Intense music drama Whiplash, already a big winner at Sundance and the Deauville American Film Festival earlier this year, should drum up plenty of audience interest in its debut this weekend, even though it faces a crowded specialty market that also features several other notable newcomers, including the Bill Murray comedy St. Vincent, Hilary Swank‘s You’re Not You and Jeremy Renner‘s Kill the MessengerAll are what I’d call “big” specialty releases, with big names attached that should attract big attention.

The OvernightersThe weekend also includes what I’d call some “small” releases, including documentaries The Overnighters (another Sundance winner) and I Am Ali, about the former heavyweight boxing champion, alongside the Mormon Church-backed Meet the Mormons. All will be clawing for attention in a market that’s seen more than 30 films debut in the past three weeks.

That said, Whiplash should be a real career turner for director Damien Chazelle and actors Miles Teller (Divergent, The Spectacular Nowand J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, The Closer). Then again, Teller may not need the help, given his upcoming gigs as Reed Richards in two Fantastic Four movies and the Divergent sequels. But Whiplash, which has been turning heads all year, once again earned strong audience responses at the just-concluded New York Film Festival, receiving rapturous applause (and deservedly so).

Other limited-release titles opening this weekend include Counterpoint’s Awake: The Life Of Yogananda; Rocky Mountain Pictures’ Christian Mingle; Well Go USA’s Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead; Roadside’s The Devil’s Hand;  Millennium’s Autómata; and three films from The Weinstein Company, including the musical biopic One Chance (a Golden Globe nominee) and the “Him” and “Her” versions of Ned Benson’s ambitious three-film debut project, The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby.

Whiplash

Director-writer: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Whiplash was a big winner at Sundance, picking up an Audience prize and a Grand Jury Prize in January. It also received rapturous applause at the NYFF.

Miles Teller WhiplashIn the film, Miles Teller plays a 19-year-old jazz drummer who dreams of greatness. He encounters Terence Fletcher (Simmons) a conductor known for his talent but also for his terrifying style of teaching. Fletcher invites him to be an alternate drummer in a band and that begins a traumatizing journey that is fueled by Andrew’s maniacal desire to achieve perfection and Fletcher’s psychological brinksmanship.

“It started with my personal experiences with a conductor who made a point of terrifying his students,” Chazelle said. “As a drummer, my motivation of being good was out of fear, which is certainly antithetical to art. Whiplash was always the song I hated the most because it’s designed to screw with drummers.”

Whiplash began as a short film of the same title, made to drum up support for the feature. It debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and also won a prize.

Film company Blumhouse (known for micro-budget horror franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister) and Jason Reitman‘s Right of Way company produced Chazelle’s Blacklist-featured script with a budget of $3.3 million. Blumhouse also brought in a veteran genre crew, including the production designer from The Purge.

“It’s like doing a musical. We had the music arranged beforehand so by the time we were on set we knew what to do with every camera angle,” said Chazelle. “We shot this movie in 19 days. It was crazy. It’s really a remarkable achievement by him,” said Simmons.

Sony Classics picked up Whiplash at Sundance this year, where it was one of the opening-night films. Whiplash will open in six locations Friday. It will add about a dozen markets on Oct. 17 with more expansions into November.

St. Vincent

Director-writer: Theodore Melfi

Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

ST-VINCENT-TWC has been involved with comedy St. Vincent from the script stage, financing the title for a reported $13 million.

Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping were involved and Bill Murray flipped for the script,” said TWC President of Theatrical Distribution Erik Lomis. “I think the public is going to embrace it and Bill Murray fans are going to love it.”

St. Vincent has its story roots in two momentous periods in the life of writer-director Theodore Melfi, who makes his directing debut. His brother died at age 38 and he and his wife adopted his brother’s 11-year old daughter. Later, his wife (Kimberly Quinn) attended a personal healing seminar that prompted her to reconcile with her estranged father.

“I had $800,000 lined up, but gave the script to my agents Ramses Ishak and Mike Sheresky, who said, ‘Hold on a minute, this is something special,'” Melfi told Deadline’s Mike Fleming. “It was fascinating to go from an $800,000 movie with a bunch of my misfit friends to suddenly being called by the top people in the business who believed in this script.”

TWC is doing a traditional rollout for St. Vincent, hoping to capitalize on word of mouth and advertising, including television buys. Lomis said the film will open in New York and L.A. this weekend, followed by the top 25 markets in about 60 theaters before going nationwide Oct. 24.

The-Disappearance-of-Eleanor-RigbyIn addition to St. Vincent, TWC is opening The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her, the two separate films by Ned Benson that were combined into the previously released The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them. That film has cumed about $515K to date. Him/Her will bow in 10 markets in 11 theaters.

