Early fall traditionally welcomes the onslaught of awards contenders and wannabes to theaters, and this weekend’s heavy slate of newcomers continues the tradition. The frame features new narratives and documentaries, many with star wattage attached to — hopefully — excite boxoffice-specialty__111212022432-200x150-1__140530221134audiences. Broad Green Pictures is opening 99 Homes, which played last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern. A24 will open its latest, Mississippi Grind from filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, featuring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds and Sienna Miller, while Roadside Attractions is hoping to capitalize on an onslaught of publicity for its controversial Stonewall, starring Jeremy Irvine and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The Film Arcade is doing a day-and-date release for Ashby with Mickey Rourke, Nat Wolff, Emma Roberts and Sarah Silverman. And filmmaker Carmen Marron is going DIY in partnership with AMC for Endgame, which will target Latino audiences in select cities. Three documenaries also are in the mix: Cinedigm will bow A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story about the TED favorite in limited release, while Magnolia Pictures is opening Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon exclusively in New York before a wide expansion next month. And Sundance’s Finders Keepers will get its foot in the door via The Orchard. Other limited releases this weekend include Drafthouse’s The Keeping Room and Well Go USA’s Lost In Hong Kong.

99 Homes
Director-writer: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Amir Naderi, Bahareh Azimi
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax, Doug Griffin, Randy Austin, Carl Palmer
Distributor: Broad Green Pictures

99 Homes posterBroad Green acquired director Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes out of last year’s Toronto Film Festival. “It’s one of the first movies we picked up,” said Travis Reid, President of Theatrical Distribution. “It was here before most of us were on board.”

The thriller begins as Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), scheming Florida real estate magnate evicts unemployed single dad Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) — before Nash can even put up a fair fight against a bank that has cheated him. A shellshocked Nash intends to stop at nothing to get his family’s lifelong home back and protect his mother (Oscar nominee Laura Dern) and son (newcomer Noah Lomax) from the fallout. Pushed to the brink, he is lured by the charismatic Carver – the very man who seized his dreams, a man who knows how to work the system that has ruined Nash – to enter the lucrative, law-skirting world of gaming the banks, the government and ordinary people to make a mint from foreclosures. The hope of regaining his life seduces Nash into a deal with the devil and hide it from his family.

“We have had Academy screenings that have been going well ahead of this weekend’s release, and last I looked we had a 93% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes,” said Reid. “We’re feeling optimistic for it to get traction … We expect it to be primarily over 35 and about evenly split between male and female.”

Broad Green is targeting art houses and commercial theaters that “do well with sophisticated and thought-provoking movies,” according to Reid, while writer-director Ramin Bahrani and cast have been active promoting the title in addition to working with a charitable initiative called 99 Homes: 99 Good Deeds, which seeks to “encourage individuals to perform one good deed to help a member of their community and to underscore the positive impact that even the smallest amounts of assistance can have.” Broad Green has held benefit screenings in L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

“Andrew Garfield embedded himself with a family for two weeks ahead of the shoot, which was both for support and research [for the role],” said Reid. Ahead of the release “he’s been doing a number of talk shows including Jimmy Kimmel, Good Morning America, MTV and The Late Late Show, while Michael Shannon has been doing” other shows.

With this weekend’s crowded marketplace, Reid said they’d be happy if 99 Homes would land at about the $16K per-theater average that Broad Green’s August release Learning To Drive received in four theaters its opening weekend. That feature has cumed nearly $2.38M to date. 99 Homes will open this weekend in New York at the AMC Lincoln Square and the Angelika Theater. It will head to five additional markets October 2, including L.A. and Chicago, before going wide October 9.

Mississippi Grind
Directors-writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Timpton, Robin Weigert, Yvonne Landry, Anthony Howard, Ryan Reynolds, Jayson Warner Smith
Distributor: A24

Mississippi Grind posterThe roots of filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Mississippi Grind date to when the duo were working on their 2008 feature Sugar. “We were in Iowa for two months and it opened their eyes to a part of society they hadn’t seen much,” said producer Jamie Patricoff, who produced Sugar as well as their 2006 feature Half Nelson, which earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar-nomination for Best Actor.

Mississippi Grind is a “lively, freewheeling” road movie centering on Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a talented but down-on-his-luck gambler whose fortunes begin to change when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a younger, highly charismatic poker player. The two strike up an immediate friendship, and Gerry quickly persuades his new friend to accompany him on a road trip to a legendary high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. As they make their way down the Mississippi River, Gerry and Curtis manage to find themselves in just about every bar, racetrack, casino and pool hall they can find, experiencing both incredible highs and dispiriting lows but ultimately forging a deep and genuine bond that will stay with them long after their adventure is over.

