Early awards chatter was ripe this week in the lead-up to Lily Tomlin’s Grandma rollout Friday via Sony Pictures Classics. The film joins a fairly heavy slate of specialty newcomers this weekend as distributors begin to eye the competitive fall roster of awards-season titles coming out of festivals in Venice, Toronto, Telluride, New York as well as the Hamptons, AFI Fest and others. Also taking their theatrical bows are Gravitas’ Sundance doc Being Evel, about the legendary daredevil who famously staged spectacular stunts that were calculated to attract a media frenzy. On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum is Broad Green’s Learning To Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, in the company’s first English-language rollout. Cinelicious will bow The Mend with Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett, and the Orchard is opening the latest Joe Swanberg title, Digging For Fire, starring Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick and Mike Birbiglia in theaters this weekend, followed by on-demand Tuesday.

Among other limited releases this weekend, Lionsgate will open She’s Funny That Way, and Submarine Deluxe will launch Station To Station. The Weinstein Company’s Shanghai was to have opened in limited release Friday, but it has been pushed to October 2.

Grandma
Director-writer: Paul Weitz
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Woff
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grandma PosterPaul Weitz began considering comic-actress Lily Tomlin for the starring role on a script he was working on while the two collaborated on his 2013 title Admission. A debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Tomlin plays Elle Reid, who has just gone through a breakup with her girlfriend and whose granddaughter, Sage, unexpectedly shows up needing $600 before sundown. Temporarily broke, Grandma Elle and Sage spend the day trying to get their hands on the cash as their unannounced visits to old friends and flames end up rattling skeletons and digging up secrets.

“I had the basic idea while we were working on Admission,” Weitz said during a conversation about the film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this week. “I wanted to work with Lily again and tap into that edge. I wrote the script hearing her voice. I knew she’d have a lot to offer in a lead.” Weitz had the roots of Grandma in mind for a few years, but then wrote the draft in about a month.

The two reconnected during lunch, and Weitz handed Tomlin the script, though she initially was trepidatious. “At first I was worried about whether I’d like the script and he had written with me in mind, and that could be awkward,” said Tomlin. “But I did like the script. It takes place in one day, and I liked all the [complicated] relationships. It’s never ham-fisted. It’s delicately placed.”

With Tomlin on board, other cast also joined. Weitz suggested Marcia Gay Harden and noticed a somewhat surprising reaction from Tomlin. “I saw a moment of Lily being mildly intimidated by her, but that would be great for their dynamic [playing Tomlin’s daughter],” said Weitz. “We also got Sam Elliott, who is always good, but in a lot of his roles, you don’t get to see him emotionally.”

Shooting took place over 19 days. Sony Classics picked up the title out of Sundance, and Andrew Saffir’s Cinema Society hosted its New York premiere this week with cast along with well-wishers Saffron Burrows, Gael Garcia Bernal, Malcolm McDowell and others with a screening and party at the James Hotel. Grandma opens with limited runs in New York and Los Angeles Friday and will expand gradually in the coming weeks.

Being Evel
Director-writer: Daniel Junge
Writer: Davis Coombe
Subjects: Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, Mat Hoffman, George Hamilton, Shelly Saltman, Linda Bork Knievel, Robbie Knievel, Krystal Knievel, Frank Gifford
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures/History Films

BEING EVEL, US poster art, Evel Knievel, 2015. © Gravitas Ventures

It is no shock that Johnny Knoxville grew up an Evel Knievel fan. When veteran documentary filmmaker Daniel Junge approached the Jackass star about doing a documentary about the ’60s/’70s daredevil, Knoxville saw a perfect fit. “I was very busy at the time preparing for Bad Grandpa, but we felt it was something that was right in our wheelhouse [and] I was a huge fan,” Knoxville said.

