boxoffice-specialty__111212022432-200x150-1__140530221134Publicists and marketing execs no doubt are working overtime this week to get their films attention in what is shaping up to be a very busy first weekend of December. One film that packed quite a punch in the news this week is Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which is the first Amazon Studios title to make its bow. Roadside Attractions is spearheading the feature’s ‘non-traditional’ theatrical window, opening the pic in 300-plus theaters. Not to be outshined is Fox Searchlight’s Youth by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, whose 2013 title The Great Beauty won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. The title will platform in NYC and L.A. on Friday.

Michael Fassbender is getting his second turn on the big screen this year with Macbeth courtesy of the Weinstein Company this weekend, also in both cities before a wider expansion next week, while Sony Classics is giving a qualifying run for The Lady In The Van with Maggie Smith, mirroring last year’s strategy for Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore went on to win the Best Actress Oscar. Cohen Media Group is opening the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut by NYFF head Kent Jones at two New York locations, while fellow docu Dream/Killer from Cinedigm also makes its debut in Manhattan. China Lion is going after its core romance audience with Fall In Love Like A Star, and Factory 25 is hoping to capture some of the season revelry with Christmas, Again.

Also opening in limited release: Atlas Distribution’s A Royal Night Out; Saban Films’ MI-4; Drafthouse’s The World Of Kanako; Zeitgeist’s My Friend Victoria and Wolfe Releasing’s The Girl King, opening Friday in L.A., the Bay Area and Minneapolis as well as on-demand.

Chi-Raq
Director-writer: Spike Lee
Writers: Kevin Willmott, Aristophanes (play)
Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix
Distributor: Roadside/Amazon

Chi-Raq posterInspired by the Greek comedy Lysistrata, director/co-writer Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is the first feature to be fully financed by Amazon Studios.

It centers on Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who is in love with aspiring rapper Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon), but she is disturbed by the bloody war between his Spartan gang and the rival Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). After Trojans set fire to her apartment while she’s in bed with Chi-Raq, Lysistrata moves in with her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), a book-loving peace activist who lost her daughter years before to a stray bullet. When Patti, an 11-year-old neighborhood girl, is accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting, her grieving mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) pleads with anyone who witnessed the crime to come forward. But even after a reward is offered by a local church congregation led by fiery anti-gun-violence activist Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), no one is willing to identify the killer.  Shaken by Patti’s death and desperate to do something to stop the escalating bloodshed, Lysistrata persuades Spartan and Trojan women to swear off sex with their men until the fighting stops. To draw more attention to their cause, she leads the women in a bold occupation of a local armory, inspiring women across the city — and eventually the world — to join the boycott. As the ultimate battle of the sexes rages on, the city’s fate hangs in the balance in this searing satire of gun violence in America.

Chi-Raq filmed this past summer, and not long afterward, Amazon’s Ted Hope and Bob Berney approached Roadside Attractions and ongoing partner Lionsgate about handling parts of the title’s release. “They came to us at the end of the summer with a rough cut, and we said that if we can get going immediately, we had availability to do the theatrical release at the beginning of December,” said Roadside’s Co-president Howard Cohen. “They said they wanted to do a ‘real theatrical release’ and do right by the filmmaker.”

Roadside worked with actress Parris in their 2014 release of Dear White People and were eager to do so again. Cohen noted that while Chi-Raq will not have a traditional theatrical window before presumably becoming available via Amazon, the focus for now is on its big-screen rollout. “It’s not a full 90-day [theatrical] window, but that’s our focus now.” Amazon chose not to discuss its non-theatrical plans.

Chicago, especially the city’s South Side, long has been a central point of gun violence and subsequent media attention. That attention has ramped up recently after a video emerged of a white police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times. The video had been kept from the public for more than a year.

“I think the movie is incredibly timely, but I don’t think Spike or any of us would want to capitalize on tragedy,” said Cohen. “It was an urgent movie when he shot it in July, and it’s an urgent movie now. The events in the movie are not specifically related to what’s on the news now. [Chi-Raq] is not a political positioning vehicle — it’s a movie and it’s entertainment. There’s a connection to current events, but it’s meant to entertain as well as enlighten.”

