Ten months after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea will roll out in theaters this weekend. Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, the feature, opening via Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, is up for three Gothams and enjoying strong Oscar contention. It will make its initial run in New York and L.A. Meanwhile, Tom Ford, seven years after making his first film, A Single Man, returns this weekend with Nocturnal Animals starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. The Focus Features title won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Well Go USA is heading out with China’s I Am Not Madame Bovary in a few dozen locations, while Abramorama’s doc Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened opens in New York before heading west. And Rough House Pictures will spearhead the roll out of Joshua Locy’s drama Hunter Gatherer.

Among other titles opening in limited release this weekend are FilmRise’s Magnus, Cohen Media Group’s re-release Daughters of the Dust, Magnolia’s The Eyes of My Mother and High Top Releasing’s The Take.

Manchester by the Sea
Director-writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Liam McNeill, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, Ben O’Brien
Distributor: Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

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Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

Sundance fest debut Manchester by the Sea was born of collaboration between producer Chris Moore and Matt Damon. Damon had been looking to direct his first feature, though his acting gigs ended up pushing that aside. “[Actor-producer] John Krasinski pitched the idea for Manchester,” Moore explained this week. “And Matt, who had worked with Kenny [Lonergan] before thought it would be good for him.”

The feature follows the life of a solitary Boston janitor who is transformed when he returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew. After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to lear that Joe made him the sole guardian of nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16 year old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised.

“John and Matt pitched the story to Kenny in late summer or early fall of 2010. Kenny thought about it and had a different take on it, which we really liked,” said Moore . “John didn’t have time to work on the script, so we got some money together and hired Kenny to write it. It took [a bit of time] since he was also working on other stuff, but in summer 2014 he gave us the first draft.”

In the meantime, the group met with independent financiers and spoke with their friend Casey Affleck, who did have a window of time in the winter of 2015. “They loved Kenny,” said Moore . “Often you have good meetings but then nothing ever happens, but within a week we had some money together. Kenny convinced Michelle [Williams] to begin the film. Talent wants to work with him.”

Manchester by the Sea shot over 32 days, which Moore described as “pressure packed,” though Lonergan had a precise vision. The feature includes scenes aboard a boat and other potentially budget-busting moments, but the production team kept their original vision. “There’s stuff that an independent movie would normally have had to cut out, but they were part of what makes this movie great,” said Moore. “The town is also a great character. It’s part of the tension that [influences] the main character.”

The made its Sundance debut last January, and the premiere was the center of attention until another title ended up grabbing the headlines.

“We had the fantasy experience of a bidding war at Sundance,” he said. “For ten minutes we were the talk of Sundance until Birth Of a Nation came along and everyone forgot about us, which probably ended up being a good thing. We didn’t want to overplay it because we knew we’d be waiting until November for the release. When you work on something like this, you want the marketing and planning to be as diligent as the execution.”

Amazon Studios picked up the title and tapped Roadside Attractions to handle the theatrical release. The Awards-hopeful will open in 4 locations including Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika in New York as well as the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark in L.A. Manchester then will head to an additional 8 markets Thanksgiving weekend. More theaters will be added in the following weeks before going to about 800 – 900 theaters in mid-December.

Nocturnal Animals
Director-writer: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Karl Glusman, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen
Distributor: Focus Features

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Focus Features

Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford’s second directorial, following the 2009 feature A Single Man that starred Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. His latest, with Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Focus touts the feature as a “haunting romantic thriller of shocking intimacy and gripping tension that explores the thin lines between love and cruelty, and revenge and redemption.” Gyllenhaal and Adams star as a divorced couple discovering dark truths about each other and themselves.

“What attracted us to Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford,” said Lisa Bunnell, president of Distribution at Focus. “His last film, A Single Man, was a remarkable first-time effort. What Focus is trying to do is to work with directors that are inspired and to show their vision. He totally fits with what we want to do.”

The Weinstein Company opened A Single Man in December 2011 in 9 locations, grossing over $217K its first weekend ($24,148 average). It continued to do well, grossing nearly $9.2 million domestically.

Nocturnal Animals is going to appeal to an upscale, sophisticated audience,” said Bunnell. “But it’s still a thriller, so it will go beyond the arthouse crowd. It will have critical acclaim. The vision of the film is heavier [than most thrillers] but in a good way. There’s also an aspect to it that [lends] social commentary.”

Focus Features is opening Nocturnal Animals initially in 37 theaters in 14 major cities including New York, L.A., San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Miami and more. Added Bunnell: “We’re going broader than the usual four theaters in New York and L.A. This has big city appeal with a huge cast. We’ll expand [over Thanksgiving] and we’ll go wide on December 9.” Tom Ford will participate in Q&As on Sunday in LA at select screenings at the Landmark and Arclight.

I Am Not Madame Bovary
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Writer: Liu Zhenyun
Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Zhang Jiayi, Yu Hewei
Distributor: Well Go USA

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Well Go USA

Well Go USA CEO Doris Pfardrescher had been tracking Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary for a while, finally grabbing rights to the film ahead of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, picking up a film critics prize there followed by the Grand Jury Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

The film centers on Li Xuelian and her husband Qin Yuhe who stage a fake divorce to secure a second apartment reserved by the government for single people. Qin remarries six months later – as agreed – but to a different woman. Furious, Li files a lawsuit with the county court but loses the case. Refusing to accept the court’s findings, Li appeals to the chief justice, the county chief, and even the mayor, but fails at every turn. After Qin publicly accuses Li of being a “promiscuous woman” because she was not a virgin on their wedding night, Li is driven back to the courts to redeem her reputation. Li makes her way from county to city, enduring one trial after another, until she decides to make her appeal in far-off Beijing, but 10 years go by, and the cases of Li’s divorce and her ruined reputation have not been resolved.

