Last weekend was mostly a dud in the specialty box office, but some of this week’s limited-release newcomers could breathe some fresh air in an Avengers-dominated late spring. A few distributors are looking to the silent but potentially lucrative mature crowd for success, in a time of the year that historically has shown that to be the case. Bleecker Street will target that audience with its second title, Sundance feature I’ll See You In My Dreams with Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, June Squibb and Sam Elliott, while Cohen Media Group and Drafthouse Films will open French-set crime dramas: In The Name Of My Daughter (Guillaume Canet, Catherine Deneuve) and The Connection (Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche), respectively. Also making its bow is star-writer David Dastmalchian’s Oscilloscope release Animals, based on his own experience with addiction. First Run Features will open doc One Cut, One Life, the final project by filmmaker Ed Pincus (with Lucia Small), a film about facing terminal illness that he began against his longtime wife’s wishes. And Roadside/Godspeed will launch Chris Dowling’s Where Hope Grows, from a script that lingered in Hollywood for years before getting new life.
Other specialty releases taking their weekend bows include Music Box’s The Film Critic with a day-and-date start in NYC and Chicago. Also opening are Starz Media’s Every Secret Thing, IFC’s Good Kill and First Run’s Our Man In Tehran.
I’ll See You In My Dreams
Director-writer: Brett Haley
Writer: Marc Basch
Cast: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, Sam Elliott, Malin Akerman
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street caught I’ll See You In My Dreams at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it had its World Premiere. The film will be the new distributor’s second feature release, following Danny Collins earlier this year, and it will roll this title out similarly, targeting the mature art house crowd.
The comical and heartfelt feature centers on a widow and former songstress who begins life anew. With the support of her three friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place), Carol (Blythe Danner) decides to embrace the world, embarking on an unlikely friendship with her pool maintenance man (Martin Starr), pursuing a new love interest (Sam Elliott) and reconnecting with her daughter (Malin Akerman).
“The screening was well received at Sundance, where it screened at the tail end of the first week,” said Bleecker Street’s President of Distribution Jack Foley. “A lot of films had been sold, so we were fortunate to be able to buy it. I think this will be one of the earliest Sundance releases.”
Foley said the company wanted to get I’ll See You In My Dreams ready for a May release, which Foley says has been historically strong for films targeting older audiences. Foley, who was on the exec team with Bleecker Street chief Andrew Karpan, noted the success of past Searchlight titles Waitress ($19.1M), Once ($9.4M), The Tree Of Life ($13.3M) and Far From The Madding Crowd ($1.176M now in its second weekend of release) as well as Focus’ Moonrise Kingdom ($45.5M) as examples of past May releases that have flourished at the box office with the mature art-house market in mind, though he noted a particularly robust studio blockbuster, such as the current Avengers movie, can throw some of that strategy on its head.
“There is an opportunity for counter-programming, though when there’s a second weekend tentpole making over $77M, it’s hard.”
This year’s features, which have lured similar audiences include Searchlight’s The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($32.77M to date), TWC’s Woman In Gold ($27.426M to date) and Bleecker Street’s Danny Collins ($5.38M to date). “The release strategy is structured to very much deliver the film to that older audience quickly,” said Foley. “We’ll be heading into every major market in Florida by week three. From that voice, there will be a local and a national lift.”
In The Name Of My Daughter
Director-writer: André Téchiné
Writer: Cédric Anger
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Catherine Deneuve, Adèle Haenel, Judith, Chemla, Mauro Conte
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
French filmmaker André Téchiné’s latest feature is a real-life thriller set against the backdrop of the French Riviera in the 1970s and ’80s. Téchiné initially had planned to do a loose adaptation of the story based on the memoirs of Renée Le Roux (A Woman Up Against The Mafia). Le Roux was a central figure in the high-stakes shakeout, but after paring down the number of figures, the filmmaker essentially kept the central focus of the true story in tact.
The film opens in 1976, as Agnès Le Roux (Adèle Haenel) moves back to the south of France from Africa to live with her mother Renée (Catherine Deneuve), owner of the Nice casino Palais de la Mediterranée. Agnès falls in love with Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), a lawyer and Renée’s business adviser, and he becomes the object of Agnès’ fixation. Behind the scenes, a fixed card game threatens the casino’s financial stability, and someone is trying to intimidate her mother. The shadow of the mafia hangs over the casino, and the owner of the Palais’ rival, the Fratoni, wants to take it over. Maurice, who has fallen from grace with Renée, introduces Agnès to Fratoni, who offers her 3 million francs to vote against her mother in a shareholders meeting. Agnès accepts the offer, and Renée loses control of the casino. Agnès finds it hard to cope with her betrayal, and Maurice also distances himself from her. In November 1977, after a failed suicide attempt, Agnes disappears. Her body never is found. Thirty years on, Maurice remains the prime suspect in a murder case with no body and no proof of his guilt. Convinced of his involvement, Renée is prepared to fight to the bitter end to see him put behind bars…
“We prebought the film at Cannes based on the script, the casting of Catherine Deneuve and Guillaume Canet and the renown of director André Téchiné, whose talent and reputation in the U.S. are well known,” said Cohen Media Group head Charles Cohen. “All these elements promised a well-told, intelligent tale, which perfectly matches Cohen Media Group’s expertise at releasing quality, commercial art house cinema.”
