As the Toronto International Film Festival gets underway with North American and World debuts of films that will hit Awards Season and beyond,a good number of seasoned films that have traveled the festival circuit are finally making their way into the Specialty Box Office. Drafthouse Films will open Cannes ’13 title The Congress starring Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel in a dozen locations this weekend, while SXSW’s Juliette Lewis starrer Kelly & Cal will open exclusively in NYC. Sundance’s Last Days In Vietnam will have a theatrical run before heading to PBS next fall and the Guadalajara Film Festival’s Frontera is taking advantage of a timely topic in the U.S. Venice financed its 2013 premiere Memphis, opening exclusively this weekend in NYC. And China Lion hopes to take a successful template for romantic dramas and apply that to But Always.

The CongressThe congress 2
Director-writer: Ari Folman
Writer: Stanislaw Lem (novel)
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Samy Gayle, Michael Stahl-David, Paul Giamatti
Distributor: Drafthouse Films

Drafthouse Films picked up The Congress out of Cannes. The sci-fi animated drama follows an aging out-of-work actress who accepts one last job. But her decision affects her in ways she didn’t consider. “We were big fans of Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir and this one equally blew us away,” said Drafthouse COO James Emanuel Shapiro. Sony Classics released Bashir Christmas day in 2008 eventually grossing over $2.28 million domestically. Drafthouse hopes to tap some of that art house audience for The Congress, but the company is also hoping to appeal to a sci-fi audience. “We feel the film’s sci-fi genre and smart, meta-quality will also appeal to fanboys and more genre-leaning audiences as well,” said Sumyi Knong Antonson, VP Marketing & Distribution. “We’ve been capitalizing on our strong reviews and quotes and pushing those out in our print, online and TV ads as well as strong social media presence.” Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel have been active in supporting the title with the former doing interviews around her House Of Cards production schedule. Added Antonson: “Robin Wright plays an alternative version of herself as an aging, out of work actress, which adds to the intrigue of a very relevant premise where studios taking control of the digital likeness of actors to put them in films as they desire in a near-future Hollywood.”

After premiering in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2013, The Congress has maintained a consistent presence on the U.S. and international film circuit playing festivals in Sarasota, Dallas, Newport Beach and Seattle this past spring and New Zealand in July in addition to earlier international events. “After playing at Cannes and Toronto last year, we wanted to keep the momentum and conversation about the film up through festival play until our release and we felt it was helpful in cultivating some early champions of the film as well as anticipation for the film to be released,” said Antonson. Drafthouse will open The Congress in a dozen markets this weekend including New York, L.A., Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It is already available via ultra-VOD.

Last days in vietnamLast Days In Vietnam
Director: Rory Kennedy
Writers: Mark Bailey, Keven McAlester
Distributor: American Experience Films/PBS

The conflict in Vietnam is an era of American history that the Kennedy family knows well. President Kennedy continued the policy from the previous administration of sending “advisors” to the southeast Asian nation before U.S. involvement there ramped up heavily throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. The late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, proposed a three-point plan to end the conflict in ’67, a year before he was assassinated. His daughter, Rory Kennedy, the youngest of his and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, returns to the era with Last Days In Vietnam, though focusing on a little-known story that coincided with the hasty U.S. withdrawl as the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon. “I’ve always had an interest in Vietnam and there’s a lot to learn from it,” said Kennedy. “Understanding how the war ended has resonance today.” Kennedy, who has directed and produced non-fiction since the late ’90s, said that many Americans are familiar with the iconic images of helicopters scooping up personnel on the rooftop of the American embassy in the besieged city in the waning moments of U.S. involvement there, but what wasn’t apparent were the scores of Americans who went to great lengths and risk to rescue South Vietnamese against orders. “I did more research and found these incredible stories that hadn’t been told and I was hooked,” added Kennedy. “Initially I was focused on the events [of the war’s end].” She met individuals at the center of helping to evacuate scores of South Vietnamese from the country — often going against orders.

