It is not often that films come out of the impoverished North African nation of Mauritania and even more rare for a production from the region to catch the attention of the Academy, but Timbuktu, which opens this weekend in limited release boxoffice-specialty__111212022432-200x150-1__140530221134via Cohen Media Group did just that. The Best Foreign Language Oscar-nominated feature has already received accolades in Cannes and other festivals. It will certainly be counter-programming to this weekend’s Super Bowl. Drafthouse Films went outside its typical wheelhouse with Amira & Sam which it will open in 10 markets in addition to on-demand platforms. Immortal Beloved filmmaker Bernard Rose returns to the big screen with a story on the first ‘rock star’ in Freestyle Releasing’s The Devil’s Violinist, and China Lion is bringing the big screen version of a Korean/Chinese reality show to theaters. Running Man, featuring big name Chinese stars in an outdoor competition, will open in tandem with its release on the Mainland. Other limited release titles opening this weekend include 2015 Sundance film Girlhood via Strand Releasing, Well Go USA’s Supremacy and International Film Circuit’s doc Above And Beyond. Shorts HD and Magnolia will once again bring the Oscar nominated live action, animation and documentary shorts to theaters for the 10th year. The Oscar Nominated Short Films program will open in over 350 theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada starting Friday, January 30, and will continue to expand in the following weeks. In addition to the theatrical run, the 15 titles will be available on Vimeo OnDemand, iTunes Stores in 54 countries, Amazon Instant Video, Verizon and will be released across the U.S. on VOD/Pay Per View platforms.

timbuktuTimbuktu
Director-writer: Abderrahmane Sissako
Writer: Kessen Tall
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, Hichem Yacoubi
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Mauritanian/French production Timbuktu is in the running for a Best Foreign Language Oscar and is making its U.S. theatrical debut after a long journey on the festival circuit. It is a story that is geopolitically apropos but told from the POV of a small village. Set in a town not far from the Malian city of Timbuktu and under the rule of Islamic fundamentalists, the story follows various inhabitants including Kidane who lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, daughter Toya and Issan, their young shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists. Music, laughter, cigarettes and even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family had been spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu, but when their destiny changes abruptly, Kidane must face the new laws of the foreign occupants.

“We saw Timbuktu at the Cannes Film Festival and were immediately blown away by its beauty and timeliness,” said Cohen Media Group chief Charles Cohen. “Since premiering at Cannes, [the film] has gone on to play in major film festivals around the world and continually garnered rave reviews, helping to position this film as a must-see for fans of intelligent and artistic foreign film.”

Director Abderrahmane Sissako, whose previous films include 2006’s Bamako and 2002’s Waiting For Happiness (both Cannes debuts) said that Mauritania does not make many films, so when they do, filmmakers “must [do stories that] have a meaning [and a] universal message.” The filmmaker was inspired to write Timbuktu following a little reported 2012 stoning death in a small Malian town. A man and woman had started a family out of wedlock and were summarily executed. Timbuktu was occupied by fundamentalists for a year and Sissako visited the city following its liberation from French troops. “I met girls who were ‘forced brides’ and raped,” said Sissako. “Shortly before we began shooting, a suicide bombing near our location forced us to move to [the North African country of] Mauritania in a city that is similar to Timbuktu.” Primary photography lasted six weeks and was tense due to threats of attack. Cast and crew received protection from the army.

Cohen Media Group opened Timbuktu in New York Wednesday exclusively at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It will open in LA at the Royal and San Francisco’s Kabuki theater Friday with further cities to follow. Added Cohen: “We already got a glowing review in the New York Times and expect continued positive critical response as the film rolls out in the coming weeks.”

Amira & SamAmira & Sam
Director-writer: Sean Mullin
Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche, Ross Marquand, Taylor Wilcox
Distributor: Drafthouse Films

Drafthouse Founder and CEO Tim League saw comedy-drama-romance Amira & Sam last summer on the insistence of Sarah Pitre, the distributor’s director of programming and promotions. The film from debut director/writer Sean Mullin follows Sam (Martin Starr, Freaks & Geeks), an army veteran adapting back to civilian life after a lengthy tour overseas. After reuniting with his unit’s former Iraqi translator in New York City, he meets Amira (newcomer Dina Shihabi), who is suspicious of soldiers and wants nothing to do with him. Amira runs into immigration trouble, and Sam offers to keep her safe at his apartment. After a rocky start, their unlikely friendship starts to blossom into something more. Meanwhile, Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley, Before I Disappear) offers him a lucrative opportunity at his hedge fund, helping to secure wealthy veterans as new clients. However, all is not as it seems, and Amira and Sam soon find themselves faced with mounting obstacles in order to stay together.

“We are better known for our documentaries and genre films, but Drafthouse Films has a very simple mantra that ties all of our films together: we only work on movies we love,” said League, reiterating a motto he’s said in the past. “I saw Amira & Sam at Sarah’s insistence, and I fell in love with it, and because of that, I think it fits perfectly in our catalog.” Drafthouse Films said Amira & Sam will appeal to fans of romantic comedies and those heading for “a date night.” It will also find traction among the art house crowd.