“They started writing the script about three years ago,” said Patricoff. “The challenging part of the film was how to do a road-trip movie on a limited budget. We ended up taking Curtis (Reynolds) and Gerry (Mendelsohn) on a road trip with a car and a camera.” The two actors went to Iowa for their stint on the road, while the bulk of production took place in around New Orleans over 30 days. Financing came via Sycamore Entertainment.

“New Orleans is one of my favorite places to make a movie outside Los Angeles, and for this film, it played a critical part,” said Patricoff. “[The actors] could be pretty ‘method,’ and I wondered if they would spend too much time in the casino. It’s pretty easy to do.”

A24 boarded the project out of Sundance. The company’s execs David Finkel and Aaron Katz had worked on Boden and Fleck’s Half Nelson at the now-defunct ThinkFilm when it opened in August 2006 ($2.69M cume). “It’s a homecoming of sorts,” Patricoff said. “They love the film, and they’re great partners.” Mississippi Grind will have a traditional rollout, opening at the Angelika in New York on Friday, then heading out fairly wide soon afterward.

Stonewall
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Jon Robin Baitz
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Joey King, Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jonny Beauchamp, Matt Craven, Karl Glusman
Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Stonewall posterStonewall has had what on the surface looks like an enviable amount of press and social media attention leading up to its theatrical bow after screening at TIFF just days before. But the summer launch of the feature’s trailer unleashed what appeared to be a backlash because of what the film’s detractors said was a “whitewashing” of the 1969 Stonewall riot, which is credited with starting the modern-day gay rights movement — which many credit as being led by drag queens, transgenders and lesbians who frequented the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village at the time.

The drama centers on a fictional young man caught up in the rioting. Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) is forced to leave behind friends and loved ones when he is kicked out of his parents’ home and flees to New York. Alone in Greenwich Village, homeless and destitute, he befriends a group of street kids who soon introduce him to local watering hole the Stonewall Inn; however, this shady, mafia-run club is far from a safe haven. As Danny and his friends experience discrimination, endure atrocities and repeatedly are harassed by the police, a rage begins to build. This emotion runs through Danny and the entire community of young gays, lesbians and drag queens who populate the Stonewall Inn, and it erupts in a storm of anger. With the toss of a single brick, a riot ensues — and a crusade for equality is born.

“We have stuck with our [release] plan. We feel that it is a big topic and think it should have a national footprint,” said Roadside Attractions Co-President Howard Cohen. “I think people reacted to the trailer. In terms of the controversy, they had their opinions based on the trailer, but also some of the movie too.” Cohen added that at least some of the negative reviews the film has received were also judged on “political content as well as artistic content,” adding: “We did screenings of Stonewall before the controversy and the critics who saw it then liked it a lot more.” Cohen said the fallout has generated “a ton of press” and that the story is “worth telling.”

“I say, go and make your own Stonewall movie,” said Cohen of this version’s vocal critics. “The last one was 20 years ago and there are still a lot of people who don’t know what Stonewall is. It was a brave thing for Roland Emmerich to make this movie and put it out there.”

Cohen said the press in the lead-up to this weekend’s bow may actually bring out people who may have not considered seeing it otherwise, including people who are ‘politically minded’ and the Specialty crowd. “Ironically, the controversy has raised the profile of the movie,” he said. Roadside, which acquired Stonewall in March, will open it Friday in 128 theaters in most major markets.

Ashby
Director-writer: Tony McNamara
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Nat Wolff, Emma Roberts, Sarah Silverman
Distributor: The Film Arcade

Ashby posterProducer Rory Koslow first saw what would become Ashby when it was in treatment form. The fledgling project didn’t fall under his agreement with Warner Bros., through his Langley Park Pictures production company label, so he teamed with writer-director Tony McNamara’s agent at UTA to raise financing as a side project. Eventually, a script found its way to Mickey Rourke through CAA.

Financing came via U.K.-based Bankside’s film investment subsidiary, Head Gear Films. Bankside took international rights, while Paramount Home Media Distribution picked up domestic — for what was then rumored to be the most lucrative acquisition ever out of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Ashby follows Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff), a new kid in town who is assigned to interview an older person and turns to his mysterious neighbor, Ashby Holt (Mickey Rourke), for help. That new connection leads to unexpected journeys for both of them, as Ashby – who turns out to be a retired CIA assassin – deals with a terminal prognosis and Ed deals with adjusting to life with his newly single mom (Sarah Silverman) and developing relationship with a brainy classmate, Eloise (Emma Roberts).

