A new pack of titles boasting heavy-hitter casts and awards ambitions hits theaters Friday. A24 is opening the simply titled Room with Brie Larson, Sean Bridges, William H. Macy and newcomer Jacob Tremblay in NYC and L.A., hoping the film will catch awards buzz with its acclaimed performances. Also vying for attention is Sony Pictures Classics’ Truth with Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett and Dennis Quaid in a story about the fall of Dan Rather at CBS News. Eyeing a Foreign Language Film Oscar nom is Well Go USA’s The Assassin by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who won the Best Director prize at Cannes in May. Coming out of its New York Film Festival splash, Magnolia’s Experimenter starring Winona Rider, Peter Sarsgaard and Taryn Manning is heading out day and date today. True Detective director Cary Fukunaga is returning to the big screen with Beasts Of No Nation via Netflix this weekend, while Gravitas Ventures is opening the documentary All Things Must Pass, directed by Colin Hanks, in New York and L.A.
Also among this weekend’s limited release debuts are Epic Pictures’ seasonally apropos Tales Of Halloween, along with Starz Digital’s Momentum, Monterey Media’s Cut Snake, Medallion’s Dancin’ It’s On, Indican’s Death Valley, Cinedigm’s Meadowland and Reliance Films’ Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2.
Director-writer: James Vanderbilt
Writer: Mary Mapes (book)
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Andrew McFarlane
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The feature is based on the book Truth And Duty by Mary Mapes and is being styled in the vein of All The President’s Men and The Insider. Mapes is an award-winning CBS journalist and Dan Rather’s producer who broke the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story, among others.
The film chronicles the story Mapes and Rather uncovered that a sitting U.S. president might have been AWOL from the National Guard for more than a year during the Vietnam War. When the story blew up in their faces, the ensuing scandal ruined Rather’s career, nearly changed a presidential election and threatened to take down CBS News in the process.
“We read the screenplay a long time ago and liked it very much,” said SPC Co-president Michael Barker. “[Producer] Brett Ratner courageously showed us two scenes. It was obvious from what we saw that Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford would be exceptional in their roles, and we immediately began negotiating to [get the film].” Ratner held the U.S. rights before Sony Classics’ acquisition. Blanchett’s production company also is a producing partner.
“It took some time to get the rights worked out, but it was great to be at the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere,” added Barker. “Audiences are familiar with Dan Rather and what happened. It works on a very dramatic but entertaining level. I think it will attract a broad adult base of all ages. After seeing it, people will be talking about journalism, politics — and they will certainly have their own opinions. But it’s a movie first, and it has that ‘movie experience’ everyone likes to have on a Saturday night.”
Sony Classics opens Truth in limited release in New York and L.A. today and will add additional markets including Chicago, San Francisco and Phoenix the following week, before heading out wide in the weeks that follow.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Emma Donoghue (novel and screenplay)
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridges, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Sean Bridges, Wendy Crewson
The feature tells the story of Jack (newcomer Jacob Tremblay), a spirited 5-year-old who is looked after by his loving and devoted “Ma” (Brie Larson). Like any good mother, Ma dedicates herself to keeping Jack happy and safe, nurturing him with warmth and love and doing typical things like playing games and telling stories. Their life, however, is anything but typical: They are trapped — confined to a windowless, 10-by-10-foot space that Ma has euphemistically named “Room.” Ma has created a whole universe for Jack within Room, and she will stop at nothing to ensure that, even with the unsuitable environment, Jack is able to live a complete and fulfilling life. But as Jack’s curiosity about their situation grows, and Ma’s resilience reaches its breaking point, they enact a risky plan to escape, ultimately bringing them face to face with what might turn out to be the scariest thing yet: the real world.
“Lenny wrote a 10-page letter as part of our bid to get the rights, telling [the novel’s author] Emma Donoghue how we would make the film,” said producer Ed Guiney. “Emma [later] said it was one of the best things she had read from anyone about the book.” FilmFour and the Irish Film Board came on board with early financing. Initially the filmmaking team had planned to shoot in the U.S., but since Donoghue is from Ontario, they decided to take advantage of Canadian incentives.
“[The project] all rested on finding the young [actor] to play Jack,” Guiney said. “The danger if you cast a kid for such a [high-profile part] too far out is that they can change. With Brie, it was very easy. She and Lenny met, and they had a real connection. In terms of finding Jacob, we did a pan-North American search. We thought we’d end up casting a young American boy, but Jacob is actually from Vancouver and was by far the best. I can’t imagine having done the film with anyone else.” His participation also allowed for additional Canadian incentives.
The film shot over 49 days in Toronto. UTA’s Rena Ronson, who repped the book, was “indispensable” in progressing the project, according to Guiney. Financing came via Element Pictures, No Trace Camping and Union Bank.
A24 opens Room on Friday in New York and L.A. and will add five markets October 23, then will head to the top 20 on October 30. A nationwide rollout will follow November 6.