CMG’s release follows other mature-focused bows stateside that have opened mid to late spring, including Searchlight’s Second Best Marigold Hotel, Bleecker Street’s Danny Collins and TWC’s Woman In Gold. “We wanted to give the film the benefit of playing Francophile festivals like [New York’s] Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in March and [L.A.’s] COL-COA in late April, where it generated great word-of-mouth amongst our core,” said Cohen. “We’re [targeting] the older, foreign-language film audience. Obviously we’re reaching out to the U.S. French and Francophile film lovers, who are fans of André Téchiné, Guillaume Canet and the great Catherine Deneuve. [Recent César winner] Adèle Haenel has been critically praised for her performance as Agnès Le Roux.”
Director-writer: Cédric Jimenez
Writer: Audrey Diwan
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey, Benoît Magimel, Guillaume Gouix, Bruno Todeschini
Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Drafthouse Films saw a 20-minute promo for The Connection at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, while director Cédric Jimenez was still editing the project, and according to Drafthouse chief Tim League, “[We] were hooked.”
Also based on true events in France, the ’70s-set crime drama stars Oscar winner Jean Dujardin as Marseilles magistrate Pierre Michel, who spearheaded a relentless campaign to dismantle the notorious drug smuggling operation known as the French Connection. In his cross hairs is charismatic and wealthy kingpin Gatean “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), who runs the largest underground heroin trade into the United States. Although the fearless and tenacious Michel, aided by a task force of elite cops, will stop at nothing — including boldly orchestrated drug raids, devastating arrests and exacting interrogations — to ensure the crime ring’s demise, Zampa’s “La French” always seems one step ahead. As La French mounts its retaliation, Michel will be forced to make the most difficult decision of his life: to continue waging his war or ensure his family’s safety.
“This is Jean Dujardin’s first big film following his Academy Award-winning performance in The Artist,” said League. “We also really like that this is inspired by a true story and is a continuation of the same saga that began with William Friedkin’s The French Connection years ago. The movie is fun, action-packed, has great performances and, since it was shot in 35mm, it looks fabulous. All those are great factors when predicting box office success.”
Drafthouse Films has hosted a number of complimentary screenings of The French Connection in a number of markets to “whet audiences’ appetites” for The Connection, in addition to showing the new film at a number of regional U.S. festivals. The distributor said it expects the art house crowd to connect with the star-power of Dujardin and his onscreen nemesis Lellouche.
Added League: “[We’ve] screened a French Film Crime series with films curated by Cédric Jimenez and also partnered with Odell Brewing for a limited-edition, collaborative French farmhouse-style beer called The French (Hop) Connection to celebrate the release of the film.” The company also is engaged in a digital campaign targeting fans of crime films and releasing a limited-edition vinyl edition of the soundtrack in addition to other ancillary marketing.
“The acting is great and we are excited to be working with first-time helmer Cédric Jimenez,” added League. “With a feature this strong as his debut, I think we will be seeing a lot more out of him.”
Director: Collin Schiffli
Writer: David Dastmalchian
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Kim Shaw, John Heard, John Hoogenakker, John Lister, Lawrence MacGowan
Producer Mary Pat Bentel read a draft of Animals after writer (and star) David Dastmalchian’s manager gave her a copy. The story is based on Dastmalchian’s own troubled past, which he adapted for the big screen.
Animals revolves around a young couple who exist somewhere between homelessness and the fantasy life they imagine for themselves. Although they masterfully con and steal in an attempt to stay one step ahead of their addiction, they ultimately are forced to face the reality of their situation…
“I was impressed with what [Dastmalchian] was able to accomplish as a writer-actor and also how he was able to come out of this,” said Bentel, who produced 2013’s Goodbye World with Adrian Grenier and is currently in post with comedy Drive She Said with Jason Biggs and Ashley Tisdale. “We talked for hours before I flat-out asked him if it’s his story. There are fictional characters included in the movie and some things [featured] were his observations from the sidelines. I asked him if he was ready to be vulnerable and live through this again. He said he was. … He lost the weight and cooked up fake heroin.”
Dollin Schiffi already was attached to direct by the time Dastmalchian and Bentel met a year before shooting began. Bentel initially was nervous because Schiffli was a first-time filmmaker and his personality didn’t readily lend a hint that he could take on such a story. “He has a clean way of living, and I didn’t know if he had the capacity to do it,” said Bentel. “But I was impressed that he had detailed story boards which he had completed — he had storyboarded the whole thing — and we talked [for hours]. He’s also close with Dave, and Dave needed to be with someone who he’s very comfortable with to do this film.”
Both Schiffli and Dastmalchian were from Chicago, so the focus was to set production in the Windy City. Financing was raised privately incrementally. Most crew were Chicagoans with just a few flying in from L.A. “[Fellow cast] Kim Shaw and John Heard were flown out from Los Angeles,” said Bentel. “Finding the right Bobbie (Shaw) was a challenge, but once we read her, we knew she was the right pick. Her chemistry with Dave felt real and we felt like we were rooting for this couple.” Animals shot over about 20 days in September 2013, with editing taking place in L.A.
