Sundance feature documentary Newtown, which focuses on the extended aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, makes its bow via Abramorama in limited Los Angeles and New York runs this weekend ahead of extensive event screenings in hundreds of theaters across the country on November 2. The film will also air on Independent Lens early next year. Newtown joins a typically crowded early fall weekend. Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films will bow Farsi-language horror Under The Shadow in select U.S. locations while FilmRise will head out with The Greasy Strangler day and date. Mark Duplass had an idea for Blue Jay earlier this year, and after shooting it for just over a week, it bowed in Toronto and is heading to theaters via The Orchard before becoming available on Netflix in December. Strand Releasing is opening André Téchiné’s Being 17, the latest in a number of films the distributor has worked on from the French filmmaker, while Cinestaan is rolling out Indian director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s modern folklore tale Mirzya.

Among other limited release openers this weekend are ArtAffects Entertainment’s faith-based abortion drama Voiceless in over 100 theaters as well as Arc Entertainment’s Torchbearer, Shout! Factory’s Blinky Bill and CJ Entertainment’s Asura: The City of Madness. Additionally, Rialto will handle the re-release of The Battle of Algiers.

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Mile 22, LLC

Newtown
Director: Kim Snyder
Distributor: Abramorama

Sundance ’16 debut documentary Newtown filmed over four years in the wake of the tragic shooting in December 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 children and six school staffers dead.

Kim Snyder embedded herself in the town, winning the support of families and survivors, first responders, community leaders.  Many of them had grown distrustful of the media. The film does not try to be political but rather bear witness to what happened.

In Newtown, Snyder gives access into the lives and homes of those who remain, all of whom have been indelibly changed by the events. Parents, school nurses, police officers all try in their own ways to make sense of the loss. The film displays profound grief and allows it to reverberate through the collective conscience – exploring what happens to a community after it becomes the epicenter of a national discussion, and what is still left to cope with after the cameras leave.

“I started filming about four weeks after the tragedy. I met a local priest, who seemed to be experiencing PTSD and we developed a relationship,” said Snyder. “The shooting injured the whole community with the families at the epicenter. Through three-plus years of trust-building, [the film] is a portrait of collective grief.”

Snyder refrained from trying to make in-roads with the families directly affected by the tragedy for the first eight months in order to give them privacy, but slowly she did meet them. “It was an organic development,” she said. “I didn’t cold-call people. There were a lot of off-camera conversations first. They had been inundated with media… While building that trust and working with them, I sensed a need for some to think of [Newtown] as not just a place of tragedy, but a place of meaning.”

Snyder wanted to include the entire community, speaking with doctors, teachers and clergy. Transform Films provided initial support for the project. After Snyder had footage, she showed it to Independent Lens, which she had worked with on a previous project. ITVS came in at that point.

“This film is the little engine that could,” she said. “It is such a big story, it was totally scary. Something like this [inherently has] a lot of complexity and possible rabbit holes. There were so many sensitivities and vigilance required, so it was all about proceeding with openness and trust.”

Snyder worked with editor Gabriel Rhodes and producing partner Maria Cuomo to cut the story together, calling the project a “village effort.” “I knew I didn’t want to make a film about gun reform,” said Synder. “I didn’t think it would be the most useful thing. There are other useful projects that could do that better. The trickiest thing narratively was how to deal with the incident itself since this is primarily about the aftermath and how to treat trauma.”

Abramorama head Richard Abramowitz saw the feature at Sundance and was eager to board for its release. The feature will open in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, before a planned November 2 event screening across 330 theaters through Fathom, a partnership by Regal, AMC and Cinemart. “We went to them in order to make this available where docs don’t usually go. It would be the most efficient way to do it,” said Abramowitz. “We’ll do the traditional opening in the two main media markets this weekend to get it attention, but then we’ll screen it with Fathom so it can go to many places.”

Said Snyder: “When Richard came to us and told us the idea, it synched up with our goal and desire to reach many audiences and to get this out of the polarized space and put the issue on the table.”

Following the event screening November 2, a townhall-style conversation will be fed to participating theaters via satellite, hosted by CNN’s Chris Cuomo. In addition to the Fathom screening, Abramorama is working to set up additional screenings after November 2 via universities and other community organized events. The Orchard will spearhead its digital release after the New Year and Independent Lens will broadcast the film in early 2017.

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Vertical/XYZ

Under The Shadow
Director-writer: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment, XYZ Films

Under The Shadow was one of the first scripts to land at Wigwam Films after the company was set up in 2012. Co-founder Lucan Toh and colleagues saw filmmaker Babak Anvari’s short Two & Two and later met with the filmmaker. Toh admitted that some of the particulars of the script made it a challenging one. “We were the only people stupid enough to make a Farsi-language horror,” he quipped. “He had been asked to do it in English by others.”