Director-writer: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Writers: Cheng Ah, Chu T’ien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng, Pei Xing
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun, Tsumabuki Satoshi
Distributor: Well Go USA
Some cineastes at the recent New York Film Festival called Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien the “greatest living director,” and indeed many art film aficionados snapped up tickets early on to screenings of The Assassin, the filmmaker’s first feature in eight years.
The Assassin is a take on the traditional wuxia film. Set in 9th century China, the story is simple, if elusive: Nie Yinniang is a young woman who was abducted in childhood from a decorated general and raised by a nun who trained her in the martial arts. After 13 years of exile, she is returned to the land of her birth as an exceptional assassin, with orders to kill her husband-to-be. She must confront her parents, her memories and her long-repressed feelings in a choice to sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins.
“It’s not very common that you have an art house film that falls into many elements of our core acquisition strategy of martial arts films — that was appealing to us,” said Well Go USA’s Jason Pfardrescher. “The founder of our company is Taiwanese and has an affinity to Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The critical acclaim that’s attached to this film is second to none. I don’t think we’ve had this kind of coverage of a movie. So that’s helped with the art house audience. Our usual fanboy audience is something that we’re used to getting to through our core programming.”
The Assassin includes “bursts of action,” according to its official description, though Pfardrescher said some of their core fanboy crowd might be disappointed with film. He added, though, that the title played “very well” at the recent genre-centric Fantastic Fest. He likened the mixture of art house and action fans to the audience that attended Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which opened in late 2000 after premiering at Cannes. Regardless, the film should be a winner at the box office and perhaps a contender for awards.
The Assassin opens at Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York as well as Laemmle Fine Arts and Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7 in the L.A. area this weekend. Well Go USA will expand the film to 15 additional markets in the U.S. on October 23 and will head to Canada on October 30, with additional cities added through the rest of the year. Added Pfardrescher: “From everything we’re seeing in press and advertising side, we’re confident. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is here in U.S. doing a tour of sorts on the East Coast as well as in San Francisco and L.A. He doesn’t always make it over here.”
Director-writer: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Winona Ryder, Taryn Manning, Peter Sarsgaard, Lori Singer, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Writer-director Michael Almereyda had a finished script as well as Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder attached to Experimenter when he met with producer Uri Singer, who eventually boarded the project with key financing. “I read the script and I flew to meet Michael for an hour and a half, and he proved to be everything we thought he’d be,” said Singer. “So we decided to finance the movie.” With financing through Singer’s BB Film Productions in place, the project headed into preproduction three weeks later, shooting in summer 2014.
The feature opens at Yale in 1961. Stanley Milgram (Sarsgaard) designs a psychology experiment in which people think they’re delivering painful electric shocks to an affable stranger (Jim Gaffigan) strapped into a chair in another room. Disregarding his pleas for mercy, the majority of subjects do not stop the experiment, administering what they think are near-fatal electric shocks simply because they’ve been told to. With Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram’s exploration of authority and conformity strikes a nerve in popular culture and the scientific community. Celebrated in some circles, he is also accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster. His wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) anchors him through it all.
“We were trying to get Bill Murray and Ethan Hawke, but they didn’t work out,” said Singer. “But we had Sarsgaard, Ryder and John Leguizamo as well as other financiers and producers. We wanted to move quickly because we wanted to get it to Sundance.” Experimenter shot primarily at the old Pfizer factory in New York, which Singer described as “not pleasant” but served the production’s purposes well. “We shot over 20 days,” added Singer. “Michael is a very practical director, and being the writer he knew the priorities. It was a modest production, but we did have an elephant come one day. It was literally the elephant in the room, but it was a pleasure seeing him walk down narrow corridors. It was a brilliant performance by the elephant.”
Following its Sundance premiere, entertainment attorney John Sloss introduced the filmmaking team to Magnolia, which picked up the title. The feature opens day and date at the Nuart in L.A. as well as South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana, CA, in addition to the Sunshine in New York and Carlton Cinema in Toronto. Magnolia will add Santa Barbara on October 21, followed by 15 additional locations October 23 including the Bay Area, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, MA. Further runs will be added into November.
Beasts Of No Nation
Director-writer: Cary Fukunaga
Writer: Uzodinma Iweala (novel)
Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor, Fred Nii Amugi, Ama K. Abebrese, Vera Nyarkoah Antwi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Francis Weddey
Filmmaker Cary Fukunaga was in Africa doing research on the subject of child soldiers when a friend gave him Uzodinma Iweala’s book Beasts Of No Nation. Fukunaga liked how the book chose to tell the story of conflict through the eyes of a child who would become transformed into a child soldier, according to producer Amy Kaufman.
