One of the summer’s widest Specialty releases — oxymoron acknowledged — is today’s bow of Roadside Attractions/Miramax’s Southside With You. Directed by first-timer Richard Tanne and starring Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, the Sundance feature will open in eight hundred theaters. Southside With You headlines a pack of newcomers now entering late summer, traditionally a pre-fall period when distributors open some of the year’s left-overs in the waning days of vacation — though not entirely. Also heading out is A24’s The Sea of Trees by Gus Van Sant, which had its premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The title had been a Roadside release, but then moved over to A24 in late spring. Sony Classics is opening Sundance’s The Hollars, directed by actor John Krasinski, and Music Box releases Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti, which the company had picked up from the now defunct Alchemy, just missing its original opening date before the final agreement.

Among the weekend’s other limited release openers is IFC/Amazon’s Complete Unknown by Joshua Marston and starring Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz, opening at New York’s IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza. Gravitas will bow Ace the Case with Susan Sarandon, while FilmBuff will have a theatrical for Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, which picked up an Audience Award at last month’s Comic Con. Samuel Goldwyn and Paramount are teaming on The Intervention with Clea Du Vall, Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne and Jason Ritter, and Well Go USA heads out with Tunnel.

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Roadside Attractions/Miramax

Southside With You
Director-writer: Richard Tanne
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Paker Sawyers, Taylar Fondren
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Miramax

Before the 2008 Presidential campaign, first-time feature filmmaker Richard Tanne became interested in how then-private citizens Barak Obama and Michelle Robinson grew their relationship from Chicago colleagues to something more almost two decades prior.

Tanne had initial inklings in 2007 to write a script based on the Obamas first date. Obama “had one day to prove himself – by the (future) First Lady’s admission – and he had done just that,” said Tanne this week at a pre-release screening of Southside With You hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “It was a conflict to hang the movie on, and seemed like a good entry point…but I didn’t know if I was the right person to tell the story.”

The idea returned to Tanne during Obama’s second term after Tanne himself “fell in love,” and felt a kindred spirit with the story. “You meet somebody who makes you a better person, and I started to think about [the idea] again because I thought I could tell that story,” he said. “I didn’t get around to writing it until 2013.”

Southside With You takes place over a summer evening in 1989 when the future President of the United States wooed his future First Lady on an epic first date across Chicago’s South Side.

“I wrote an outline of the script and gave it to a friend in confidence, who then broke that confidence and showed it to [actress] Tika Sumpter,” said Tanne. Sumpter “expressed not only her desire to play Michelle, but also — if and when I finished the script — to help produce it and get it into the hands of people who could [provide] financing.”

The project had a series of “false-starts,” according to Tanne, because potential partners were skeptical – he had never directed a feature, and Sumpter had never been the lead in a movie. But eventually tenacity paid off. “It was a two-year process…but we backed each other up and ultimately, IM Global stepped up to the plate and financed the movie.” Shooting began in August 2015.

Tanner noted that along the way to finalizing the pact with IM Global, there had been offers with more money, but also more strings. “There were people who wanted A-list names which I felt would be harder for the audience to suspend belief,” said Tanne. “I pushed back against that. I also pushed back on title cards at the end saying, ‘Barak Obama and Michelle Robinson went on to…,’ I felt the audience was smart enough to know what happens.”

Added Tanne: “Stuart Ford at IM Global said, ‘Look, you seem like you know what you’re talking about and you and Tika are in it together, so here’s some money and go make a movie.’” Shooting took place in Chicago, not far from the South Shore neighborhood in Chicago’s Southside where Michelle Robinson grew up.

Later, Tanne showed a rough-cut of the movie to John Legend, which moved the musician to create an original song for the title. “It didn’t have any music, but he said he was inspired by it and went off and wrote a song called ‘Start,’” said Tanne. “He doesn’t normally sing in this [style]. It’s done in a ‘whisper,’ but he said he felt the film called for something like that rather than a traditional ballad. The lyrics are about not knowing ‘where we’re going to go, but it’s the start of something.’ It really fits the movie.”

