Perched at the top of this week’s flock of specialty film debuts is Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), a possible Oscar contender starring Michael Keaton. Though it’s a limited release, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s complex film about a fading action-hero trying to reclaim his mojo on Broadway nevertheless combines elements of a superhero franchise that could tap fans well beyond the art house.

It’s part of yet another big flock of specialty film debuts coming this weekend, including the controversy-minded Sundance award-winner Dear White People, William H. Macy‘s directorial debut RudderlessKristen Stewart‘s Camp X-Ray, Jason Schwartzman‘s Listen Up Philip, The Golden Era, Summer Of Blood, and one great revival, Alain Resnais’ 1959 landmark Hiroshima Mon Amour.

To get a sense of Fox Searchlight’s ambitions for Birdman, the film closed the New York Film Festival last weekend to strong reviews, but then Keaton and co-star Edward Norton headed to the Javits Center for New York Comic-Con, clearly reaching out beyond the core Specialty crowd.

But leading the flock won’t be easy this week. Former vampire queen Stewart plays a soldier in Guantanamo in Camp X-Ray. Macy (Shameless, Fargo) debuts as a director with Rudderless, which stars Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Macy’s wife Felicity Huffman and Selena Gomez.

Roadside Attractions is opening Sundance award-winner Dear White People, which previously released a series on controversy-stirring online shorts to help promote the film. Meanwhile Tribeca Film is opening Listen Up Philip, starring Schwartzman and Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss.

And for true cineastes and aficionados of film history, Rialto finally gets the clearances it needed on 1959 classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, by the great French director Alain Resnais, for an arthouse release around the country 55 years after the film first supercharged the French Nouvelle Vague.

Other films opening this week, with not quite the same high profile, include China Lion‘s The Golden Era, which hopes to capitalize on Chinese stars for its core audience, while MPI will open horror thriller Summer Of Blood.

Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
Director-writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

birdmanAfter screenings at festivals in Venice, Telluride and Zurich, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) was shown at both the New York and Hamptons film festivals (as well as Philadelphia Thursday) ahead of its theatrical bow Friday.

The black comedy is a likely candidate for the weekend’s biggest Specialty Box Office newcomer. It tells the story of an actor (Keaton) famous for portraying an iconic superhero who is now struggling. He attempts to revive his career with a Broadway play, while being haunted by his blockbuster past. In the days leading up to opening night, Keaton’s character battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.

“The idea [for Birdman] came from the idea of personal battles,” said Iñárritu. “I had a reflection of the priorities in my life and being aware of how the ego can work. It’s a constant bipolar relationship in my process. So I wanted to portray this ego in this movie.”

Iñárritu, who turned 50 this year, said that making Birdman was a bit of “self-therapy.” He praised his actors, especially Keaton, for “bringing the whole thing together.”

“The play is an essential part in developing the story,” he said. “Riggan [Keaton] becomes like the characters he’s portraying [on stage].”

Iñárritu’s previous film Biutiful opened in 59 theaters in January 2011, grossing over $457K ($7,749 PTA) before cuming over $5.1 million. His 2006 release Babel opened in 7 theaters with an impressive $55,621 PTA and a $34.3 million domestic cume. Focus released 2003’s awards contender 21 Grams, eventually grossing nearly $16.3 million. In 2001, Lionsgate opened his influential Amores Perros, which had a domestic $5.4 million cume.

Fox Searchlight will platform release Birdman this weekend in New York and Los Angeles and New York, then roll it out across North America over the next three to four weeks.

Rudderless
Director-writer: William H. Macy
Writers: Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison
Cast: Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Rudderless first trailerActor William H. Macy’s feature directorial debut, Rudderless features a terrific cast. A music drama, it centers on a grieving father in a downward spiral who stumbles across a box of his recently deceased son’s demo tapes and lyrics. Surprised to discover the son’s unknown talent, he forms a band in the quest for some catharsis.

“Macy’s gotten some really amazing performances out of his stars,” said Samuel Goldwyn Films’ Peter Goldwyn. “It’s a compelling movie with an amazing soundtrack.”

One of those stars, singer/actress Selena Gomez (she of the 23.7 million Twitter followers) posted a music video tied to the movie (between Paramount’s YouTube site and Gomez’, the video has been viewed more than 670,000 times)  That was just one part of the push by the Rudderless cast ahead of the movie’s weekend rollout.

“The cast is incredibly supportive,” said Goldwyn. “They were in L.A. doing press and television and Bill Macy has been actively promoting the film through his previously not-quite-as-active Twitter account.” Cast are also appearing on Jimmy Kimmel and other shows such as The Talk.

Goldwyn said exhibitors have shown support for the film, which will also go out day and date this weekend through on-demand services.

“This can live in both worlds,” Goldwyn said. “It works for that specialized audience but because of the timing, it’s hard to get it out in some markets this time of the year. With every movie we’ve played day and date, there are exhibitors that will show them and some that won’t. We don’t go to battle. We’ll adhere to their rules. We usually find theaters that want to play our films.”