“Mickey Rourke was the first person who raised his hands and said he wanted to do this,” said Koslow. “Tony didn’t have Mickey initially in mind, but after he considered it, it made sense. And after Mickey came on board, the financing just started flowing.” Wolff came on board after McNamara’s 18 year-old daughter urged her father and the filmmaking team to take a look. Emma Roberts, who worked with Wolff on Palo Alto, joined after the actor suggested her for the part of Eloise.

The shoot took place over 24 days in North Carolina in the dead of summer. “The shoot went remarkably well, but summer in North Carolina is never advisable because of the heat, and we had a lot of football scenes,” said Koslow. “You also have to get into Mickey’s rhythm, but once you step back and let Mickey be Mickey, the magic happens.”

After its acquisition, Paramount tapped the Film Arcade for the theatrical and on-demand component of the title’s release, while Bankside handled most international territories. Ashby will open in theaters in the top 15 markets this weekend and will be via digital on demand and digital HD this weekend.

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story
Director: Sara Hirsh Bordo
Writer: Michael Campo
Subject: Lizzie Velasquez
Distributor: Cinedigm Entertainment

A Brave Heart The Lizzie Valaquez Story posterLizzie Velasquez first became known to audiences through TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks. Now set to roll out in documentary form, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story follows the inspiring journey of 26-year-old, 63-pound Lizzie from cyber-bullying victim to anti-bullying activist. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Velasquez was bullied as a child in school for looking different and later online as a teenager when she discovered a YouTube video labeling her “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” The film chronicles unheard stories and details of Lizzie’s physical and emotional journey up to her multimillion-viewed TED talk and follows her pursuit from a motivational speaker to Capitol Hill as she lobbies for the first federal anti-bullying bill.

“We saw the film at SXSW, and we were completely blown away by it,” said Cinedigm’s Susan Margolin. “The way that Lizzie takes this incredibly violent and disturbing messaging and turns it on its head and presenting this positive message is extraordinary.”

Heading into release, Cinedigm is targeting teens and adults with a skew toward the female audience in addition to LGBT and Hispanic audiences. Margolin said Velasquez has been active promoting the film through social media and other outlets. “We have many different marketing partners,” she said. “Lizzie has been very active on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere — it’s a very involved social media campaign. We also have a partnership with Tumblr, and Conde Nast is partnering to run a web series. We’re also working with Walmart and WWE messaging the anti-cyber-bullying message which is so connected to her.”

Velasquez also will do select Q&As in New York on Friday at the Village East and Saturday in L.A. at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks and at The Grove.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon
Director-writer: Douglas Tirola
Writer: Mark Monroe
Subjects: Judd Apatow, Kevin Bacon, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, John Goodman, Christopher Guest, Beverly D’Angelo, Bill Murray
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead posterFilmmaker Douglas Tirola and producer Susan Bedusa were at a festival where Tirola’s second docu, All In: The Poker Movie, had its premiere when someone asked the director what other topics he’d like to cover. The question began the journey to Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.

“Someone asked him what his dream project would be and said telling the story of National Lampoon,” said Bedusa. “But then he said, ‘We can’t do that.’ Then later that night, I said, ‘Of course we could do that.’ We reached out to Matty Simmons, producer of Animal House and also a founder of National Lampoon. There already were a number of well-known documentarians who were already trying to do this, but they weren’t able to get it going. There was a lot going on and there’s some bad blood between the players, so it wasn’t easy to put together.”

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon is a look at the history of the comedy publication and production company from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage.

Bedusa contacted Simmons in 2009 and it took Tirola and Bedusa — who run Fourth Row Films together — about a year to secure rights to National Lampoon’s library. “He’s a tough negotiator. I have a lot of love for him, but he’s tough, though fair,” said Bedusa. “Then we started contacting everyone involved with National Lampoon.” Tirola and Bedusa initially tried to raise money for the project but realized they’d have to spend some of their own resources in order to present a vision for the docu. They were able to secure interviews with Kevin Bacon, Chevy Chase and others in 2012 before taking the project to A&E IndieFilms and History Films’ Molly Thompson, who provided financing. John Battsek also boarded as an executive producer.

“Having Molly come in with an executive producer made a huge difference,” said Bedusa. “We were able to focus on the shoot solely and not be distracted. It became the prime focus of our lives.” Following a long edit, the title debuted at Sundance in January and Magnolia picked up rights soon after the festival.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead opens at IFC Center in New York Friday, followed by the Nuart in L.A. the following week in addition to on demand. The title then will head to about 20 locations around the country October 9, with additional markets slated throughout the month.