Notoriously brash, bold and daring, Knievel stared death in the face from the seat of his motorcycle. After an adolescence riddled with petty thievery and general rabble-rousing, Knievel set his sights on superstardom, a feat he achieved when televisions around the world aired the startling crash footage of his 1967 attempt to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The jump was spectacular, but the failed landing that sent him skidding like a rag doll across the asphalt was the main attraction. Throughout the 1970s, his legacy as King of the Daredevils spawned action figures, movies and a generation of kids who wanted to be just like Evel.

“We wanted to make sure [the docu] was told in a way that we agreed with,” said Knoxville. “We wanted to celebrate his accomplishments, but also be very honest about him as a man. Some of the things we get into are very tough and disappointing, but we didn’t want to gloss over that. At the same time, we didn’t want to just make a movie about the worst things.” Knoxville said that Junge had sold the title to TV’s History by the time production was underway, and the company had suggested Knoxville’s participation. Junge and writer Davis Coombe circulated an outline and potential interviews were put in place.

“The archival footage was tough to unwind because Evel would make side deals with multiple people, so different [parties] would claim they were the owners of footage we wanted to use,” said Knoxville. “It was a nightmare. Luckily I only dealt with the creative. [His son] Kelly Knievel was the point person for the family, [and] the film wouldn’t have happened without them.”

Knoxville attended his first Sundance where Being Evel premiered in January. He has been doing a round of promotion in the lead-up to the title’s release this weekend, including late-night shows and other appearances. Gravitas will open Being Evel day-and-date in 20 cities this weekend.

Learning To Drive
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writers: Sarah Kernochan, Katha Pollitt (based on the article written by)
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Avi Nash, Samantha Bee, Matt Salinger
Distributor: Broad Green Pictures

Learning To Drive PosterLearning To Drive is Broad Green Pictures’ fourth release and its first English-language title since it actively began its distribution business this year. Based on a New Yorker article by Katha Politt, the film is a comedy about a mismatched pair who help each other overcome life’s roadblocks. It centers on Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a fiery Manhattan book critic whose husband has just left her for another woman. As a lifelong New Yorker, she’s never learned to drive and hires a soft-spoken taxi driver from India (Ben Kingsley), who is on the verge of an arranged marriage, to teach her. As he shows her how to take control of the wheel, she coaches him on how to impress a woman, and their unlikely friendship awakens them to starting life anew.

“It’s an audience movie that will get plenty of good reviews and has attractive stars that play well off each other,” said Travis Reid, Broad Green’s President of Theatrical Distribution. “It’s a feel-good movie that [targets] a mature audience. This time of the year, there isn’t a lot catering to them.” Broad Green said it is hoping to cement its place in theaters in the coming weeks ahead of a September expansion, where it will fill a vacuum targeting primarily females in the core 40-65 range as well as South Asian audiences. “We’ve been targeting trailers with appropriate movies including Ricki And The Flash, and it has also followed some of the Bollywood product currently out there.”

The film also has screened for targeted groups including AARP and the Red Hat Society, where it played at the group’s annual convention in Indianapolis, according to the distributor, in addition to a targeted digital campaign focused on spreading the word to the demographic. “I think the single thing I’m most impressed with is that they both have worked very hard for the movie,” said Reid. “I think it’s unprecedented the amount of media they’ve met with.” Both Kingsley and Clarkson are doing nonstop press and television appearances in the lead-up and after the feature bows this weekend.

Broad Green said it is hoping to emulate the rollouts of recent titles that have targeted similar audiences including the September 2014 release of Cohen Media Group’s My Old Lady with Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline. That film opened in 11 theaters its debut weekend, averaging $11,335, and went on to cume just over $4M. The company also is looking at fellow distribution newcomer Bleecker Street’s feature I’ll See You In My Dreams, which opened in three theaters its first weekend in May, averaging $17,364. It has totaled $7.37M.

Learning To Drive opens Friday in two theaters in both New York and Los Angeles, with locations in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Phoenix added next weekend. The film will add more theaters in those markets in addition to another 15 markets soon after, going on to the top 50 markets and around 100 locations by September 11.