Kennedy, who is also a producer of the film through her Moxie Firecracker Films, which she founded in 1990 with fellow documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, finished Last Days In Vietnam last October. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it had a standing ovation. Despite working with a number of media groups including HBO which featured a number of her docs including 2012’s Ethel, spotlighting her mother, and Emmy-winning Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib (2007), Kennedy said that financing her projects is on a case by case basis. “There is no formula for financing,” she said. “It depends on the film. We [typically] put together funders from different sources including individual investors, foundations and broadcasters.” Last Days In Vietnam funding came primarily through American Experience Films. An Indie Go Go crowd funding campaign is underway to raise money for a complementary piece to Last Days called First Days Story Project, focusing on the stories South Vietnamese survivors. With 19 days left, it has raised nearly $95K of its $132K total. Following Last Days‘ premiere at Sundance in January, American Experience Films and Kennedy brought on theatrical releasing consultant Michael Tuckman. He noted that early on American Experience, a PBS entity, wanted to give the film a “strong theatrical push.” It opens at the Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza in New York Friday and will head to Washington, D.C. next week. It will open L.A. and other major cities September 19, rolling out to the top 15 markets through late September and October. It will air on PBS next April timed to the 40th anniversary of the evacuation.

Kelly & Calkelly and cal 2
Director: Jen McGowan
Writer: Amy Lowe Starbin
Cast: Juliette Lewis, Jonny Weston, Josh Hopkins, Cybill Shepherd, Lucy Owen, Ken Marks, Margaret Colin
Distributor: IFC Films

Producers Mandy Tagger and Adi Ezroni were looking for new prospects. They stumbled on traveling film festival, Luna Fest, which spotlights shorts by female directors and discovered a dilm by Jen McGowan. “She was very good about marketing herself and we easily found other work she had done,” said Tagger. “We thought she was talented and emailed her to find out what she was working on and told us about a script she had with Amy Starbin.” The draft would segue to Kelly & Cal which centers on a punk rocker turned suburban mom who is nostalgic for a life she can no longer have and uncertain of a future she isn’t sure she fits into. She meets 17-year-old Cal who is frustrated by his situation and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. By the end of 2011, Tagger and Ezroni began what they said was a “very collaborative relationship” with McGowan and Starbin who themselves had reconnected via a formal gathering/networking event at USC. “As in every movie it’s a miracle,” said Tagger. “We had a wonderful casting director, Rich Delia, and had a story with a strong female protagonist, which you don’t find often.” Tagger and Ezroni noted that Juliette Lewis was their prototype actor for the main role. Delia suggested they just send the script to Lewis since, as Ezroni noted, “She was who we wanted.” After securing Lewis the part of Cal was the next crucial part of the film. Ezroni and Tagger said that Lewis was active in helping to find the right actor, taking part in readings with potential actors. “[Jonny Weston] and Juliette had great chemistry,” said Tagger. “He is a rising star.”

As the project moved closer to production, the producing team reached out to their regular circle of investors whom they have worked with on previous projects. “We’re lucky to have loyal investors around us who are passionate about the things we’re passionate about,” said Ezroni who also shared that the two had an additional challenge as Kelly & Cal headed into production — both women were about to give birth. “It was definitely a grueling, grueling experience,” added Ezroni. “Closing all those commitments during labor and breast feeding is not something I recommend.” The project shot for 20 days in New York in Port Washington and other locations, taking advantage of the state’s tax incentive in summer 2013. Tagger and Ezroni said that one aspect of the project they’re particularly proud of is that Weston’s character has been embraced by communities of people living with disabilities. “He’s in a wheelchair but you just don’t notice that by the end,” said Tagger. “He worked [extensively] with coaches at therapy centers specializing on spinal injuries.” Kelly & Cal debuted at the SXSW Film Festival in March winning the event’s “Gamechanger Award.” IFC Films came on board soon afterward. It will release the film day and date Friday with an exclusive theatrical bow at IFC Center in New York. It will head to Philadelphia the following week and will head to L.A. September 19 followed by other major markets.

frontera 2Frontera
Director-writer: Michael Berry
Writer: Louis Moulinet
Cast: Ed Harris, Eva Longoria, MIchael Peña, Amy Madigan, Aden Young, Michael Ray Escamilla, Daniel Zacapa
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

