This weekend’s onslaught of smaller new films will have awards contenders and big names to jostle with at the box office. Awards hopefuls Foxcatcher and The Homesman begin their theatrical runs in limited New York and L.A. rollouts, with the former a likely winner in the first weekend when the numbers come in boxoffice-specialty__111212022432-200x150Sunday. The films from Sony Pictures Classics and Roadside Attractions, respectively, tell particularly American stories, though from very different eras. The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart took time off in 2013 to work on his directorial debut. Open Road’s Rosewater, starring Gael García Bernal, will begin its theatrical rollout this weekend. It will be the biggest opener of this weekend’s cadre of specialty newcomers, playing in several hundred locations in the U.S. and Canada. Actor Chris Lowell also makes his filmmaking launch with Beside Still Waters. The project had smooth sailing until it came time for distribution, but a last-minute crowdfunding campaign turned everything around. And Josephine Decker’s Berlin 2014 films Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely will open simultaneously at the same NYC venue Friday via new distributor Cinelicious along with a day-and-date VOD release. Other limited-release titles this weekend include Gravitas Ventures’ Always Woodstock, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas from Samuel Goldwyn Films, Ketchup Entertainment’s Wolves, Starz Digital Media’s Bad Turn Worse, Barking Cow Media Group’s Brahmin Bulls and Rialto’s rerelease of Le jour se leve.

Foxcatcher
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

FOXCATCHER-POSTER Already a heavyweight in this year’s awards race, Foxcatcher likely will be this weekend’s Specialty Box Office champ when it comes to per-theater average. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Bennett Miller won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, where the title debuted, and he will receive a tribute at this year’s Gotham Awards. “When we met about eight years ago to talk about what he was going to do next, we sat around his kitchen table and this was a [story] that stayed with him,” veteran producer Jon Kilik said this week at the film’s theatrical premiere at MoMA in New York, hosted by the Cinema Society. “Sometimes there’s a story that keeps tapping you on the shoulder, and this was like that.” Based on true events, Foxcatcher recalls the dark but fascinating story of an unlikely pairing between the eccentric heir of one of America’s greatest fortunes and two Olympic champion wrestlers.

Steve Carell plays John E. du Pont, a fan of wrestling and self-styled “Golden Eagle” of America who scoops up 1984 Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and offers to sponsor him as he trains for various championships including the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Both are overshadowed by family members. Mark looks up to his older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), while du Pont strives to live up to his family’s legacy and is watched over by his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave). The Schultz brothers need du Pont’s resources, and the heir latches onto their talents in order to win at the Olympics — with him as the unlikely coach.

“[Foxcatcher] was developed as Bennett’s own interpretation of these real events,” said Kilik. “He had read a couple of articles, and they intrigued him. It was followed by a lot of research. It’s a personal story for these people, but [the film] also plays on a broad level with class, patriotism and the broken American dream all very present as it unfolds.” The script evolved over time as Miller worked with writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. The real-life Mark Schultz as well as others touched by what happened also participated in crafting the project including visits to the set. Added Kilik: “Mark Schultz came to work with Channing so he could get the [wrestling] moves down and show him the physicality of it all.” The shoot took place between October 2012 and January 2013 after several years of raising financing, which took place alongside the script’s multiyear evolution. “Editing took place between February 2013 right up until Cannes 2014,” said Kilik. “I’ve made a lot of films, and I think it’s a perfect movie. You don’t get there by conforming to the regular six-month edit process.”

SPC, which picked up rights to the film well ahead of its Cannes premiere, will open Foxcatcher in several New York and Los Angeles locations Friday, broadening out through Thanksgiving and going wider into Christmas and expanding further into 2015. “It’s very similar to other films we’ve had, going all the way back to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” SPC Co-President Michael Barker said at the premiere, which included a wide-ranging guest list from the Olsen twins to Salman Rushdie to 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen. “We think the film is deserving in a number of [awards] categories. We’ve been here before with Bennett Miller for Capote (2005, $28.75M domestic gross). You look at his career going from that film to Moneyball to Foxcatcher. He gets better and better and more ambitious. It feels very good right now.”

Rosewater
Director-writer: Jon Stewart
Writers: Maziar Bahari (book), Aimee Molloy (book)
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Nasser Faris, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Amir El-Masry
Distributor: Open Road Films

Rosewater posterJon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater had media attention even before the movie was made — courtesy of Stewart himself. The popular host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show made headlines in May 2013 after Deadline broke the news that he’d take a 12-week summer hiatus to make his first movie. Stewart wrote the script for Rosewater, an adaptation of the book Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story Of Love, Captivity And Survival (Random House, 2011). The story recalls co-author Maziar Bahari’s chilling account of traveling back to his homeland, Iran, to cover the country’s 2009 presidential elections. With a pregnant fiancée left behind in London, the journalist expected to be gone one week covering the race between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Despite what appeared to be popular momentum behind Mousavi, the results came in that Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide. Discontent broke out, and Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) captured the ensuing riots on Tehran’s streets with his camera. That, of course, didn’t sit well with Iran’s police, who arrested the 42-year-old who had Canadian citizenship. The bulk of the movie covers his isolation, interrogation and torture at the hands of the Revolutionary Guard during 118 days in prison.