Goldwyn said that in a crowded market such as this one, day-and-date releases give a small movie a chance to go national that might not otherwise be possible (reporting those revenues are another challenge altogether). Rudderless will open in 18 theaters day and date and will add a couple more markets on October 24.

Here’s the Gomez music video, of  Hold On, sung with Ben Kweller:

Camp X-Ray
Director-writer: Peter Sattler
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Lane Garrison, Joseph Julian Soria, Mark Naji
Distributor: IFC Films

Camp X-RayFirst-time feature filmmaker Peter Sattler was drawn to the temporary detention facility known as Camp X-Ray at the U.S. base along Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay because of the potential for a broader story.

“As a filmmaker I’m drawn to human, relatable stories as they relate to a larger experience,” said Sattler. “These prisoners and soldiers are stuck together, and I’m interested how they find a way to live together.”

Sattler also landed Stewart, one of Hollywood’s highest-profile young stars, to play Army Pfc. Amy Cole, who is a guard at the facility. Her convictions become less certain after she strikes up a tenuous friendship with one of the detainees.

“The challenge for a first feature-filmmaker is how to find something visual and cool, but affordable,” said Sattler. “So, how do you [depict] Guantanamo but without some big helicopters?”

Sattler worked on writing Camp X-Ray for a year, including re-writes and research. He showed a draft to filmmaker David Gordon Green, who shared it with others. Financing came through a hodgepodge of sources, including the Gotham Group.

“Once Kristen Stewart came on board, things took off,” said Sattler. Her agent Ken Kaplan had shown Stewart the script. “We sat down and chatted and we had the same idea of what it should be.”

The film shot over 21 days at a former youth camp in Whittier, Calif., just outside Los Angeles.

“It was helpful being there because the paparazzi couldn’t chase Kristen,” said Sattler. “Plus [the facility] has a weird, creepy vibe. You can feel that and it influences people’s performances.”

Camp X-Ray debuted at Sundance, where IFC Films picked it up. It went on to play at several other festivals, including Deauville and the Atlantic fest last month. IFC Films will open Camp X-Ray day and date in limited release Friday.

Dear White People
Director-writer: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P. Bell
Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Image (1) Dear-White-People__140320012529-275x188.jpg for post 701785First-time feature director Simien received plenty of accolades at Sundance last January when Dear White People debuted, and then won a Special Jury Award for “Breakthrough Talent.” The feature also won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Dear White People is a satire about “being a black face in a white place,” says Simien’s website. The film follows several black students at the mostly white Ivy League ‘Winchester University.” Controversy breaks out after the campus humor magazine’s annual Halloween party has an ill-conceived theme.

“Justin has been doing [a lot with] an online campaign creating small films that have gone viral,” said Roadside co-president Howard Cohen. “He did a short about ‘fake watching’ the BET Awards.’ It’s not a movie about racism. It’s about racial identity. The title has been a flashpoint. It’s a calling card and has stirred the pot.”

The short has been viewed more than 56,000 times on YouTube, one of a series of shorts and videos Simien posted there to drive awareness of the film. Given his savvy approach to pushing the film, it’s no surprise that Simien previously worked as a publicist and marketing specialist for Paramount, Focus and Sony Television.

“[The shorts] answer hot-button [issues] about treated with humor,” said Cohen. “It’s not going head to head with awards movies per se. We chose [its release date] back at Sundance. We wanted school to be in session.”

Simien has toured with Dear White People on across the country (NPR just ran a story about a screening at Harvard). Simien also will appear on The Colbert Report and other shows.

Roadside will open the feature in 11 theaters in New York, L.A., Atlanta and Washington, D.C. in a mix of commercial and art-house venues before widening to the top 25 markets in more than 200 locations the following week.

The New York Times review of the film is one of Roadside’s “best in our 11-year history,” said Cohen, which “bodes well for both African-American and non-African-American audiences seeing the film.” He also said the film started selling out its Friday shows “early in the week.”

Listen Up Philip
Director-writer: Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume
Distributor: Tribeca Film

Listen Up PhilipSundance and Locarno title Listen Up Philip centers on a narcissistic writer played by Schwartzman. Anger rages as Philip awaits the publication of his second novel. He’s unhappy with the constant crowds and noise of his adopted home and is faced with a deteriorating relationship with his photographer/girlfriend Ashley (Moss). He’s also indifferent to promoting his novel.

But the writer gets a chance to escape when his idol offers to let him stay at his isolated summer home. There, he will get the chance to focus on his favorite subject — himself.

“The film is not about a writer but an a*****e,” Schwartzman said. Tribeca bought the film following its Sundance debut, and will open it in two theaters this weekend, followed by VOD/iTunes on October 21. It will expand to 15 cities on October 24 with 40-plus cities booked to date. It will expand further, based on performance.