First-time feature filmmaker Michael Berry had a short making the rounds in the festival circuit when his friend Louis Moulinet came to him with an idea for a border drama. Moulinet lived in Douglas, AZ near one of the flashpoints of the seemingly never-ending immigration debate in the U.S. “This was seven years ago. He had three pages done and he said he’d like me [to direct] it,” said Berry. “[Independent producer] Mike Witherill told me he’d like to see a draft and [asked us] to finish it in two weeks.” Berry gave Witherill the draft but had asked him not to show anyone believing it was not completed, but to use it as a basis for pitches. “But he did it anyway,” said Berry. Witherill met with folks at CAA who Berry said were “excited by the story.” “I was set up with a talent agent and flipped through the pages,” recalled Berry. “I found Ed Harris and Michael Peña and I told them they were the two people I wanted most. I wrote Ed Harris’ character with him in mind. He’s the actor I look up to the most.” Frontera, which means ‘border’ in Spanish, centers on a former Arizona sheriff whose wife is killed on their ranch. The apparent assailant is a Mexican man who illegally crossed into the U.S. Berry met with Peña who brought along his father who years before had also crossed the border, though Harris was still pending. “People kept telling me Ed would do it,” said Berry. “I got an email from him saying that his daughter was going to college and wasn’t sure about [doing it]. I told him we’d schedule around you.” Berry said he told the four-time Oscar nominee he’d written the story for him and wasn’t sure the project could proceed without his sign-on. “I’m a new director and I didn’t have a back-up plan,” confessed Berry. “My innocence got the better of me. I don’t know what I would have done had he said ‘no.'”

Harris did of course join the project and shooting took place in New Mexico over 23 days. Eva Longoria had also signed on after reaching out to Berry directly. “She’s tough, cool and fun to be around,” said Berry about Longoria. “The film was low-budget but I still had a lot more help than I ever had,” said Berry referring to the number of crew on this set compared to his previous shorts. Initially Berry wanted to shoot in Douglas, AZ but was lured to neighboring New Mexico because of the generous tax incentive. Financing took place over 7 months and was raised via private investors. “I’m not this guy from a trust fund, so the fact that I got to do this is a miracle for me,” said Berry. Frontera is currently available on demand and will open Music Hall in Beverly Hills, New York’s Sunshine and the Shea 14 Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ this weekend. It heads to nine additional cities September 19 with further expansions later in the month to other markets.

Memphismemphis
Director-writer: Tim Sutton
Cast: Willis Earl Beal, Constance Brantley, Larry Dodson, Devonte Hull, Lopaka Thomas
Distributor: Kino Lorber Films

Producer John Baker and writer-director Tim Sutton connected after someone suggested that Baker see Sutton’s first feature Pavilion at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. After seeing the film Baker reached out to Sutton who told him about what would be the seeds of Memphis. The drama centers on a strange singer with bursting talent who drifts through his adopted city of Memphis. Surrounded by women, legendary musicians, a hustler, a righteous preacher and a pack of kids, the kind yet unstable performer bypasses the recording studio in a quest for self-discovery. His journey takes him to the “edge of another dimension.” “We submitted the idea to the Venice Biennale Cinema College and it was chosen,” said Baker. “And from there it was selected as one of three [projects] to be funded.” The program operates as a lab for filmmakers though unlike the Sundance Labs, screenwriting, producing and directing workshops are done under one roof. The €150,000 grant awarded by the Biennale comes with restrictions, however. Selected projects cannot raise additional funds and must complete their film in time for a Venice Film Festival premiere. “Beginning in February we finalized our budget and script in Venice and then we hit the ground running for Memphis,” said Baker. “We spent about six weeks casting and finding locations and went into production in April and finished the third week of May. We then edited like mad and premiered at the Venice Film Festival August 31 last year.”