“The sales pitch to everybody was: ‘We have five weeks, no money, it’s going to be in Jordan, it’s going to be 100 degrees, it will be Ramadan and so we’ll be fasting. But on the plus side, I’ve never done this before,” joked Stewart after introducing cast and crew at the film’s NYC premiere Wednesday night at AMC Lincoln Plaza. “So they all took an enormous leap of faith. … Hopefully this film will bring attention to the [many] journalists who are imprisoned and don’t have the benefit of infrastructure that Maziar had. Maziar is here tonight, I hope I didn’t give away the ending.”

Incidentally, this is not García Bernal’s first turn at playing a real-life figure who runs afoul of an authoritarian regime. He starred in Pablo Larraín’s No, which centered on a campaign to defeat Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 referendum. That film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (Sony Classics, $2.34M domestic gross). Rosewater, incidentally, is mostly in English.

Open Road came on as distributor after seeing Rosewater at a New York buyers’ screening ahead of its debuts in Telluride and Toronto this year. Tapping into Stewart’s television popularity is an ace in the feature’s cap as it heads to a sizable 371 theaters across North America this weekend. “There’s a great deal of curiosity about his directorial debut,” said Open Road CMO Jason Cassidy. “He speaks incredibly well to the movie and the process of making the movie. And audiences respond to true stories.” Open Road has been tapping audiences who are fans of current events and pop culture ahead of its rollout. His Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert is interviewing Stewart about the film in New York on Thursday, and Stewart played host for a screening of the film at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. “Obviously he’s an amazing ambassador, and tapping into Jon’s audience is key,” said Cassidy. “We’re [also] targeting art house audiences. … We’ll expand into the Thanksgiving weekend. This is one that’s well positioned to have a nice long life.”

The Homesman
Director-writer: Tommy Lee Jones
Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, Glendon Swarthout (novel)
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, Meryl Streep
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Saban Films

the-homesman-posterTommy Lee Jones returns as a big-screen director with The Homesman almost a decade after 2005’s The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada. A Cannes/Telluride/Toronto selection, the film is readying for an Oscar push as it heads to theaters this weekend. Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, an independent-minded woman who is tasked with saving three women on the edge of the American frontier who are being driven mad by pioneering life. En route to Iowa by covered wagon, she employs the help of a lowlife drifter (Jones) who joins the group as they head east, where a minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have offered to take the women in. But the unlikely duo and the three women first must brave the harsh reality of threat and psychological peril of the Nebraska territories. “It’s an unusual movie in that there aren’t many feminist Western movies with big female protagonists,” said Roadside Co-President Howard Cohen. “It’s a new twist on the Western drama [in that they are] taking different elements and putting it in similar setting.” Roadside became involved with The Homesman after Saban Films acquired the title in Cannes. Saban approached Roadside soon afterward. While the feature has the obvious trappings of a Western, the distributors also are approaching its rollout from the POV of a “high-end Oscar drama.” “There’s been very good feedback, especially for Hilary Swank for Best Actress,” said Cohen. “She received career tributes in Telluride, Mill Valley and the Hamptons [film festivals] this year.”

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, in which Jones starred along with Barry Pepper and Melissa Leo, grossed slightly more than $5 million domestically. The Sony Pictures Classics release debuted in 5 theaters in December 2005, grossing nearly $24K for a $4,771 per-theater average its first weekend. This film likely will go further as it taps Jones fans and a big female audience. “We’re leaning on attracting audiences by its high-end, cast-driven and auteur [aspects] as well as by it being a Western drama,” said Cohen, who noted the film had its L.A. premiere at AFI Fest this week. “Our trailer isn’t just horses and guns.” The Horseman will open Friday in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, gradually expanding to about 125 theaters by December 5. VOD for the title will hold off until the final week in February.

Beside Still Waters
Director-writer: Chris Lowell
Writer: Mohit Narang
Cast: Beck Bennett, Will Brill, Brett Dalton, Erin Drake, Ryan Eggold, Jessy Nodges, Britt Lower, Reid Scott
Distributor: Tribeca Film

beside_still_watersThe Help and Brightest Star actor Chris Lowell can add film director to his resume with this weekend’s Tribeca Film release Beside Still Waters. “The story is inspired by the house I grew up in in northern Georgia,” said Lowell. The film centers on Daniel, who, following the death of his parents, invites his childhood friends up to their lakeside house hoping to recapture the glory days of their youth. But not all goes according to plan since none of his friends shares his nostalgia for the good old days — and his ex-girlfriend shows up with a new fiancé. But as the night progresses, secrets are confessed and romances are rekindled. “My writing partner Mohit Narang and I started writing about things I feared, like losing my house, but it turned out my parents did sell the house in the summer of 2011.” Lowell and Narang had initially begun writing together more as an exercise to see how they worked together but soon realized they had the making of a full-fledged script. Along the way, Lowell sent drafts to people he had worked with in film and television, and eventually he invited actor friends to come down to the Georgia house for a reading. “I showed the script to producers of Brightest Star, and they said, ‘Let’s do it,'” said Lowell. Jason Potash and Paul Finkel produced through their Storyboard Entertainment banner and Lowell, Narang, and Steven Gorel also served as producers. “By January 2012 we had a contract, and then [we all] started going to people’s living rooms to pitch for financing.”