The Golden Era
Director: Ann Hui
Writer: Li Qiang
Cast: Tang Wei, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Zhiwen, Hao Lei, Huang Xuan, Zhu Yawen, Yuan Quan
Distributor: China Lion

Ann Hui The Golden EraChina Lion picked up The Golden Era ahead of its Venice and Toronto debut this year, after releasing director Hui’s A Simple Life in 2012 (nearly $192K domestic cume). The film is Hong Kong’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

The bio-romance is the story of Hong Xiao, one of China’s most famous essayists and novelists who reflected progressive thinking not typically seen in the country during the tumultuous 1930s.

“Even though it’s mostly in Mandarin, it’s Hong Kong’s submission,” said China Lion’s Robert Lundberg referring to the Cantonese dialect generally spoken in Hong Kong and southern China. “We find our mix of pictures to be mostly Mainland-based, at around 80%, followed by Hong Kong features then Taiwanese features making up the remaining 20% [of our releases].”

Similar to China Lion’s recent Breakup Buddies (nearly $536K cume to date), The Golden Era will receive momentum on this continent among Chinese-Americans with the help of Mainland stars including Tang Wei, who starred in Finding Mr. Right. The film also stars Feng Shao Feng, who was in the recent Mainland blockbuster The Continent and will be in the upcoming Jean-Jacques Annaud film Wolf Totem.

“For our core Chinese first-language speakers, we’re gearing all our marketing towards these two names and director Ann Hui,” said Lundberg. “In that respect, it’s similar to Breakup Buddies.” That latter film has “exceeded their wildest dreams,” expanding to new markets such as Lansing, Mich., West Lafayette, Ind. and Ottawa.

Golden Lion will open The Golden Era in an exclusive run for its core markets, then platform the title based on response.

“We’ll also be seeing if the film will be shortlisted by the Academy” for foreign-language Oscar, Lundberg said. “It’s a lush, beautiful film, even if the subject matter is darker in tone, and we hope there will be a nomination spot for Ann’s film this year.”

Summer Of Blood
Director-writer: Onur Tukel
Cast: Jonathan Caouette, Zach Clark, Dustin Guy Defa, Juliette Fairley, Vakhtang Gomelauri
Distributor: MPI

Image (2) summer-of-blood__140501172010-275x412.jpg for post 722512Horror film Summer Of Blood has it roots in a low-budget pic titled The Pigs that Tukel did with producer Clifford McCurdy.

Tukel called it a “disaster” but the two paired up years later on a new project “to get the bad taste out. We both put in a little money and decided to make a horror comedy to increase our chances of success.”

The thriller centers on Erik Sparrow, who has a good job despite having few traits normally associated with that. One day his girlfriend proposes — again a fortunate fluke  — but he bumbles. She dumps him, he tries to win her back after she begins another relationship, and then things fall apart. One night Erik meets a stranger who asks him if he wants to die and he says, “I do.” Things go black, then he wakes up and finds himself a changed man — a dynamo.

“I originally thought the audience for this movie would be men in their 30s and 40s but I’m surprised at how many women like the movie,” said Tukel. “We shot in 10 days with two cameras with a skeleton crew. Two camera guys, a sound guy, three producers, a PA and Fred Vogel on special effects. I cast it with the producers, pulling actors together from around New York who we knew were talented. We didn’t audition anyone.”

The feature opened Tribeca in April, then found distribution. Summer Of Blood will open day and date in limited release.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dallas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Distributor: Rialto

Alain Resnais Hiroshima Mon AmourThe late French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ final film Life Of Riley premiered in Berlin this year and played at the New York Film Festival alongside Hiroshima Mon Amour, which received an Oscar nomination in 1961 for original screenplay.

The story was perfectly tailored for the nuclear age. It centers on a French actress who is in Hiroshima working on an anti-war film and embarks on an affair with a married Japanese architect even as they share their differing perspectives on war.

“Hiroshima, a pillar of the French New Wave, was an obvious choice for us, fitting right in with our mission of releasing European classics in new restorations,” said Rialto’s Bruce Goldstein. “We’ve done over 70 such reissues in the past 17 years, including Godard’s Breathless, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, and even Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad – one of our biggest successes.”

Rialto had its eye on Hiroshima Mon Amour for a decade, Goldstein said, but the film was unavailable, even for various Resnais retrospectives over the years, because of a tangle of rights issues.

“[That] is akin to doing an Orson Welles festival without being able to show Citizen Kane,” Goldstein said. “So we feel that having this title in circulation again fills a major gap. Our biggest incentive for reissuing it this fall was the completion of the spectacular new 4K restoration.”

Rialto will go beyond the core Resnais audience as it takes Hiroshima to theaters. It is also deviating from its previous strategy of an exclusive run for a release of a classic title.

“On Friday, it opens in two of the top art houses in New York [including] Film Forum downtown and the Film Society of Lincoln Center uptown,” said Goldstein. “Normally, our reissues — and reissues of this sort — open at one cinema exclusively, but we feel the importance of this title and its long theatrical unavailability warrants a wider audience. Around the country, it’s already been booked in top art houses.”

In addition to its NYC locations, Rialto will open Hiroshima at the Laemmle Royal in L.A. as well as in Pasadena and Encino. Other top markets will be added through December and beyond.