Focus’ Fifty Shades Of Grey will likely cause a particular dent in the Specialty Box Office this weekend as art house crowds and others are tempted to check out the alluring feature over Valentine’s Day weekend. That hasn’t exactly scared off everyone. New films by Spike Lee and David Cross are armed with cash raised through Kickstarter to pad their roll outs. Lee’s Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus will open in theaters following a digital bow on Vimeo last month, while Cross’ directorial feature debut Hits opens with a unique “pay-what-you-want” model in theaters as well as online via BitTorrent Bundle. RADiUS is opening stage musical turned feature film The Last Five Years in theaters and video on demand, while Paladin and Unison are teaming on Jermaine Clement co-directed vampire comedy-mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. North American Chinese-language distributor China Lion is countering Fifty Shades with its romance Somewhere Only We Know, its largest new release to date, while divorce is at the center of Music Box Films Israeli drama Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem..

Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus
Director-writer: Spike Lee
Writer: Bill Gunn
Cast: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Joie Lee, Felicia Pearson, Jeni Perillo, Katherine Borowitz, Donna Dixon
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus posterReleased last month on Vimeo, Spike Lee’s new thriller Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus begins its theatrical run Friday. The filmmaker, who raised $1.4 million in a Kickstarter campaign. filmed the title over 16 days in Martha’s Vineyard and Brooklyn. Based on Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult horror film Ganja And Hess, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus centers on an addiction to blood that once doomed a long forgotten ancient African tribe. When Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is introduced to a mysteriously cursed artifact by an art curator, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), he is uncontrollably drawn into a newfound thirst for blood that overwhelms his soul. He however is not a vampire. Lafayette quickly succumbs to the ravenous nature of the infliction but leaves Hess a transformed man. Soon Lafayette’s wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for her husband and becomes involved in a dangerous romance with Hess that questions the very nature of society’s view of love, addiction, sex, and status.

A well-known basketball fan, Lee parlayed his prime seats at an NBA franchise into crowd-funding cash for his latest film. “Spike Lee took 29 people for a chance to sit with him court side at New York Knicks games,” said Gravitas’ Nolan Gallagher, whose company boarded the project for its theatrical release last November. “[Lee] provided 82 different prizes for the Kickstarter campaign.” Among the 6,421 Kickstarter backers, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus also reportedly received a $10K donation from Steven Spielberg. Ahead of its release in just over a dozen locations this weekend, Lee did take a series of visits with traditional media, appearing on The View Monday, MSNBC’s The Reid Report February 11 and Good Day LA February 6. He will appear on Carson Daly Thursday and Good Day New York Friday as the title begins its theatrical leg in addition to other outlets including a Sirius XM Radio tour.

Lee’s previous title, Oldboy, bowed in November, 2013 vis FilmDistrict in 583 theaters grossing $885,382 ($1,519 theater average), going on to cume $2.19M. Variance Films released Red Hook Summer in August, 2012 in 4 theaters, grossing $40,070 (a comparatively better $10,018 PTA) and went on to cume $338,803 theatrically. On the studio side, Buena Vista released Miracle At St. Anna in late September, 2008 in 1,185 theaters, grossing over $3.47M ($2,935 PTA). It went on to cume over $7.9M. His highest grossing title is Inside Man (Universal, 2006) which cumed over $88.5M. His first feature, She’s Gotta Have It opened in a single theater in August, 1986 grossing $28,473, going on to total over $7.13M.

The Last Five Years
Director-writer: Richard LaGravenese
Writer: Jason Robert Brown (musical/play)
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan, Meg Hudson, Natalie Knepp, Sherie Rene Scott, Gina Sarno, Ashley Spencer, Cat Lynch, Nic Novicki
Distributor: RADiUS

The Last Five Years posterJust in time for Valentine’s Day, the big screen version of The Last Five Years will be vying for those romance (or romance-gone-south) dollars as it hits theaters and VOD this weekend. Based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown and adapted by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King and co-writer of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) who also directs, The Last Five Years follows the five-year journey in the relationship between an up-and-coming novelist Jaime (Jeremy Jordan) and aspiring actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick). The audience views each person’s point of view, though Jaime’s take is told in chronological order with his musical numbers moving linearly. Cathy’s POV, however, moves back in time, with her side of the story going from the relationship’s breakdown back to the beginning.

“I’m a fan of the musical and we immediately fell in love with it,” said RADiUS co-president Tom Quinn, whose company announced its acquisition of the title going into Toronto in September. “The musical has an ardent fan base, and the film’s soundtrack peaked at number 12 on iTunes, beating out Sam Smith just after the Grammys.” Last check on iTunes still has the soundtrack, which features tracks from Kendrick and Jordan, in the top 25 albums.