The team raised funds through private equity within 3 1/2 months. Preproduction kicked off in May, and the shoot began in June, taking place over 18 days. “In hindsight, I was burned because everything moved so smoothly with production,” said Lowell. “But by the time I got to the distribution stage, everything changed to a snail’s pace. [The film] spent 2013 on the festival circuit, which was full of highs and lows.” One particular high was winning both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Austin Film Festival. “Alison Deviney at Tribeca Film was an advocate for us, but then people [there] who crunch the numbers were worried.” With a release plan on hold, Lowell and team decided to do a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for music licenses and festival travel. Not only did they raise money, but the campaign’s strong response also reignited interest on the distribution side. “It changed everything for us,” said Lowell, who added that their Kickstarter goal was only $60K but they ended up raising $207K. “It proved we had an audience, and then we received offers for the release.” Tribeca Film ended up acquiring the film in the end. The company will open the title Friday at the Quad in NYC and the Music Hall in L.A. Lowell will travel to both locales for select Q&As. It will be available November 18 on iTunes.

Always Woodstock
Director-writer: Rita Merson
Cast: Katey Sagal, Ryan Guzman, Brittany Snow, Jason Ritter, Anna Anissimova, Rumor Willis, Allison Miller, James Wolk, Alexie Gilmore, Richard Reid
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

always_woodstockExecutive Producer Peter Schafer found his latest project through a somewhat unlikely source, but that is perhaps not all that unusual. “My wife Anna, who plays Ryan in the film, told me that her friend from childhood had a script that she wanted me to read,” said Schafer. “I rolled my eyes, as this situation usually ends up with me telling someone close to me why I am unable to finance the project they just put their heart and soul into. I wasn’t expecting much going in, but as soon as I started reading, I really enjoyed the script.” The film follows Catherine Brown, a neurotic struggling songwriter who’s working at a dead-end job at a mega music label in New York, wrangling one of the company’s biggest stars (Brittany Snow). But when Catherine is unceremoniously fired, and then comes home to find her longtime fiancé (Jason Ritter) in the arms of another woman, she decides that it’s time for a change. Selling off her engagement ring, Catherine moves back to her family home in Woodstock, to get back to what she has always wanted to do: write music. One night at a local bar, Catherine stumbles into handsome town doctor Noah (James Wolk). She also begins to write music after meeting local legend Lee Ann (Katey Sagal), and a turnaround begins. Always Woodstock received financing through private sources. Angela Demo cast most of the actors, but the filmmakers still were  looking for someone to play Lee Ann.

“Our director Rita and I are both Howard Stern listeners, and right as we were looking for the perfect Lee Ann, Katey Segal was on a show being interviewed, talking about her extensive music career,” said Schafer. “She got her start singing backup for everyone from Bob Dylan to Bette Midler. Both Rita and I were listening to Katey’s interview at the exact same time and called each other the next morning with a great idea for Lee Ann.” Sagal signed on and also wrote and performed an original track called “Runner Man.” The project shot over 25 days in Los Angeles and had a festival run including the Newport International Film Festival in March. Gravitas Ventures boarded as distributor and will open Always Woodstock in 10 cities this weekend with a simultaneous day-and-date VOD release.

Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild & Lovely
Director-writer: Josephine Decker
Writer: David Barker (Thou Wast Mild & Lovely)
Distributor: Cinelicious Pics

vernebutterIndie filmmaker Josephine Decker has two of her films opening simultaneously including her Berlinale 2014 debuts Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, which features Joe Swanberg and Butter On The Latch. “Dennis Bartok of Cinelicious Pics contacted me after seeing Butter On The Latch on Film Comment’s Best Undistributed Films of 2013 list last December,” said Decker. “We started conversations then, and when he watched Mild & Lovely, [the company] made an offer on both films. I knew I was taking a risk as Cinelicious is just getting started as a distributor and to do both films was a lot.” Decker explained that New York-based publicist Adam Kersh of Brigade has been very hands-on with both titles since their Berlin debuts and felt it would be “beneficial to both projects to release them simultaneously and keep the ‘story’ around the films vibrant.”

Butter On The Latch is a fantasy-thriller that takes place in the woods of a Balkan folk song and dance camp in Mendocino, CA. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is an experimental-esque thriller-romance in which its characters are tied by their dark motivations to gain one another’s attention. “I’ve taken about the last 2 1/2 years to make these two films,” said Decker. “They were mostly funded through small donations, investments and gifts from friends and family [as well as] from a Kickstarter campaign.” Butter On The Latch shot in just six days, while Mild & Lovely shot over 11 days near Somerset, KY. Both titles will open at IFP’s Made In New York Media Center beginning Friday. Events are planned for various screenings including a “Female Sexual Fantasies” panel as well as performances opening night. They also are available Friday via on-demand platforms including iTunes.