in developing the script, tying its development to their real-life personalities.

“We did a lot of improv, and the scenes were written but the characters weren’t so defined,” said Amar. “We wanted the characters to be inspired by their own personalities.”

Amar and Bessis produced the feature, using savings and help from family and friends to finance the shoot, done mostly in their New York apartment. The shoot itself was interrupted by Hurricane Irene, which threw the production schedule into disarray. Because some actors had other obligations, Amar and Bessis had to re-group on a tightened schedule.

“We had insurance for everything except a ‘natural cause,'” said Bessis.”We had to postpone the shoot for some days and some of the actors weren’t available after that. So we had to shoot in two days what we had planned to do in a week.”

Post-production took some time, but they finally received a grant to finish the project.

Swim was unfinished when they submitted it to SXSW but it was accepted, premiering last year. Swim’s French release earlier this summer  played in up to 100 theaters, grossing more than $500K. It have launched in Brazil, grossing $150K in three weeks. The U.S. release will open theatrically at Cinema Village in New York  followed by the Arena Cinema in L.A. next week. Other markets to come including Chicago, Seattle and others.