Chi-Raq had its world premiere on November 22 in Chicago, and the film’s New York premiere took place Tuesday night. Instead of a party, attendees participated in a Times Square protest, which received heavy local coverage Wednesday morning. “Reviews have been very good, especially in the sense that it’s a return to form for Spike. People are saying it’s his most vital movie in many years,” added Cohen. “We’re going to open in 305 theaters in the top 75 markets, which is very similar to our other releases. We opened Mr. Holmes and Love & Mercy in similar number of screens. Even though it’s a non-traditional release, we’re doing it in a similar fashion.”

Youth
Director-writer: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Laura De Marchi
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Youth posterYouth, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, is the follow-up to Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner The Great Beauty (2013), which cumed more than $2.85 million domestically. The long road of awards season that year, in fact, delayed production of Youth, though producer Nicola Giuliano said the experience benefited the film in the long run. The filmmaking team was able to access potential cast while promoting The Great Beauty.

Youth centers on two longtime friends vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Oscar winner Caine plays Fred, an acclaimed composer and conductor, who brings his along his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and best friend Mick (Keitel), a renowned filmmaker. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. The two men reflect on their past, each finding that some of the most important experiences can come later in life.

“Paolo called me [in May 2013] about a ‘little movie’ he had in mind that would be based in one location with two characters,” said Giuliano, who has worked with Sorrentino on his film projects for two decades. “That summer, he wrote the script with Michael Caine in mind as the main character. He sent it to Caine’s agent in September, and in October we met, and he agreed to play Fred.”

While traveling in support of The Great Beauty ahead of its Oscar win in 2014, the filmmaking team met with Weisz and Paul Dano, who eventually boarded the project. Initially, the shoot was planned for April, but it was delayed due to the run-up to the Oscars. Pathé and other partners supported the project, which began principal photography in May. The majority of the shoot took place in Switzerland over seven weeks, with five days each in Venice and Rome and two days in London. “The shoot worked well. It was easy because we work with the same crew that we’ve worked with for many years,” said Giuliano. “During the campaign for The Great Beauty, I sent [Searchlight’s] Nancy Utley the script and kept in touch with her during production. They picked up the film before we finished editing just before Cannes.”

Fox Searchlight opens Youth in four New York and Los Angeles. The film will be released on a limited platform and will roll out over a four-week period.

Macbeth
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso, William Shakespeare (based on The Tragedy of Macbeth)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

macbeth-character-poster-fassbenderMichael Fassbender heads out with his second high-profile turn on the big screen this year, this time in a Shakespeare-inspired part. From the producers of The King’s Speech, the feature centers on the story of Macbeth (Fassbender), a fearless Scottish general whose ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard) urges him to use wicked means to gain power of the throne.

“We have a great relationship with the producers, and the picture is stunning,” said Erik Lomis, President of Theatrical Distribution at TWC. “Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard give tremendous performances in this film, and this time of the year, you can never have enough quality film appealing to the more discerning audience.”

In the lead-up to the title’s release this weekend, TWC has screened Macbeth at a number of Shakespearean festivals around the country to drum up awareness. The feature also gives Fassbender another look in terms of the awards race, coming on the heels of the early-October bow of Steve Jobs, in which he starred as the Apple mogul. That feature showed promise in its opening weekend, grossing more than $521K from just four theaters, giving it a $130,381 per-theater average — the highest PTA of any 2015 release. The Universal feature, however, has since lost its footing at the box office, coming in with a $17.7 million cume as of this last weekend.

Not surprisingly, Macbeth‘s medium-term trajectory will be quite different from Steve Jobs, which went to more than 2000 theaters in its third weekend. The title will open exclusively in five theaters in New York, L.A. and San Francisco this weekend before heading to the top 40 markets next week, all in exclusive runs. TWC then will assess how to proceed further. “We have a lot of experience reaching this audience,” added Lomis.

The Lady In The Van
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Writer: Alan Bennett
Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

The-Lady-in-the-Van_poster_goldposter_com_1-400x593SPC is taking Maggie Smith starrer The Lady In The Van for a qualifying run in one theater each in New York and L.A. before beginning a regular rollout starting in the second week of January. The film is based on Alan Bennett’s true story of Miss Shepherd (Smith), a woman of uncertain origins who “temporarily” parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. What begins as a begrudged favor becomes a relationship that will change both of their lives. The feature was filmed on the street and in the house where Bennett and Shepherd lived for many years.