Tanner added that he thinks the Obamas have not seen the film, but knows they’re aware of it because Legend told them about it. “[Legend] said that Michelle said, ‘What could it possibly be about? It was just a date…’”

Miramax and Roadside Attractions are partnering on the release of the Sundance debut today. It will be the weekend’s biggest Specialty release with about 801 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, which Roadside co-president Howard Cohen called “a wider-than-expected release” for the company.

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A24

The Sea of Trees
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Chris Sparling
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe
Distributor: A24

The Sea of Trees is Gus Van Sant’s first film since 2012’s Focus release Promised Land. In the new film, Matthew McConaughey stars as Arthur Brennan, an American professor who travels to Japan in the midst of a personal crisis. As he wanders through a mysterious forest with a dark past, he experiences flashbacks of his fraught but loving relationship with his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), and meets enigmatic stranger Takumi (Ken Watanabe), who is lost and injured. Arthur devotes himself to saving Takumi and returning him home to safety, and the two embark on a spiritual, life-changing journey of friendship, discovery and healing – one which may ultimately rekindle Arthur’s love for his wife.

Writer Chris Sparling wrote The Sea of Trees, which appeared on the Black List. Over the life of the script, he partnered with various people, later meeting producer Gil Netter, who then connected with fellow producer Ken Kao through WME in late 2013.

“I have a production company [Waypoint Entertainment] that finances among other things including development and production,” said Kao. “Once you’re on [a project] you immediately attach talent whether that be a filmmaker or cast. We immediately got Ken Watanabe to respond he was in, and then Gus Van Sant [followed by] Matthew McConaughey.” Additional financing for the project came via private investors, who Kao had worked with previously.

Among Van Sant’s previous titles, Focus released Promised Land in late December 2012 in 25 theaters, grossing nearly $174K its first weekend ($6,957 average). It went on to cume nearly $7.6 million. Good Will Hunting remains his biggest grosser. The Miramax title cumed over $138.4 million in 1997. His 2008 film Milk, also a Focus release, cumed $31.8 million, while 2011’s Restless cumed just over $163K.

Shooting for The Sea of Trees took place in late July, first in western Massachusetts ahead of another week in Japan. The shoot lasted under forty days. “Western Massachusetts was a harrowing experience,” said Kao. “It’s very remote and not developed. It has one of the highest rates of lime disease and lots of ticks and critters. Our call sets were intimidating with all kinds of warnings.”

A24 took over the release of the title this past spring from Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate. The latter had picked up the film ahead of its debut at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The company will open The Sea of Trees in two theaters, day and date.

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Sony Pictures Classics

The Hollars
Director: John Krasinski
Writer: James Strouse
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day, Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale, Anna Kendrick, Randall Park
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Classics picked up The Hollars out of Sundance where it premiered in January. The company said it specifically picked August to give audiences “looking for something entertaining yet meaningful” after a summer of blockbusters. The title is the actor’s second feature directorial after his 2009 pic Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009).

The Hollars centers on John Hollar, a struggling New York City artist who is forced to navigate the small middle-American town he left behind when news of his mother’s illness brings him home. Back in the house he grew up in, John is immediately swept up in the problems of his dysfunctional family, high school rival, and an over-eager ex-girlfriend as he faces impending fatherhood with his girlfriend in New York.

“When we first saw The Hollars, it was a similar experience to what we had when we saw Junebug (SPC, $2.67M, 2005),” said SPC co-president Michael Barker. “The ensemble cast was spectacular and the direction just seamless. The movie reflects the personality of the director, which is the kind of film we like a lot. It is sincere and humorous in the way John Krasinski is.”

Barker said the company has screened the film a number of times with Krasinski and members of the cast attending. He also noted the possible Awards consideration that should be given to members of the cast.

“This is a major performance for [Margo Martindale],” he said. “Richard Jenkins has been nominated for an Oscar (The Visitor, 2007). They make a formidable couple on screen. Both are worthy of awards consideration.” Barker said Krasinski and cast have done a “lot of press” around the country in the lead-up to its release Friday.

Sony Pictures Classics will open The Hollars in limited release in four New York and Los Angeles theaters this weekend ahead of a platform release in the coming weeks.

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Music Box Films

Mia Madre
Director-writer: Nanni Moretti
Writer: Valia Santella
Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini
Distributor: Music Box Films

Music Box Films picked up rights for Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre in April following the demise of distributor Alchemy, which had picked up the comedy at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Alchemy had initially set an April release, but negotiations delayed the release to late summer.