“The Chicago shoot was wrought with all the melodrama that any indie crew faces — pissing off neighbors and losing locations — but overall it was a lovely experience,” said Bentel. “I think doing it for passion and raising awareness about drug abuse overruled any nonsense along the way. It was easy to collaborate with people who shared the same goal. I wish all shoots were this enjoyable.”
Oscilloscope saw Animals at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival and was the first distributor to reach out about releasing the title. But the conversation initially lost momentum. ICM called some time later with news that the NY-based distributor had circled back just as the film was about to go to another company. Added Bentel: “I feel the film humanizes addiction in a way that will inspire conversation, and hopefully, change.”
One Cut, One Life
Directors-writers: Ed Pincus, Lucia Small
Subjects: Ed Pincus, Lucia Small, Jane Pincus, Paul Giamatti, Kim Dittus, Robert Hamill, Turner Osler, David Ospina, Benjamin Pincus, Ruth Sami Pincus
Distributor: First Run Features
Ed Pincus developed a signature cinematic aesthetic for social and political problems beginning in the ’60s with documentaries like Black Natchez and One Step Away. His work continued into the new millennium, embarking on his final project, One Cut, One Life, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
He and his collaborator, Lucia Small, started the project, much to the chagrin of Pincus’ wife of 50 years, Jane. Told from their point of view, the film offers intimacy rarely seen in documentaries, questioning whether some things might be too private to be made public. The film is intense, raw and yet sometimes humorous in its exploration of the human condition. It invites viewers to contemplate for themselves what is important, not only at the end of life but during.
“We want to honor Ed Pincus’ substantial legacy as a filmmaker and introduce new people to his work,” said First Run’s Michelle Berninger, who said Jane Pincus is not involved with the feature’s release. “The film raises some provocative questions about marriage, gender roles, creative partnerships and end-of-life care, so we’ve tried to highlight those aspects of the film to the audience.”
Berninger added that Small has put together a “dynamic group” of post-screening discussions for the opening week, highlighting issues explored in the film. “We’ve been targeting people that love documentary film, especially first-person docs, and fans of Ed Pincus’s work,”said Berninger. First Run picked up the title following its screenings at last year’s New York Film Festival. One Cut, One Life had its World Premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April.
Where Hope Grows
Director-writer: Chris Dowling
Cast: Kristoffer Polaha, David DeSanctis, Billy Zabka, Brooke Burns, McKaley Miller, Alan Powell, Danica McKellar, Kerr Smith, Michael Grant
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Godspeed Pictures
Chris Dowling’s script for Where Hope Grows had made some rounds in Hollywood for five years before finding its way to producer Simran Singh, who is an attorney by trade with ties to the entertainment industry. His experience there had nurtured a desire to give the production side a try.
The film follows Calvin Campbell, a former professional baseball player sent to an early retirement due to his panic attacks at the plate. Although he had talent for the big leagues, he struggles with the curveballs life has thrown him. His life is in a slow downward spiral when it suddenly is awakened and invigorated by the most unlikely person – Produce, a young-man with Down syndrome who works at the local grocery store. Calvin slowly loses the chip on his shoulder as he begins to experience the world through Produce’s eyes. Faith, work, purpose and family blossom in Calvin’s life as their friendship develops. The unlikely pair becomes intertwined giving Calvin’s life new purpose but leads to tragedy due to single decision echoed from Calvin’s past.
“[Producer] Milan Chakraborty and I had been talking for a while. He had sent me some [possible projects] that didn’t grab me,” said Singh, noting that Chakraborty had produced Dowling’s earlier title, Rock Slyde. “He [then said] there was a film that all of Hollywood had passed on, which he had the most passion for, so I told him to send it over.” The title was Where Hope Grows, which also excited Singh. After doing some tweaks, preproduction was underway.
“Casting was very organic, which I think is the case with indie films,” said Singh. “I think Hollywood was intimidated. It has faith elements and I think people were hesitant to get involved. This was before God’s Not Dead came out ($60.8M). We reached out to people we knew who were actors and had confidence in, and that’s how it came together.”
Newcomer David DeSanctis joined the project almost by chance. Chakraborty had been scouting in Louisville, KY, and people he met in the city told him about the young man. “He’s a riot,” said Singh. “They sent us a video, and we fell in love with him. We had come close to signing someone else, but then found him.”
Where Hope Grows shot over 21 days in Kentucky, actually coming in “a bit under budget,” according to Singh. “The mayor is a very big supporter of our film,” he added. “We had access to the city’s stadium through their generosity.” Singh’s’ Goodspeed Pictures partnered with Roadside Attractions on the title via a service deal for the feature’s release. Singh said that his experience as a lawyer had guided him to the L.A.-based distributor. Lionsgate will handle home entertainment.
“Since I’m an attorney, I’ve litigated many times with distributors that haven’t fulfilled their contractual obligations. So I didn’t want [our film] in the hands of just anyone,” he said. Godspeed Pictures raised the P&A ahead of this weekend’s rollout.