“The project was originally set up at Focus Features, but eventually they decided not to make the film and Cary and I got it in turnaround,” explained Kaufman. “We optioned the book with our own money. The project didn’t fit into any of the traditional financing models, so we weren’t sure how we would get it made. Then we got a call that Red Crown loved the project. Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker and Dan Crown became our partners, and they began the process of piecing together the financing. It was a very complex process and took a lot of work and knocking on doors — and quite frankly I was surprised that ultimately they were able to raise the budget that hey did.”
Beasts Of No Nation tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young villager whom the audience first sees playing with his older brother, making mischief with his friends at a nearby refugee camp and enjoying dinner with his family. But the happy routines of childhood are shattered when army troops from the capital city arrive to squelch a rebellion against the country’s corrupt regime. His mother and sister escape to a nearby city, but Agu is left behind with his father and brother — and shortly thereafter, he is suddenly on his own. Terrified and alone, Agu escapes to the forest, where he’s discovered by a company of young rebels led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). There he undergoes a gauntlet of harsh treatment, initiation rituals and fiery speeches from the Commandant but also finds a kindred spirit in Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom), a mute fellow recruit. As the ragtag army sets off on a series of battles, Agu eventually is promoted from ammo carrier to rifle-toting soldier.
Elba signed onto the project just as Fukunaga was finishing Season 1 of True Detective, and shooting took place in various locations in Ghana over 35 days. Fukunaga and a few others caught malaria early on, but production carried on.
“[Elba] was perfect for the role and gave us some much-needed momentum as we began to really figure out how we could make the movie,” added Kaufman. “With respect to the rest of the casting, we needed to bring someone from the U.S. who had experience finding young actors. Harrison Nesbit was flown to Africa, and with the help of his team we looked in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and London. Cary needed someone who was from the region so the look and the accent would be correct. We had a very short period to find a fairly large cast, and we ended up going into the streets and the local schools trying to find the perfect Agu and other young actors who would surround him. We only had money to bring three actors from the UK to play a few of the adult roles.”
Beasts Of No Nation opens today in 31 theaters in 27 markets in addition to being offered on Netflix to their subscribers.
All Things Must Pass
Director: Colin Hanks
Writer: Steven Leckart
Subjects: Russ Solomon, Chris Cornell, Heidi Cotier, Chuck D., David Geffen, Dave Grohl, Elton John, Rudy Danzinger
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Actor Colin Hanks and producer Sean Stuart were out to dinner with their spouses in 2007 when the topic of conversation turned to the demise of Tower Records. A family friend of Stuart’s had mentioned that the company’s earliest roots was on a back shelf of a pharmacy in the 1940s. “The company made a billion dollars [one year] and then went bankrupt a few years later,” said Stuart. “I thought there was an interesting idea [for a documentary] there. We knew we had to get in front of [Tower Records founder] Russ Solomon. The only way we could do this was to have him involved. So we used the family friend relationships we had and reached out. Within 10 minutes into our meeting with him, we were enthralled.”
Formally established in 1960, Tower Records was once a retail powerhouse with 200 stores in 30 countries on five continents. From humble beginnings in a small-town drugstore, Tower Records eventually became the heart and soul of the music world and a powerful force in the music industry. In 1999, Tower made an astounding $1 billion; in 2006, it filed for bankruptcy. What went wrong? Everyone thinks they know what killed Tower Records: the Internet. But that’s not the story. The documentary examines this iconic company’s explosive trajectory, tragic demise and legacy forged by its rebellious founder.
Filming began in 2008, coinciding with the financial crisis. The filmmaking team shot interviews with five execs of the company in a former Tower Records store that Stuart said, “Looked like it had been ransacked.” They created a reel to solicit financing, but many thought Stuart and Hanks were going down the wrong path.
“People said, ‘Why aren’t you doing a story on Lehman Bros?” said Stuart. “But we didn’t want to do a film about a bank.” Hanks, who made his documentary feature directorial debut with All Things Must Pass, and Stuart then turned to crowdfunding via Kickstarter in 2010. The goal was $50K, but they ended up raising $60K in three days. Then a bit of luck brought in additional windfall. “Huffington Post did a story on the project, and that spiked our campaign to $93K,” said Stuart. “The money allowed us to get the majority of production done.” Additional funds came via executive producer Glen Zipper, which allowed them to hire Darrin Roberts to edit. “It was a quick process once we had the money in hand,” added Stuart. “We finished in time for the  SXSW Film Festival.
Gravitas approached Hanks and Stuart after its SXSW premiere and told them they’d commit to a theatrical release. The distributor also said it would the premiere party at the iconic Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard — which took place Thursday night. “They’re enthusiastic about the film and are promoting it theatrically,” noted Stuart. Gravitas opens All Things Must Pass in L.A. at the ArcLight as well as Village East in New York this weekend. It will expand to Sacramento the following weekend and then head to other major markets including the Bay Area, Austin, Seattle with expansions in Los Angeles and New York in the following weeks.