The Mend
Director-writer: John Magary
Writer: Myna Joseph, Russell Harbaugh
Cast: Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, Lucy Owen, Mickey Sumner, Austin Pendleton, Cory Nichols, Louisa Krause, Leo Fitzpatrick, Sarah Steele
Distributor: Cinelicious Pics

Mend PosterJohn Magary, Myna Joseph and Russell Harbaugh took a trip to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, where the idea for The Mend was born. The trio, who went to school at Columbia together, developed the story for about a year before shopping for financing.

The Mend revolves around routinely estranged brothers Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett), who are equally unhappy. Mat embraces chaos and rudeness, while Alan conceals his discontent. With both of their lives on a downhill slide, the two temporarily are reunited as roommates, uneasily sharing a Harlem apartment. What ensues is a study of shared familial dysfunction.

“We had a casting director on before we had anything in place at all,” said writer-director John Magary. “We did some casting and then got the [script] over to Josh [Lucas], who then read it over two days. After he came in, it created more momentum.” Financing came via private investors, and the project shot over 25 days in September and October 2013, mostly in Harlem (the bulk of which took place in Magary and Joseph’s apartment) with an additional day in Brooklyn.

“It was an intense shoot,” said Joseph. “Our benevolent landlord allowed us to use the downstairs area for holding, though.” She added that Joseph Krings began editing even as shooting continued, and then Magary also took on editing duties afterward. “[Krings] had to leave the project for a while because we ran out of money, but then he came back,” said Joseph. Said Magary: “Given our massive budget constraint, we had to find a rhythm production-wise. But after that first week, we hit that rhythm.”

The Mend debuted at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, and Cinelicious Pics, the new distribution arm of post and digital restoration studio Cinelicious, heard about the title during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The Mend later played at the MoMA series “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You,” according to Joseph, which she said was an “important screening that focused attention in a big way.” Soon after that screening, Cinelicious picked up the title, which will begin its run at IFC Center in New York this weekend, followed by Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset next week. Billed as “Presented by David Gordon Green,” The Mend will continue to add more markets through next month, with VOD slated for September 22.

Digging For Fire
Director-writer: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Jake Johnson
Cast: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie Dewitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia
Distributor: The Orchard

Digging For Fire PosterThe term “mumblecore” has chased filmmaker Joe Swanberg — perhaps unfairly — for years, but his latest feature, according to distributor the Orchard, is the filmmaker going to “the next level.” Digging For Fire centers on the discovery of a bone and a gun, which sends a husband and wife on separate adventures over the course of a weekend.

“It’s an honest look at marriage featuring a great cast, and it’s Joe Swanberg going to the next level,” said Paul Davidson, the Orchard’s SVP Film & TV. “This is shot on 35mm and features a great score from Dan Romer (Beasts Of The Southern Wild).” Davidson said Digging For Fire should bring on a broader demographic beyond Swanberg’s regular audience, with both male and females likely ticket holders. “There will be a core [crowd] of people who are married, but the film is also about [the main characters’] friends who are at different stages of their lives. It squarely fits married couples or those fearing [married life] or those on the other end of it. It’s a broader spectrum that fits people 18 to 50.”

The Orchard has done a number of “tastemaker” screenings of Digging For Fire, including on this past Tuesday with Rooftop Films in New York, in addition to releasing exclusive clips to various websites. “Swanberg and Johnson were on NBC’s Today and will take part in post-screening Q&As in select cities.

Davidson said he expects Digging For Fire to perform strongly on VOD/digital, which will start Tuesday following its initial theatrical rollout at IFC Center in New York, Sundance Sunshine in L.A. and Music Box in Chicago this weekend. “It’s fascinating because Joe’s previous [2013] movie, Drinking Buddies, did modestly at the box office ($343,341 cume) but did very robust digital, and we’re expecting that here as well,” said Davidson. VOD numbers for Drinking Buddies were not revealed, though Swanberg acknowledged at the time that the initial on-demand release of the film allowed him to recoup the costs of the title and that the theatrical was “icing on the cake.” Digging For Fire will add 30 additional markets theatrically next Friday. Davidson said it will report digital numbers the following weekend when initial results are available.