The company also will roll out One Chance, a likable biopic based on the life of English opera singer Paul Potts. The film got a sniff at last fall’s awards season, including a Golden Globe nomination for best original song (Sweeter Than Fiction, by Jack Antonoff and Taylor Swift), but never quite made it through the gauntlet. On Friday, it will finally debut in more than a dozen markets after running on Yahoo for free with some commercial breaks. The film is available on Yahoo until Oct. 10.

Watch Deadline Awards Columnist Pete Hammond’s review of St. Vincent from earlier this week:

Kill The Messenger

Director: Michael Cuesta

Writers: Peter Landesman, Gary Webb (book), Nick Schou (book)

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Jena Sims, Robert Pralgo, Hajji Golighty, Ted Huckabee, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lucas Hedges, Rosemarie DeWitt

Distributor: Focus Features

Kill the MessengerExecutive producer Peter Landesman found the book Kill The Messenger by Nick Schou when it was still a manuscript. Drawn to the story, he approached Naomi Despres about producing it as a film.

“I read the book and felt the same way,” said Despres. “Right away we went to Scott [Stuber], knowing he would be a fantastic partner for us, and would really throw his weight behind a project like this.”

The true story centers on Gary Webb, a journalist who becomes the target of a smear campaign after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Webb discovered the CIA was importing cocaine into the U.S., aggressively selling it in poor neighborhoods around the country, to finance the arms purchases. Despite enormous pressure not to, journalist Gary Webb chose to pursue the story and went public with the evidence, then faced a smear campaign that nearly led him to suicide.

“Jeremy Renner and his producing partner Don Hanfield came on board early, before we put the film together and that was key for figuring out the financing,” said Despres. “We were exploring a number of financing options when Focus stepped up and said they wanted to make it.”

Kill The Messenger shot in Atlanta for 33 days in addition to two days in Washington, D.C.

“We had to be really creative about how to make Atlanta look like California and Nicaragua, but I think we pulled it off, thanks in no small part to our production designer John Paino,” said Despres. “Filming in D.C. is something we really fought for. We needed that scope and authenticity.”

Focus is positioning the film as an adult thriller, targeting both art-house and urban audiences in major markets. The TV campaign covered all release markets with a heavy focus on news programming and adult dramas in cable and networks, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, The Blacklist and The Good Wife.

Among the many events leading up to the film’s release this week, director Michael Cuesta traveled to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Kentucky, and San Francisco, doing local press and participating in multiple Q&As following word-of-mouth screenings.

Renner, who also is a producer on the film, is participating in several social-media chats with fans during the opening week, including a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session today. Liotta also will participate in a Reddit AMA. Kill The Messenger will open in 374 theaters around North America.

The Overnighters

Director-writer: Jesse Moss

Subjects: Keegan Edwards, Jay Reinke

Distributor: Drafthouse Films

The Overnighters prayerIt would be surprising if The Overnighters did not make the Oscar Documentary shortlist later this year (and it’s a significant candidate for a nomination). Among other raves, the film won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in addition to wins at festivals in San Francisco, Miami and at Full Frame.

The feature exposes the vagaries of today’s economy through the lives of people on the margins of society. The doc follows men who chase their dreams (and run from their demons) in the booming oil fields of North Dakota.

While the jobs are plentiful and pay extremely well, the sudden boom has created a severe housing shortage and other problems in the rural area. One local pastor risks the wrath of the community and even some in his congregation when he offers to help by giving them a place to sleep inside his parish.

“Apart from being brilliant, I thought this film could focus a lens on the millions of working Americans who live on the razor’s edge of poverty,” said Drafthouse Films CEO Tim League. “My hope is that if we can find a national audience for The Overnighters and build critical acclaim and prestige for this incredible film, we can raise awareness and funds to help battle the housing crisis in America. “We also feel strongly that this is one of the best documentaries of the year and have submitted the film for Academy Award consideration.”

Press and audiences who’ve viewed the film have described it as a modern day Grapes Of Wrath and “Steinbeck-ian,” characterizations Drafthouse is using in its marketing material. The distributor also expects positive initial reaction to help drive audiences.

“We think the critical acclaim will attract arthouse audiences looking for a smart and engaging film with a strong human-interest level,” said Sumyi Khong Antonson, VP Marketing and Distribution at Drafthouse. “We are also partnering with faith-based communities as well as local supportive housing charities to help raise money and awareness on a local market level.”

The company will open The Overnighters at IFC Center in New York Friday, with director Jesse Moss in attendance for Q&As throughout the weekend. The film will open in Austin on ct. 17, followed by San Francisco on Oct. 24 and Los Angeles on Oct. 31. It will expand to 20-plus markets in November before its home-entertainment roll out in early 2015.