“Maggie Smith’s performance is so formidable and the screenplay so terrific that we just had to do a qualifying run,” said SPC Co-president Michael Barker. “The competition for the adult audience is always tough this time of the year, but this year it is even more pronounced. The adult audience is going to go to Star Wars this year, so we’re doing this week’s run and then we’ll begin opening it for [its regular rollout] in January.”

Barker said Sony Classics will follow the template it set for last year’s successful Still Alice. That film played one week in December before opening in mid-January for its regular theatrical release. Still Alice went on to gross nearly $19 million domestically.

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Director-writer: Kent Jones
Writer: Serge Toubiana
Subjects: Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Bob Balaban (narrator in English version), Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, James Gray, Kyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

HitchcockTruffaut_posterCineastes, Alfred Hitchcock fans and film history buffs who weed through the weekend’s packed roster of newcomers will find Hitchcock/Truffaut, a Cannes 2015 documentary based on a 1966 book by French filmmaker and critic François Truffaut.

In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock and a 30-year-old Truffaut sequestered themselves in a windowless Hollywood office for a weeklong conversation. The result was Hitchcock/Truffaut, the seminal book often referred to as “the Bible of Cinema.” The feature docu looks at the conversation between the two, much of which was recorded in black and white at the time and is incorporated into the film. Helmed by New York Film Festival director and Film Comment deputy editor Kent Jones, the film also includes the perspectives of veteran filmmakers from around the world including Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, Kyoshi Kurosawa, Olivier Assayas.

“I listened to and transcribed the 27 hours of tapes that were made between Truffaut and Hitchcock, which was my way of digesting it all,” Jones said during a recent on-stage conversation with filmmaker Noah Baumbach at the Film Society of Lincoln Center following a screening of the film. “I wanted to find the areas where there was emotion between them. … And it seemed like it would make sense to have a focus on [Hitchcock’s classic] Vertigo because many things come out of that film.”

Jones was 12 years old when he first read Hitchcock/Truffaut. When working on the documentary years later, Jones said that getting other filmmakers to talk about the book and the two personalities at its center was pretty easy. “I know a lot of them,” quipped Jones. “And filmmakers are interested in talking about anybody other than themselves. … Scorsese always says, ‘I don’t really have much time,’ but then two hours later we’re still there.”

Cohen Media Group opened Hitchcock/Truffaut on Wednesday at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It heads to Los Angeles today ahead of its expansion to major markets around the country beginning December 11.

Christmas, Again
Director-writer: Charles Poekel
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Hannah Gross, Heather Courtney, Martin Courtney, David Gauld, Craig Butta, Dakota Goldhor
Distributor: Factory 25

christmas-again-posterFilmmaker Charles Poekel’s first inclination to do a film about a Christmas tree stand came in 2009 when living in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood after observing how New Yorkers embraced what he describes as a “weird but unique business.” While writing the script, he opened his own Christmas tree stand in Greenpoint in 2010, buying an old camper and hiring local freelancers — mainly artists and musicians — to help sell the trees.

Christmas, Again follows a heartbroken Christmas tree salesman who returns to New York hoping to put is past behind him. Living in a trailer and working the night shift, he begins to spiral downwards until the saving of a mysterious woman and some colorful customers rescue him from self-destruction.

“I wrote the script on the side over a period of three years but sometimes wouldn’t touch it for six months,” said Poekel. “I opened the Christmas tree stand with the idea that it would help fund the film [in part]. I also knew when time did come to shoot, I’d want complete control over the location. And I also needed experience in the Christmas tree-selling business.”

Poekel said that his own stand did not provide as much in the way of funding as he had initially thought, though it did help “a little.” He supplemented that with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $15K in addition to funds through private investors. “Three months before we shot, I started talking to actor friends that I had [already cast] in my brain a bit,” said Poekel. “My casting director Eleonore Hendricks suggested Kentucker Audley for the lead. She also specializes in ‘street casting,’ and she’d talk to people and begin conversations to see if they were right. We also had active customers at the stand in the film. Sometime, we’d have to stop shooting in order to sell a tree.”

