Star Wars looms high and mighty, but some Specialty distributors are seeing an opportunity to go up against the Disney blockbuster this weekend. Sony Classics is opening Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Son Of Saul with very limited runs in New York and L.A., launching a slow but steady rollout that is in line with the company’s template for December releases like its 2012 bow, Amour. SPC’s Michael Barker said the relatively uncrowded slate of new releases has allowed Son Of Saul to get more attention from press as it heads into theaters. Vertical Entertainment is seeing a similar chance for He Never Died, the SXSW dramedy/horror it picked up starring Henry Rollins. The feature will open with limited runs in a day and date rollout. Magnolia Pictures is hoping to once again win at the box office (and on-demand) with a documentary that should appeal to foodies. The company is opening Pierre Deschamps’ Noma: My Perfect Storm about the chef behind “the world’s most famous restaurant.” And Gravitas Ventures is opening Anguish, a thriller written and directed by veteran producer Sonny Mallhi, which was once considered a studio contender before Mallhi opted to go the indie route.

Son of Saul posterSon Of Saul
Director-writer: László Nemes
Writer: Clara Royer
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sándor Zsótér, Marcin Czarnik, Amitai Kedar
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker said that his company has long opened movies opposite high-profile studio offerings and it will take another whirl with the strategy with its Oscar-hopeful Son Of Saul this weekend opposite the Star Wars juggernaut.

Set in October, 1944 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau genocide complex, the Hungarian-produced drama-thriller centers on Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large-scale extermination. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the child’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the mourner’s Kaddish and offer the boy a proper burial.

“We tend to open our movies opposite big movies,” said Barker. “We opened Orlando opposite Jurassic Park and Midnight In Paris opposite Pirates Of The Caribbean. I saw Star Wars [Wednesday night] and it is terrific. Everyone is afraid to open a movie [against a Star Wars], but look at the opportunities for press. There isn’t that much out there. We also opened [Oscar-winner] Amour at this time of the year and it did terrific. There will be enough people out there looking for an alternative to the commercial blockbuster.”

The Cannes Jury Prize winner is nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film and is considered a strong contender for the same category at the Oscars. Son Of Saul was filmed in 35mm and SPC is going for theaters that can accommodate the title’s full cinematic aesthetic. “It’s very important that László Nemes and his D.P. Mátyás Melis made this in 35mm, so whenever we can show it in 35, we will,” said Barker. “We went out of our way to show it in theaters that can do that.”

Sony Classics will open Son Of Saul at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza in New York as well as the Nuart in L.A. this Friday. The title will expand to a few additional cities January 8 followed by another five or so cities January 15. “By the 29th of January, we’ll be wider,” added Barker. “This is going to open slowly. This type of movie needs word of mouth to build.”

He Never Died posterHe Never Died
Director-writer: Jason Krawczyk
Cast: Henry Rollins, Steven Ogg, Kate Greenhouse, BooBoo Stewart, Jordan Todosey
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

In horror/dramedy He Never Died, Henry Rollins stars as Jack, a man in a rut. His existence has been whittled down to sleeping and watching TV and he sees the human race as little more than meat with a pulse. When Jack suddenly finds his long lost daughter taken by the city’s crime syndicate, he must combat his inner demons as he embarks on a bloody war path to seek revenge and save her.

Vertical Entertainment is also hoping its title will get some of the ancillary attention from audiences who are looking for studio alternatives. “In terms of the release strategy and the release date, a lot of independents get scared away because of the [crowded] Christmas season,” observed Vertical Entertainment’s Peter Jarowey. “We feel this film has the quality and merit to be out there. It’s a ballsy move to open now [opposite] high profile movies like Star Wars, but we’ve had great responses from exhibitors.”

Vertical picked up worldwide rights to He Never Died following its SXSW Film Festival debut where it was warmly received. Not surprisingly, Vertical is targeting Henry Rollins fans as it heads out to its day and date release this weekend. “Henry’s performance is astounding,” said Jarowey. “I think we’ll get a mainstream audience as it gets out there. [Rollins] is doing radio tours and is going on Stephen Colbert, singing Christmas carols with him. He’s also doing a big round of interviews, Apple store chat and more. I don’t think we have 15 minutes to breathe, but that’s the way he likes it.”

He Never Died will open in 15 theaters in North America along with on-demand platforms including iTunes. The title is also opening in Australia, the only other continent where the feature will play on the big screen. “We hope that there will be holdover, but that will partly be based on what happens with the larger films,” added Jarowey. It’s LA showings will be at the Vista, while New York will be at Village East. Said Jowery: “We’re hoping this will be a diamond rough counter programming.”

Noma: My Perfect StormNoma poster
Director-writer: Pierre Deschamps
Subject: René Redzepi
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

In 2007, filmmaker (and chef) Pierre Deschamps read that 15 “internationally acclaimed” chefs were invited by Noma chef René Redzepi to attend a special event at his restaurant, ranked for many year’s “the world’s best.” Deschamps didn’t know Redzepi, but did know many of the visiting chefs. Immediately he was drawn to Redzepi’s style which he saw as revolutionizing the world of gastronomy. He initially made a 52-minute documentary, Looking North for A Gastronomic Revolution, featuring the visit and the project laid the seeds for Noma: My Perfect Storm, which focuses on Redzepi himself.