The film follows Margherita, a harried film director (Margherita Buy, A Five Star Life) trying to juggle the demands of her latest movie and a personal life in crisis. The star of her film, a charming but hammy American actor (John Turturro) imported for the production, initially presents nothing but headaches, with her crew close to mutiny. Away from the shoot, Margherita tries to hold her life together as the illness of her beloved mother progresses and her teenage daughter grows ever more distant.

“We were endeavoring to salvage the original opening date, but ‘paperwork issues’ made it so we weren’t involved with the film until after the [original] opening date had come and gone, so it seemed like late August would work,” said Music Box managing director Ed Arentz. “We have always admired Moretti, so when it became available at a price that was more reasonable for us, we jumped at the opportunity.”

Arentz added that Music Box had eyed the director’s previous work at festivals, but were not in a position to make contending offers. IFC Films released Moretti’s last film, We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam), in 2012, grossing over $548K in theaters.

Music Box is targeting older female arthouse-goers for Mia Madre, looking back at a previous release that appears to have some overlap. “We had a film titled A Five Star Life ($306K, 2013) with Margherita Buy. She’s Italy’s answer to Diane Lane,” said Arentz. “We had a good experience with that film, and for this one we also have John Turturro which makes it even more appealing.”

Music Box Films will open Mia Madre at Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika in New York as well as the Royal in LA, Encino Town Center and the Pasadena Playhouse in addition to one location in Washington, D.C. this weekend. It will head to other New York and L.A. spots the following week, followed by major markets including the Bay Area, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis and Tucson.

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Epic Pictures

Space Dogs Adventure to The Moon
Director-writer: Mike Disa
Writer: Rolfe Kanefsky
Voices: Alicia Silverstone, Ashlee Simpson, Sam Witwer, Kira Buckland, Phil LaMarr
Distributor: Epic Pictures

Epic Pictures is hoping its animated feature Space Dogs Adventure to the Moon will tap the “forgotten” ultra-family-friendly crowd. While the summer has had its share of high-profile animated releases, there have been relatively few that have specifically targeted the G-crowd. “Studios are skewing toward the PG family movies,” noted Epic Pictures CEO Patrick Ewald. “When you have kids under seven or eight years old, it makes a big difference. This is a market that needs to be addressed.” Ewald cited further that seasonal high-profilers Pete’s Dragon, The Secret Life of Pets, Zootopia and Finding Dory are PG-rated.

The English-language version of the Russian-produced animated title features the voices of Alicia Silverstone and Ashlee Simpson and is directed by veteran Disney animator Mike Disa. The story centers on canine astronauts that go to the dark side of the moon to find the source of “weird happenings on Earth.” Space Dogs Adventure to the Moon is a sequel to Space Dogs 3D (2010), which “did well internationally,” according to Epic, who did not spearhead its release in the U.S., which was mostly on-demand stateside.

“The Russian version of [Space Dogs Adventure to the Moon] is very different from the international version,” said Ewald, whose company is releasing the title in all territories outside of Russia. “There’s 10 to 12 minutes of new animation in this version along with different music, etc. It is much more targeted toward an American audience.”

Epic Pictures is targeting specific U.S. markets, creating “studio-like” marketing for Space Dogs ahead of its opening. “Our blood, sweat and tears have gone into this release in the most concentrated way,” said Ewald. “August 26th is National Dog Day, so we’re [working with organizations] tied to that as well as groups like the Boys and Girls Club and other children’s organizations to promote the release.”

Added Epic co-founder Shaked Berenson: “In the [primarily Southwestern cities] we’re opening, we have stands in the lobbies of AMC and other chains, trailers in front of Pete’s Dragon and Finding Dory as well as ads in malls. In places like Dallas, it feels like a studio opening. Obviously we don’t have the $40M to do a nationwide release, so we decided to open in these [targeted markets].” Both Ewald and Berenson gave shout-outs to colleagues Paula Moreno, director of distribution, and Jory Rosen, VP of marketing, for launching the title in an “epic way.”

Epic is opening Space Dogs Adventure to The Moon in about 58 theaters in markets in Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. The company will then work with chains in specific regions to expand the feature as performance allows.