Christmas, Again shot in December 2013 during the Christmas tree selling season, which meant a specific window. Poekel also wanted to shoot linearly for authenticity purposes. “We shot in order because you see the supply of trees dwindling,” he said. “We shot for 15 days with one additional part right between Christmas and New Year’s.”

Christmas, Again bowed at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival before heading to Sundancei in last January, followed by Cleveland, New Directors/New Films, Sarasota, Montclair, Vienna and other fests throughout this fall. Factory 25 came on board for the film’s release this past summer. “We don’t have much flexibility in releasing the film,” added Poekel. “December is the most competitive month for theaters, so we’re fighting for people’s attention.” Christmas, Again, which is nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the upcoming Spirit Awards, opens today at MoMA in New York in a day-and-date release via Fandor before heading to other cities for theatrical runs in the coming weeks.

Fall In Love Like A Star
Director-writer: Tony Chan
Writer: Yiliang Xu
Cast: Chen Shu, Yang Mi, Li Yifeng, David Yao-Qing Wagn, Zhang Yunlong
Distributor: China Lion

fall-in-love-like-a-star_posterChina Lion picked up Mandarin romance Fall In Love Like A Star as a package deal that included its November 18 release A Journey Through Time With Anthony, which as grossed over $119K as of last weekend, as well as the upcoming Devil And Angel at AFM from Enlight Media.

The film follows a young couple who meet early in life. He is a struggling young performer, and she is a rookie assistant. A friendship blossoms, but they find themselves separated by distance, but they meet five years later and his star has risen. She must decide if she wants to deal with his rabid fan base, the attention he endures and the feelings they share that may either tear them permanently apart or keep them together forever.

Fall In Love Like A Star is a perfect fit [for us] because of Li Yifeng and Yang Mi, who are the film’s leads,” said China Lion’s Robert Lundberg. “Our audience loves both of these stars and this is a very romantic film, which our core ticket buyers appreciate and frequently request.” Lundberg said that China Lion has seen success with its past releases on the first weekend of December, and that it sees Hollywood is “historically slow” during the time period. “We expanded Women Who Flirt ($375,495 cume) last year in this frame to positive numbers, and we’re one week removed from our strong release of Back In Time, which did nearly $600K in a very limited release.”

China Lion expects that the star power of Li and Yang among its core Chinese audience will support the comparatively wider launch for Fall In Love Like A Star versus most of its releases. The film will open in 40 theaters this weekend. We’re making sure we have a larger footprint than normal,” said Lundberg. “Li Yifeng has a non-Chinese-language-speaking fan base as well which we’re expecting to show up alongside their Chinese-speaking counterparts. And Li Yifeng’s buzz surrounding his performance in Mr Six has already propelled this film’s own buzz.” Fall In Love Like A Star will open on this side of the Pacific alongside its roll out in China as well as in Australia and New Zealand.

Dream/Killer
Director: Andrew Jenks
Distributor: Cinedigm

Dream Killer posterProducer Dale Rosenbloom saw a segment on news show 48 Hours about a father’s quest to free his son from jail. Dream/Killer follows Bill Ferguson, an Army man born and raised in Missouri who has never been one to back away from a challenge, including traveling around the world pretending to be a welder, teaching at an Aboriginal school in Australia and spending an inordinate amount of time with his two kids, Kelly and Ryan. But after 19-year-old Ryan is charged and convicted for a murder based on somebody else’s dream, Bill takes on a challenge that he never could have anticipated: the American judicial system.

“After seeing the show, he reached out a Andrew Jenks to do some exploratory work on the story,” said executive producer Brendan Crane, who works with Rosenbloom through the company they run together, Bloom Project, which funded Dream/Killer. “We sat down with Bill Ferguson and it all turned into what would be the documentary Dream/Killer, with [Bill] as the protagonist of the film. He knew the case inside and out, and he’s one of the main reasons Ryan is out of jail. You see in the film the 10-year quest he went through.”

The feature highlights a failed system that had jailed the accused for more than a decade, which the production team captured during four trips to Missouri beginning in 2013. “Between the system breaking down and the story of a father’s love for his son, the reaction is pretty devastating,” added Crane. “The crime is still unsolved.” Cinedigm came on board as distributor several months ago. Dream/Killer opens today in New York before heading to L.A. next weekend. VOD will begin in February.