Famous for its reinvention of Danish cuisine and pioneered approach to foraging, sourcing nearly all ingredients from the various environments of Scandinavia, Noma is at the forefront of experimenting with new techniques in food. In Noma: My Perfect Storm, Redzepi goes on a creative culinary journey as he traverses the Danish landscape for inspiration, striving to achieve perfection and concoct bold, exciting dishes for travelers from around the world. Two books written by Redzepi – Noma: Time And Place In Nordic Cuisine, and René Redzepi: A Work In Progress, also inspired Deschamps to spend more than three years at Noma following the renowned chef, obtaining front-row seats to Noma’s machine-like system of operation: a perfect storm of highbrow culinary technology where 45 place settings are served to perfection for four hours, twice a day.

“Food documentaries have done very well for us, including Jiro Dreams Of Sushi ($2.55M cume) and Food, Inc. ($4.41M cume),” said Magnolia exec Matt Cowal. “Noma is the most famous restaurant in the world and this [film] really gets you in there. Audiences that have enjoyed other food docs are really going to ‘eat this up.'” Noma was named Best Restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. Like the previous holder of the “world’s best” title, El Bulli (which also had a doc made about it and its star chef Ferran Adrià in 2010 titled El Bulli: Cooking In Progress), Noma sent shivers to foodies everywhere when it was announced it will close. Noma, however, will relocate and be ‘reinvented.’

“Two thousand people a day try to make reservations at Noma, but it is going to close soon,” said Cowal. “They’re moving to another location with a farm built around it and he’s also going to open a more ‘accessible’ restaurant in Copenhagen.” Ahead of this weekend’s rollout, Magnolia hosted a dinner at Luksus restaurant in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn where Daniel Burns, Noma’s former head pastry chef, cooked up dishes inspired by the famous Danish restaurant. Anthony Bourdain also gave Noma: My Perfect Storm a shout-out with a quote ahead of this weekend’s bow saying of Redzepi, “Without a doubt, he’s one of the most influential chefs on the planet. He changed and continues to change the world.”

Magnolia is opening Noma: My Perfect Storm day and date in six cities including the Sunshine in New York, Bloor Hot Docs in Toronto and Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday. It will head to L.A.’s Laemmle Royal December 21 and Laemmle NoHo 7 December 22. It will continue to add markets slowly into January in addition to on-demand platforms via Amazon Video and iTunes.

AnguishAnguish
Director-writer: Sonny Mallhi
Cast: Ryan Simpkins, Annika Marks, Karina Logue
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Veteran producer Sonny Mallhi originally wrote Anguish to be a studio movie and said he had a couple of offers, but ultimately opted to go the indie route. “I wanted to try it my way,” said Mallhi. “I knew what the [studio notes] would look like. I always try and set [my stories] in the Midwest or a small town, and then it gets shot in Pasadena.”

Anguish centers on Tess (Ryan Simpkins), who tries to manage her psychosis while adjusting to her new life with her mom (Annika Marks). After stumbling upon the shrine of Lucy (Amberley Gridley), a hit-and-run victim, Tess finds herself overwhelmed by hallucinations of the dead girl and starts to question her sanity again. When the spirit possesses Tess’s mind and soul, mother and daughter are at a loss for where to turn next for salvation: religion or medicine? Both institutions have failed them to date but faith leads them to the house of Sarah (Karina Logue), Lucy’s mother, who has been despondent since the accident. All together with time working against them, Sarah is desperate to believe that Lucy is still alive in Tess but neither parent wants to give up on their daughter. Now that she understands what is happening to her, ultimately Tess must decide whether she wants to keep fighting or succumb to her affliction.

“I took [the script] back and found enough financing to direct it myself and I shot in my hometown [outside Chicago],” said Mallhi. “[Anguish] is based on a true story that took place in Illinois, so it needed to be shot there.” Mallhi wrote the script a year-and-a-half ago, and found financing through “friends and family.” “The pressure of doing good for people you actually know is there,” added Mallhi. “The hardest part was producing and also directing. It’s a very small movie, [shot] for way under a million dollars. But I got hooked up with a lot of free stuff in Chicago. There’s a great crew base there.”

Emily Schweber cast the film, which stars Ryan Simpkins in the main role. “She’s like a young Jennifer Lawrence, she’s amazing,” said Mallhi who worked with Lawrence in House At The End of The Street (2012). “It was really, really cold, which is why people like to shoot in Pasadena. There was even a tornado, but it still looked beautiful.”

Anguish debuted at Fantasia International Film Festival in July and Gravitas Ventures picked up the title via ICM a couple months ago. The title is having a day and date release beginning this weekend with about a dozen cities slated for the coming weeks. Joked Mallhi: “It may take down Stars Wars — will be close.”