Finders Keepers
Directors: Bryan Carberry, J. Clay Tweel
Subjects: Shannon Whisnant, John Wood
Distributor: The Orchard

Finders Keepers posterWhen producer Ed Cunningham had read a story about a severed leg that had been unknowingly bought at auction and the ensuing conflict that arose with the leg’s “original owner,” he headed down to North Carolina with a Handycam in 2007 to see if there was possibly a larger story behind the article. The trip began a long process that evolved into Finders Keepers. “He took one or two other trips down there, and then [the project] kind of flatlined,” said co-director and producer Bryan Carberry. Later on “I was helping him shelve the footage and then saw it and thought it was amazing.”

The documentary revolves around recovering addict and amputee John Wood finds himself in a stranger-than-fiction battle to reclaim his mummified leg from Southern entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, who found it in a grill he bought at an auction.

“I told [Cunningham] about crowdfunding, and we ended up raising $80K in 2013, which helped us to get out to North Carolina for principal photography,” said Carberry. “Ed Cunningham had started talking to them after they were featured on [various news outlets], and they were shown as hillbillies. He told them that with [this film] they’d have a chance to tell their story.” Cunningham showed Whisnant and Wood the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which he produced (directed by Seth Gordon), telling them that the 2007 feature would be a template for how their story would be told.

The initial filmmaking team then brought on other local producers through Adam Hobbs, a local DP they met who also boarded the project. Some private investors also came on for additional financing. “Seth Gordon and Ed’s track record helped in getting the investors, but I’m sure the initial $80K we were able to raise through crowd funding also made it attractive,” said Carberry. “The editing process was crazy because there were so many events over so many years and there’s a dual narrative of [the subjects’] childhoods. … It was hard to edit down.” After a year and a half of editing, Finders Keepers debuted at Sundance, where the Orchard picked it up.

“Part of the hook was two rednecks fighting over a leg, so we thought it would be hard to sell,” said Carberry, “but since we got Sundance’s stamp of approval, it was very helpful.” Finders Keepers opens today exclusively in New York, followed by L.A. a week later and a subsequent rollout in major markets nationwide. VOD begins October 2.

Endgame
Director-writer: Carmen Marron
Writer: Hector Salinas
Cast: Rico Rodriguez, Ivonne Coll, Efren Ramirez, Justina Machado, Jon Gries, Valente Rodriguez, Alina Herrera, Cassie Brennan, Xavier Gonzalez
Distributor: Late Bloomer Productions

Endgame posterA producer read an article about a chess-related program in Brownsville, Texas and later approached filmmaker Carmen Marron about a potential feature. The bulk of the project received financing from executive producer Hector Salinas and, after taking on the story as co-writer and director, Marron headed to Brownsville to rally the town around the project. Local investors also contributed in Endgame.

The story centers on Jose. Since he was 5 years old, his abuelita had taught him to play chess like his grandfather, who was a champion in Mexico. Now as part of the Brownsville school team, Jose has the chance to use his skills and for once in his life finds himself in the spotlight as he tries to help his team make it to the Texas state finals. As their coach, Mr. Alvarado, teaches his students the meaning of perseverance and team effort in the face of adversity, Jose discovers his own strengths and uses them to bring his broken family together.

“We got amazing cast for the budget we had,” said Marron. “I wanted to bring the world into Brownsville and show it from the perspective of a child, [though] the shooting schedule was the biggest challenge. I was told I had the kids for eight hours a day but then found out only days before the shoot began that child labor laws only allowed for six hours.” With the young Rico Rodriguez playing the lead, the shooting schedule had to be streamlined quickly. The cast and crew had to move quickly to maximize each day, running from location to location.

The film premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival and while it was being positioned for a distributor acquisition, in the end, Marron and the producers decided to go the DIY route.

“We had producers rep and [Endgame] was sent out,” said Marron. “There were distributors who said they like it and wanted to tap into the Latino audience, but said they didn’t know what to do with it. It was fortuitous that I got back in touch with a friend who works at AMC Independent. I sent her the movie and they were very supportive of it. I put together a strategy based on experiences of other filmmakers in addition to collaboration with AMC.”

Under their own banner, Late Bloomer Productions, Endgame will open at the Burbank AMC as well as the AMC Orange 30 in Southern California this weekend. It will head to Texas locations, including Dallas and Houston plus an expansion in the LA area the following weekend. It will continue to fan out with a trajectory focused on Latino audiences going into October with showings in Miami, San Diego and New York.

“The reason I do this is to prove that there is an audience for Latino filmmakers and films,” said Marron. “Hopefully this will set the tone for other filmmakers not to lose heart and if we come to support each other’s films then it will open more doors.