Under The Shadow centers on Shideh and her family, who live amid the chaos of the Iran-Iraq war, a period known as The War of the Cities. Accused of subversion by the post-Revolution government and blacklisted from medical college, she falls into a state of malaise. With Tehran under the constant threat of aerial bombardment, her husband is drafted and sent to the front-lines by the army, leaving Shideh all alone to protect their young daughter Dorsa. Soon after he leaves, a missile hits their apartment building and while failing to explode, a neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances and Dorsa’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Searching for answers, Shideh learns from a superstitious neighbor that the cursed missile might have brought with it Djinn – malevolent Middle Eastern spirits that travel on the wind.

“It was a super difficult package to put together,” said Toh. “The Doha Film Institute responded strongly and gave us a grant, which was fantastic. After that, we tried to find some sales, but given it was Farsi and with no cast we struggled.”

XYZ Films read the script and came on board for domestic release. More financing was pieced together with a “load of post deals and through some private equity and discretionary development funds,” according to Toh.

The feature proved to be a potential boon for L.A. based Farsi-speaking actors. “Anyone who spoke Farsi was under consideration,” said Toh. “There aren’t many…It was important to Babak Anvari to get speakers without an accent.” The filmmaking team met Narges Rashidi at the Berlin International Film Festival, who joined as the star. Avin Manshadi, who plays the little girl, is the daughter of Iranian refugees living in the U.K. Her legal status in the country made for some difficulty getting her to location in Jordan, but just ahead of the shoot, she was allowed to travel.

Under The Shadow filmed for 21 days, primarily in two derelict buildings. The feature debuted in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival. Netflix picked up the title ahead of Sundance and XYZ and Vertical teamed for its theatrical roll out. Added Toh: “Netflix gave us a nice window. It was important to Babak to have theatrical.” The film is also the U.K.’s submission for Best Foreign-Language Oscar consideration.

The film will open in about 20 theaters this weekend in the U.S.

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Orchard/Netflix

Blue Jay
Director: Alexandre Lehmann
Writer: Mark Duplass
Cast: Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager
Distributor: The Orchard/Netflix

Mark Duplass and producer Mel Eslyn noticed late last year there was a gap in their project schedule, so they decided to put together a movie. The result is Blue Jay, which opens this weekend. “Mark had a couple weeks off as an actor and called me up and said, ‘What are we going to do?,’” said Eslyn. “[Mark and Jay Duplass] have a grab-bag of ideas to use. He had this high school sweetheart idea, and it turned out to be the right time to do it. Mark had [director Alexandre Lehmann, Asperger’s Are Us] in mind as director.”

The feature revolves around former high school sweethearts Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) who have been out of touch for more than 20 years — but by coincidence, they run into each other at a grocery store in their alpine hometown of Crestline, California. Jim’s mother has died and he’s here to put her house on the market. Amanda is visiting her pregnant sister. They get to talking, first over coffee, then over beer and jellybeans. Before they know it they’re at Jim’s mother’s house, where everything sends them spiraling back into the past.

The feature was shot from a treatment created by Duplass rather than a detailed script. Eslyn said that the treatment was expanded over a couple of weeks of creative meetings. “When we were on set, Mark would have a brainstorm and write things down, while other [scenes were ad-libbed].”

Financing came from Duplass, who also knew Paulson socially and asked her to join the project. Said Eslyn: “She said she hadn’t done anything like this before, so said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Blue Jay shot over just 8 days in the mountain community of Crestline, CA. “We had only a small window,” said Eslyn. “We had workshopped a lot leading up to it, so we were specific with the kind of shots we wanted and knew the end-goal… We tend to keep things intimate when we can. We kind of owned the town for a week. It was an emotional experience. There was a lot of talk about high school sweethearts when we weren’t shooting, so that brought emotion. It was cathartic and therapeutic for us.”

Blue Jay debuted in Toronto last month and screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival this week ahead of its theatrical release starting Friday. Netflix and The Orchard are on board, with the latter opening the title in New York this weekend, followed by Los Angeles next weekend. Netflix will have the feature available in December.

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FilmRise

The Greasy Strangler
Director-writer: Jim Hosking
Writer: Toby Harvard
Cast: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo, Gil Gex
Distributor: FilmRise

The Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League and producer Ant Timpson had worked together on The ABCs of Death (2012), and circled back on Jim Hosking’s idea for comedy-horror The Greasy Strangler. “I gave the script to [fellow producer] Elijah Wood and he fell in love with it,” said Timpson. “The script was so cuckoo, people wouldn’t want to do it unless they know the director could nail it. We called Madman Entertainment and they got involved and then Tim came on board.”