I Am Ali

Director-writer: Clare Lewins

Subjects: Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali Jr., Hana Ali, Maryum Ali, Rahaman Ali, Jim Brown, Carl Fischer, George Foreman

Distributor: Focus World

Muhammad Ali I Am AliClare Lewins had been fascinated by boxing champion Muhammad Ali and hoped to tell his story through the POV of those close to him.

I Am Ali illuminates a series of Ali’s personal archives of ‘audio journals.’ The doc also features interviews and testimonials from his inner circle of family and friends.

“I was struck [by once seeing footage] of women handing over their babies to him as if they were being blessed by him,” said Lewins. “He can’t speak much for himself so I decided to get the inner circle.”

Lewins’ break in penetrating the inner circle came via a friend who was attending Ali’s 70th birthday party. Through that event, Lewins was able to compile a selection of interviews from people close to the former boxer.

Universal financed the title, which features music from artists Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and others. Universal label Focus World will open the film day and date in about 11 markets followed by a later expansion.

“It was a roller coaster couple of days,” said Lewins. “[Ali’s kids] were making a home movie of their dad and I saw they were using audio clips. I had been trying to get access to them and there they were.” Lewins built up trust with Ali’s daughter and gained access to material seen in the film.

I Am Ali shot over ten days and Lewins said the first edit went “incredibly fast.”

“I had the first cut in nine weeks,” said Lewins. “I didn’t go to bed much at that time.”

You’re Not You

Director: George C. Wolfe

Writers: Shana Feste, Jordan Roberts, Michelle Wildgen (book)

Cast: Hilary Swank, Emmy Rossum, Ali Larter, Josh Duhamel, Frances Fisher, Marcia Gay Harden

Distributor: Entertainment One

You're Not You Hilary SwankProducer Molly Smith and Oscar-winner Swank optioned the book You’re Not You: A Novel by Michelle Wilgden on producer Alison Greenspan‘s suggestion.

The drama follows a classical pianist who has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and the brash college student who becomes her caregiver. At first they seem incompatible, but as Kate’s condition worsens, Bec steps up to the plate. The project was developed with Swank in the starring role as the stricken Kate while Rossum is Bec.

“In 2012 the project was stalled and we were passed around town,” said Smith. “But then CAA put us in contact with Daryl Prince Productions, which financed the project in full.”

By the fall of 2012, the project had new life. Broadway producer-director-writer George C. Wolfe boarded as the film’s director and shooting took place over 30 days in the Los Angeles area. “Hilary did a lot of preparation to understand ALS and lost a lot of weight,” said Smith. “She absolutely wanted to be as close to it as possible.

The story actually takes place in Houston, TX but the producers decided to stay close to home and the advantages that brings. “We had great crews and great people in front of the camera who could go home each night,” added Smith. “At this ‘price-point’ it made sense. I love shooting in L.A.” CAA handled the sale to Entertainment One this spring after a post-buyers’ screening. The title will open in five markets day and date. “I think day and date is great for a movie like this,” added Smith.

Meet The Mormons

Director: Blair Treu

Distributor: Purdie Distribution

Meet the MormonsThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints already has helped get some movies made, but documentary Meet The Mormons is the first with formal distribution by the church, which has long had other substantial media properties, including newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations.

Purdie Distribution’s Brandon Purdie had opened another Mormon-themed feature, The Saratov Approach, about two missionaries who are kidnapped and held for ransom in Russia. That film debuted in October last year in 23 theaters, averaging just under $6K and went on to cume over $2.14 million.

Meet The Mormons is very different, but the LDS church was impressed with its approach nonetheless and asked to meet Purdiem.

Meet The Mormons looks at the lives of six devout Mormons, filmed in the U.S., Costa Rica, Nepal and other countries, challenging stereotypes about the Mormon faith.

“Mitt Romney ran for President but if you go to Times Square and ask someone about the Mormons, they either have no idea [who they are] or their knowledge is based on misinformation,” said Purdie. “This [documentary] shows the lives of six individuals and how they live. It doesn’t go into deep doctrinal matter.”

Purdie said its test screenings were “off the charts” around the country, scoring “well” with both Mormons and non-Mormons. Not surprisingly, the marketing push has centered around Mormon congregations around the country. The faithful have been encouraged to request the title through the film’s website and they’ve responded “by the thousands,” according to Purdie.

“Ticket sales are really great,” he said. “We’re anticipating to be in the Top 20 [at the box office] this weekend.”

In addition to the grassroots campaign through LDS congregations, the distributor has bought ads for both outdoor and publications around the country where the feature will bow. Initially Purdie Distribution had targeted 200 theaters for its initial run, but that has since jumped to about 300, starting Friday. The LDS church said it will donate net proceeds to the American Red Cross.