Though a script was completed, it did not contain dialog. Sutton preferred to work with the actors’ own personalities to create dialog though “the spine of the story” was in the script,” according to Baker. “Tim’s process it to strike a balance between [narrative and documentary] which he calls ‘ethereal authenticity,'” he said. “Tim is with the actors in the room along with the sound person and maybe the D.P. The actors are fictionalized versions of themselves fitting into the premise of the story. That leaves a lot of room for performance to dictate where things are going.” After its Venice premiere the film headed back into the edit room and had its U.S. debut in Sundance’s NEXT section in January. They began to work with Visit Films’ Ryan Kampe who sold the title to Kino Lorber in March. In the interim it has played more festivals including BAMcinemaFest and the Las Vegas Film Festival this summer. Memphis will open exclusively at IFC Center in New York this weekend followed by L.A. next week and other cities including Memphis, Seattle, San Francisco and others to follow, eventually heading into about 30 markets.

god help the girlGod Help The Girl
Director-writer: Stuart Murdoch
Cast: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, Corra Bisset, Sarah Swire, Mark Radcliffe
Distributor: Amplify

Sundance debut God Help The Girl is the directorial debut for Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch and it’s one of the first for Amplify which is the label that follows the merger of Variance Films and GoDigital. The music drama follows Eve who begins writing songs as a way to sort through emotional problems. Along the way she meets James and Cassie who are also musicians and also at crossroads themselves. “For our starter film we knew that we’d have an audience, but that we’d have to grow that audience,” said Dylan Marchetti, Amplify’s EVP of Theatrical Distribution and Marketing. “We didn’t want to start out with a cast-driven film that is [meant to be] for everyone but at the same time not for anyone.” The obvious audience for God Help The Girl are Belle & Sebastian fans which Amplify has been courting. A longtime in the making, the project’s creation also has a documentary which has been shown in four parts on Pitchfork (the final one takes place Thursday). “We also want to introduce the film beyond the Belle & Sebastian audience and [the film’s producer] Barry Mendel has been crucial in this process,” said Marchetti.

Mendel, who produced Bridesmaids (2011) and The Sixth Sense (1999) has worked with Amplify in its marketing strategy. Amplify will open God Help The Girl day and date Friday at the Village East in New York and Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. Stuart Murdoch will be doing select Q&As in both NYC and LA over the weekend and will also be present with “special guests,” according to Marchetti. During the week there will be an added 15 minute Belle & Sebastian concert that will follow screenings of the film. The following week, the title will head into up to 60 additional locations.

But Always (Yi Sheng Yi Shi)But Always
Director-writer: Snow Zou
Cast: Yuanyuan Gao, Nicholas Tse
Distributor: China Lion

Chinese-language niche distributor China Lion has had box office success with romantic dramas stateside and it hopes to replicate that with But Always. The feature spans decades beginning with two school friends in 1970s Beijing who are from different backgrounds. They lose touch but rekindle a romance in New York City in the new millennium where they are confronted with the choice of present or future love. “We had tremendous success with the genre with Beijing Love Story ($428K cume) in February and past titles such as Love ($309K cume) and Love In The Buff ($256K cume) and we’d love to replicate that type of success with But Always,” said China Lion’s Robert Lundberg. “Our core female audience turns out in theaters and we love them for it.” China Lion has typically rolled out titles in 10 to 12 theaters, but the distributor has upped the number to 19 this weekend based on the popularity of But Always‘ stars Yuanyuan Gao and Nicholas Tse. “We’ve released two of Nicholas’s past films, The Bullet Vanishes and The Viral Factor, both action thrillers, to solid limited release numbers,” added Lundberg. “We also have a segment of our core audience back in town — first language Chinese speaking students. The combination of those factors allowed us to push our release out a bit more.” China Lion will take But Always to new locations in Montreal (Cineplex Odeon Forum), Champaign (Carmike 13) and Flushing (College Point Multiplex) and others for the first time.

“It’s a story about growing up in Beijing and moving to America and dealing with the turmoil of a long distance relationship, so we hope there will be cultural crossover with a ‘shared experience,'” said Lundberg. “Gao’s character ends up living in New York during 9/11. It’s very dramatic, but half of the movie takes place in New York, so there’s definitely a big-city narrative to be discovered by non-Chinese speakers.” In addition to its new locations, China Lion will open But Always in its tried and tested theaters in L.A., San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Vancouver.