Simpson said the various entities had “equal equity” stakes. The British Film Institute (BFI) also boarded the project.

The Greasy Strangler takes place in the “grotesque jungle of Los Angeles. Big Ronnie runs a disco walking tour along with his browbeaten son, Brayden. When they encounter the alluring female tourist Janet during one of their tours, a rivalry erupts between father and son as they wrestle over her affections, and unleashes the infamous Greasy Strangler — an oily, slimy, inhuman maniac who stalks the streets at night and strangles the innocent.

“Casting took place pretty late, but Jim had ideas regarding the aesthetics of the film and he has a large reservoir of people he uses in his short films and commercials,” said Timpson. “We also met with a lot of people in L.A., but in the end he used a good number of people he knew. Elizabeth [De Razzo] was the fresh face.”

The Greasy Strangler shot over three weeks in Los Angeles in April/May, 2015. To accommodate the tight schedule, Hosking brought on many of the folks he’s worked with on his commercials. “It was a tight shoot with not a lot of money, so there were the usual associations with a project like that,” added Timpson. “We really maximized every dollar.”

Executive producer Tim League said that the team worked with CAA to sell the title to FilmRise. Asked why his own company hadn’t released the feature, he said timing wasn’t right. “We announced we were merging with Tom Quinn and were getting financing together for that, so we weren’t [picking up] more titles at that time.”

League and Quinn had partnered to release Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next earlier this year, though since then, speculation has continued about their next steps. “God willing, we’ll announce soon,” said League.

FilmRise will open The Greasy Strangler day and date in about 40 theaters. Picturehouse will open the feature in the U.K. Friday as well. Added League: “The budget came from companies, but it really came from individuals. They were passionate about Jim Hosking, he’s a very special filmmaker. It’s a strange film and it won’t be for everyone, but it’s special and we really believe in him.”

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Cinestaan

Mirzya
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Writer: Gulzar
Cast: Harshvardhan Kappor, Saiyami Kher, Art Malik
Distributor: Cinestaan

Mirza is the first title of distributor Cinestaan’s three film agreement with filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Indian-based company, Romp Pictures. “It’s a very exciting project for us to get involved with, and we are really looking forward to our first release as a studio,” said Rohit Khattar, chairman of Cinestaan AA Distributors. “The film is being distributed in the US and Canada under the Cinestaan AA Distributors banner which will not only distribute the films produced by Cinestaan Film Company but also hopes to do the same for other leading production houses.”

Mirza is based on the legend of Mirza-Sahiban, a popular Punjabi folklore. In the musical-drama-romance, a horse groom reconnects with his childhood love, but she is engaged to marry the local prince. The feature depicts the contrast between folklore and the contemporary world.

“We have tried to splash the film in all mediums including TV and radio,” said Khattar about getting the word out for Mirzya. “Even though it has newcomers, the spends for advertising is as much as that of a film with established stars. We have done this primarily because of the big brand of Rakeysh Mehra whose last film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was a huge success.”

Cinestaan decided to roll out Mirzya timed to India’s long holiday weekend known as Dussehra. The title will bow in 90-plus locations this weekend and will expand in the coming weeks based on performance.

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Strand Releasing

Being 17
Director-writer: André Téchiné
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Distributor: Strand Releasing

Strand Releasing caught French filmmaker André Téchiné’s romantic-drama Being 17 at its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and picked it up soon afterward.

Unfolding over four seasons in the arresting, mountainous setting of the French Pyrénées, Being 17 is the story of Damien and Thomas, two French teenagers from very different upbringings who go to the same high school but are constantly fighting. When family circumstances bring Damien’s mother Marianne to invite Thomas to live with them, the young men are forced to coexist and work through their emerging and complicated desires.

“This is the fifth film we’ve collaborated on with Mr. Téchiné,” noted Strand co-president Marcus Hu. ”One of our biggest hits was Wild Reeds and subsequently we distributed Witnesses, The Girl On the Train, and Unforgivable. All of his films have done well for us and met our expectations. I think we’ve built a good rapport with him and really enjoy how much support he’s offered over the years.”

Similar to their previous Téchiné roll-outs, Strand is targeting “Francophiles and cinephiles.” It is also reaching out to the LGBT community given the storyline in this feature. Strand will open the title in a platform release in New York at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza ahead of its Los Angeles release next week. It will then head to San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Added Hu: “Exhibitor interest is very high with this film.”