“The film has been picking on multiple Audience & Jury Awards at the regional festivals around the country so we know it’s also a fun crowd-pleaser movie too,” said Sumyi Khong Antonson, VP Marketing & Distribution. “In addition to our core audience, we are also reaching out to military & veteran organizations and meet up groups…Sean Mullin, who is a West Point alumni and veteran himself, said he was inspired to write this story because many ‘soldier-coming-home-from-war’ films deal with a soldier dealing with PTSD, but he wanted to flip that well-worn premise on its head.”

Drafthouse is offering an incentive for vets and military in active service with valid ID, giving complimentary plus-ones for ‘dates.’ “We wanted to release the film around Valentine’s Day,” added League. “The romance between Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi is really natural and quite wonderful. I can think of no better Valentine’s date than to go to the cinema to see Amira & Sam. We didn’t want 50 Shades Of Grey to be the only representation of romance this Valentine’s Day.”

Drafthouse will open Amira & Sam in 10 initial markets including L.A., New York, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City and Seattle, expanding to 25-plus theaters next month. In addition, it will be available this weekend via digital on-demand platforms day and date.

Devil's ViolinistThe Devil’s Violinist
Director-writer: Bernard Rose
Cast: David Garrett, Jared Harris, Joely Richardson, Christian McKay, Veronica Ferres, Helmut Berger, Olivia d’Abo, Andrea Deck
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing

The idea behind The Devil’s Violinist stems from its star David Garrett. It chronicles the life of Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini, who rose to fame as a virtuoso in the early 19th Century. It begins with his youth as a childhood violinist pushed by his demanding father through his beginnings in Italy and then to his performances and acclaim in London under the guidance of the mysterious Urbani.

“[Garrett] is a violin virtuoso who was fascinated with Paganini,” said producer Gabriela Bacher. “[Producer] Christian Angermayer from Film House Germany told me about the idea and I found it interesting. Paganini was the first ‘rock star’ in the history of music. We thought Bernard Rose would be the best to tell the story because of his work on Immortal Beloved. He knows music videos and is a history buff and tells historical stories from a contemporary point-of-view. This is not so much of a biopic but about someone who constructed a myth around himself that he eventually succumbs to.” Rose began working on the script in 2011 and production began the following year. Co-producer Rosilyn Heller was also instrumental in moving the project along and developing the script with Rose as well as David Garrett. Though a German-Austrian production The Devil’s Violinist is an English-language film. Financing was a combination of soft money as well as resources from German and Austrian broadcasting groups.

“The shoot was very fast — about 7 weeks,” added Bacher. “We started in a Vienna opera [venue], then moved to sound stages in Bavaria and finally Torino, Italy.” Freestyle Releasing picked up theatrical rights via sales company Beta Cinema and will open day and date in limited release this weekend and will be available via VOD/digital.

Running ManRunning Man
Director: Jia Hu, Junyi Cen
Writer: Lin Yang
Cast: Kim Jong-kook, Li Chen, Angelababy, Wang Baoqiang, Chao Deng, Wang Zulan, Chen He, Zhen Kia
Distributor: China Lion

Reality television hits the big screen in this Chinese production based off a reality show which was itself based off of a Korean series. Running Man is an outdoor reality show featuring some of Asia’s most popular celebrities who engage in fierce competition. “The English-language correlation would be if George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt participated in a reality show for the big screen,” said China Lion’s Robert Lundberg. “The Chinese version translates to ‘Hurry Up, Brother’ and for all intents and purposes, it’s a competition-based variety show best described as Survivor with feature film stars. The contestants find themselves in a theme park in China competing against each other for the master title.”

China Lion is mirroring the release timing to last year’s similar fare Dad, Where Are We Going Now? and The Big Movie, which itself was a reality show feature spin-off that ended up grossing over $100M USD in Mainland China, according to Lundberg. Zhejiang Television produced the title and China Lion picked up the feature from Wanda Media at the beginning of January. “We’re rushing to get this film out [along with] the Mainland release on January 30,” said Lundberg. “We’ve been engaging fans of both the Chinese show and the Korean show, as there’s lots of overlap given that Korean star Kim Jong-kook crossed over from the Korean iteration to the Chinese one, becoming wildly popular across both countries in the process. And we’ll be making sure another Chinese-Korean crossover release — our Chinese New Year/Valentine’s Day release of Somewhere Only We Know — is trailering at all of Running Man’s locations.”

Initially, China Lion will take Running Man to its top Chinese-language locations in North America, but will look to expand the title if it gets what it hopes will be strong response. Added Lundberg: “We’re out across the fan-scape of the television shows, making sure everyone knows this is the weekend to see it, given that the film acts as an extended conclusion to the season which just ended over the winter break. Many of our first-language Chinese speaking university students watched [the show] while back home in the Mainland.”