Like other releases this weekend, The Last Five Years will bow against the anticipated Fifty Shades Of Grey, though The Last Five Years certainly takes a different path than the sexually charged Focus Features release which opens wide this weekend. “It’s a passionate romance between two individuals, and there’s a lot of drama that comes from that and it’s an honest reflection,” said Quinn who also noted that the film version differs from the Off Broadway musical (it first premiered in Chicago). “If we wanted to go wide out of the gate, we probably wouldn’t have picked this weekend. But we’ll be in select theaters in New York and L.A. and the film will be much wider [via VOD].” RADiUS has been mostly alone in reporting its digital/VOD grosses, first giving numbers for Man Of Tai Chi exclusively to Deadline in November, 2013. It has since been forthcoming about on-demand grosses since then and Quinn indicated the company will reveal figures for The Last Five Years in the near future.

Hits
Director-writer: David Cross
Cast: Matt Walsh, Meredity Hagner, James Adomian, Derek Waters, Wyatt Cenac, Jake Cherry, Julia Stiles, Michael Cera, Dave Koechner, Amy Sedaris, Jason Ritter, Erinn Hayes, Amy Carlson, Russ Tamblyn
Distributors: Self-distributed/Honra Productions/BitTorrent Bundle

Hits posterVeteran TV and movie actor David Cross is making his feature directorial debut with Hits, which also is being self-distributed following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Packed full of many of Cross’ actor friends, it’s a dark comedy that explores the nature of fame in the 21st century “YouTube America.” Hits is set in a small town in upstate New York that’s populated by folks who trade in unrealistic expectations. The film depicts how fame, delusion, earnestness and recklessness meet and disrupt the lives of around them.

Cross initially was motivated to make Hits after attending the Sundance Film Festival some years ago. “I saw two movies that bothered me,” he said. “There was a ‘Mumblecore’ one that was boring with no story line but ‘ticked off’ all the indie boxes [including] a three-minute stretch with nobody talking,” said Cross. “And then there was another one that really bothered me and pissed me off. [I told myself] that I needed to put my money where my mouth is and that I could do better.” Cross added that he has a number of film ideas with full scripts waiting in the wings but singled out Hits because it was the one he could shoot with the least amount of money. After working on several more drafts of the script, he sent the screenplay out to producers, who boarded the project and raised initial funds. He tapped a number of actors to join the project who readily agreed. “I simply called or e-mailed friends, and they said they would do it,” said Cross. “I have a house upstate New York where [the film] is set, and people just crashed at my place. We also used a friend’s bar nearby.”

The only formal casting was for the kids in the feature. Shooting took place in July over 19 days in upstate NY with an additional three days in Brooklyn. “There’s a bleakness to the movie, so I wanted to balance the temperament with the visual look [of the film]. It’s very lush and beautiful up there that time of the year.”

Hits had its debut at Sundance, where Cross said the feature had interests from distributors, but he called the offers “deflating.” “They wanted to do the usual [theatrical release in] New York, L.A. and a few other cities [along with VOD], but we didn’t want to just do that,” said Cross. “So the producers had this idea to [work with] BitTorrent.” The filmmaking team launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised over the targeted $100K in support of Hits‘ release. Online, the will be available via BitTorrent Bundle, its first feature. Musicians have used BitTorrent Bundle to sell their work, with artists setting their own prices, including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who released his second solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes through the program in late September.

Beginning Friday, Hits will be available via BitTorrent as a “pay what you want” film. It also will be in “pay what you want” screenings, eventually reaching upward of 50 cities. “I don’t think Hits would have the life it has without Sundance,” added Cross. “And Kickstarter is the only reason we were able to do [this kind of] release. The more money we raised, the more theaters we were able to go to.”

What We Do In The Shadows
Directors-writers: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Cast: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby
Distributors: Unison Films in association with Paladin

What We Do In The Shadows posterSundance 2014 feature What We Do In The Shadows has its roots in a short co-writer-directors (and stars) Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi did 10 years ago. Told in mockumentary style, the feature revolves around four vampires who share an apartment in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. The foursome range in age from 183 to 8,000. They fight over household chores, go to clubs and struggle to keep up with the latest technology and fashion trends. They also antagonize the local werewolves during encounters. But as they are indeed vampires — making friends is hard as a result — so there’s also a good amount of carnage.

“This film has had the longest gestation period of any [project] I’ve ever done,” said producer Emanuel Michael, whose company Unison Films is co-releasing Shadows in association with Paladin. “They made a short in 2005 and in the interim got tied up with other projects. There weren’t many vampire films out there in ’05.” After regrouping 2 1/2 years ago, the production began shooting what would become more than 150 hours of footage; it took 14 months and three editors to get to the film’s final 86 minute runtime.

“It takes the form of a vampire film in a Christopher Guest kind of way. It’s a fiction, but filmed as a documentary,” said Paladin head Mark Urman, who added that the feature has been a ‘big hit’ in New Zealand and Australia where it’s already been released. “[In New Zealand] it outpaced [Amazing] Spider-Man 2 and Maleficent. It also was a big hit in the U.K., Japan and Germany, and [we see it] feeding over into the U.S.” What We Do In The Shadows has screened at universities in the wake of its extensive festival circuit run, where it picked up prizes in the past year and, Urman noted, has grabbed media attention from U.S. publications typically reticent to give space over to a specialty release. In the U.K., The Guardian called the film the “top comedy of the year.”

“Jermaine also has a huge following from [creating and starring in] Flight Of The Conchords, with over 2 million followers on Facebook,” added Urman. The feature raised $400K in 28 days via Kickstarter to propel its release. Clement and Waititi also created original content in character for video site Funny or Die. Paladin and Unison will open What We Do In The Shadows at the Sunshine in New York and the ArcLight in L.A. on Friday the 13th. It will expand to the balance of the top 10 markets February 20 and head to the top 20 markets February 27. Urman noted it will go to “dozens and dozens additional engagements in March.”

Somewhere Only We Know
Director-writer: Xu Jinglei
Writers: Wang Shuo, Wang Yun
Cast: Kris Wu, , Gordon Alexander, Claudia Wang, Jana Triskova, Wu Yifan, Xu Jinglei
Distributor: China Lion

Somewhere_Only_We_Know_posterA former member of member of Korean boy band EXO stars in the largest-ever release for L.A.-based distributor China Lion. Somewhere We Only Know centers on the female lead, JinTian (Wang Likun), who is going through a difficult time. Her boyfriend backs out of their marriage, and her beloved grandmother dies. She travels to Prague to heal her broken heart, only to meet Ze Yang (Kris Wu) and discover the true background about her grandmother’s love story.

“We picked up the title from Distribution Workshop around New Year’s,” said China Lion’s Robert Lundberg. “Our Beijing-based president Jiang Yanming highlighted the film to our Los Angeles team when he was introduced to it, as it fits our core female audience as well as our ‘sweet spot’ genre of a romantic dramedy.” China Lion’s Valentine’s releases tend to be among the niche distributor’s highlights of the year. Beijing Love Story opened in nine theaters on Valentine’s Day 2014 and grossed more than $140K, and the simply titled Love bowed February 17, 2012, grossing north of $83K in seven theaters.

“[The] Chinese New Year is also occurring so close [to the release on February 19] as well, so we were looking for something especially high profile to place during the weekend,” said Lundberg. “Having a feature film that checks all our boxes as well as puts ex-EXO supergroup member Kris Wu front and center as the male lead allowed us to go wider than normal.” Lundberg said Wu’s fan base will appeal to potential moviegoers outside its core Chinese-speaking audience in North America. He also added that its core audience likely will be drawn to romance rather than “handcuffs and whips,” referencing Fifty Shades Of Grey.

“We’ve countered the Fifty Shades release with a social media campaign highlighting star Kris Wu such as hashtagging #50ShadesOfKris #LoveShouldntHurt … which we’ve gotten a good reaction from,” added Lundberg. “We’ve coordinated special advance Thursday showings in those theaters not showing Fifty Shades and made sure that we’ve interacted on a regular basis with all the North American fan clubs for EXO and Kris. We’re spending some major advertising dollars in getting the word out.”

China Lion will bow Somewhere Only We Know in 46 theaters, which Lundberg said is more than double the number of locations for most of its releases. Among them, the company is targeting cities where it never has  ventured, but have large student populations with first-language Chinese speakers including Ann Arbor, MI, Fayetteville, AR, Madison, WI, Columbus, OH, Pittsburgh, Durham, Blacksburg, VA and Iowa City.

Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem
Directors-writers: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz
Cast: Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian Gabi Amrani, Sasson Gabai, Keren Mor, Roberto Pollack
Distributor: Music Box Films

Gett_-_The_Trial_of_Viviane_Amsalem_posterOne weekend ahead of the Oscars, the Best Film winner of the Awards of the Israeli Film Academy (and the country’s selection for Foreign Language Feature Oscar consideration) will get its theatrical bow stateside. It centers on an Israeli woman who is seeking divorce from her estranged husband but finds herself effectively on trial by the country’s religious marriage laws. Israel has neither civil marriage nor civil divorce. Orthodox rabbis must legalize a union or dissolution, which is only possible with the husband’s full consent. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Viviane Amsalem has been applying for a divorce for three years, but her devout husband Elisha refuses. His intransigence and her determination along with the ambiguous roles of the rabbinical judges are the backdrop for the courtroom drama.

“We were immediately struck by the strength of the writing, directing and performances as well as the filmmakers ability to find humor in an essentially tragic situation,” Music Box’s Ed Arentz said about the film, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes last year. “It was an obvious fit with our desire to be involved with the emotionally compelling films that audiences will want to see first in cinemas.”

Music Box, not surprisingly, is targeting the core Jewish and female audience as it heads into the weekend, reaching out to Jewish publications and mainstream press. Grass-roots outreach is targeting areas with large Jewish communities. “We expect the film to provoke conversation in the U.S. about how women’s rights can be better served in rabbinical courts as it has in Israel,” Arentz said. Music Box will open Gett (which refers to a divorce decree in Hebrew) at Lincoln Plaza and the Royal in L.A. and will expand gradually to the top 50 markets through April in a traditional theatrical rollout.