“We expect the Chinese diaspora audience to come out in droves, and we’re working our usual magic on that front, but we also expect that the arthouse audience looking for something different will be interested to see what Feng Xiaogang has accomplished here,” noted Well Go USA’s Dylan Marchetti. “So in New York City, for example, while we’ll open venues that are familiar to the diaspora audience like the AMC Empire 25, we’ll also open key arthouse venues known for adventurous programming like the Metrograph.”

I Am Not Madame Bovary will open here alongside its roll out in China, which Well Go USA is hoping will help the title stateside as it is being pushed heavily at home.

“The internet means there are no borders anymore, and so whenever possible, we like to release these films the same day they release in their home markets,” commented Marchetti. “That allows the massive campaign being undertaken in China, where the film will play on thousands of screens, to hit the diaspora audience here in North America on one side while we market to both them and to arthouse audiences on the other side. This particular weekend is crowded, but we’ve got a good track record with counter-programming on these kinds of titles and so we elected to release the same day as China.”

Well Go USA will open I Am Not Madame Bovary in 40 theaters in 35 cities in North America this weekend. It will continue to expand into December and January.

Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened
Director-writer: Lonny Price
Writer: Kitt Lavoie, Ted Schillinger
Subjects: Terry Finn, Ann Morrison, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Jim Walton
Distributor: Abramorama

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Abramorama

Veteran theater director Lonny Price and producer Kitt Lavoie raised some initial money nine years ago to film a group of actors who had performed in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway decades earlier. They then recruited veteran producer Bruce Klein of Atlas Media Crop., who happens to be a huge Stephen Sondheim.

Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened is a reunion of sorts for the cast who performed Merrily at the Alvin Theatre back in 1981. The film charts the journey of the original cast in the 30-plus years since the musical debuted and flopped on Broadway.

“I’m a Sondheim freak, so [this project] was embedded in every bit of my being,” said Klein, whose company provided financing. “I saw a blurb [about it] in Playbill and I just had to do it. When Lonny came in, it was a marriage made in heaven.”

Best Worst Thing is Price’s first film as director. He said that although he’s had experience in theater and television, the learning curve for a documentary was steep. “This was much tricker,” he said. “You’re discovering the narrative as you go.”

Added Klein: “Because it’s his first film, he was willing to take a lot of chances…The big thing was conceptualizing the story and acknowledging that the story we started with may not be what we end up with. When we brought back the first Merrily cast members to the original stage at what is now the Neil Simon Theater, that moment crystalized to us the ’spine’ of the story.”

Lonny Price recalled that an ABC-produced show filmed a segment with the original cast in 1981. He hired an archivist to search for the material, though tracking it down became a major endeavor. “I knew it existed,” Price said, “but people told me it had been destroyed… We hired [someone to search] and after [much effort] they found that it was sitting in a huge crate in Connecticut. Finding that footage was the holy grail.”

Abramorama’s Richard Abramowitz saw an early cut of the feature. Though he said it wasn’t theatrically ready, he believed in its potential and asked to be kept up to date. “We knew there would be a rabid, excited audience out there,” said Abramowitz. “We expect it to thrive theatrically. This is not an aggressive release in terms of media dollars, but we’re doing a lot of outreach.”

Abramowitz noted that Best Worst Thing was listed by the Los Angeles Times as a top doc pick for the year, which came as a surprise to all involved. The film will open at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York this week, followed by L.A. next week. It will subsequently head to other cities including San Francisco and Chicago afterward. Added Bruce Klein: “There is incredible love for this material and we believe it will have an incredible after life.”

Hunter Gatherer
Director-writer: Joshua Locy
Cast: Andre Royo, Jeannetta Arnette, Kellee Stewart, Kevin Jackson, Ashley Wilkerson
Distributor: Rough House Pictures

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Rough House Pictures

Filmmaker Joshua Locy’s original idea for what would become Hunter Gatherer came when he met a man in Philadelphia who had been a pimp and had a drug problem. He wrote a script based on the stories but found it didn’t work. Later, he removed the violence, cursing and the religious component that it contained, and found that he connected to the characters’ need for human connection. “I wanted to take some part of that story and connect it to my life,” he said. “So the new story correlates to me.”

Hunter Gather revolves around Ashley Douglas who thinks everything should fall into place when he’s released after three years in prison. When that doesn’t happen, he restarts his life with next to nothing: no friends, no lovers, no connections. All he has is a bedroom in his mom’s house, a box of treasures buried in his backyard, and a deeply ingrained need to be with Linda – his one, true love – who has moved on without him. Ashley sees an opportunity in the form of Jeremy, an eccentric loner. They start a two-man business of dumping unwanted refrigerators for cash, which Ashley hopes will get Linda back and Jeremy hopes will help his ailing grandfather. As their partnership takes hold, a friendship flourishes – though their fates are very much still up in the air.

Alex Ullman at Rough House Pictures and filmmaker David Gordon Green read the script and connected to it, with both signing on as executive producers. A casting director gave the script to Andre Royo, who also signed on to star. “Once I had Andre, Rough House and the [other producers], we took the script to various production companies,” said Locy. “We then went to Cinetic, which helped us to get financing.” Mama Bear Studios in Tennessee then boarded the project.

“We had production dates and we hired casting directors to find additional cast, but then Andre was offered a role in Empire, so we thought we were screwed,” said Locy. “We thought we’d have to find a new actor, but he negotiated with Empire and said he needed time to make this movie. Co-creator Danny Strong gave him a window, so we pushed the shoot a little bit.”

Hunter Gatherer shot over 18 days in South Central Los Angeles, and edited for two months. Andre Royo won a Best Actor prize at the SXSW Film Festival where it debuted. Rough House is spearheading the feature’s theatrical roll out, while The Orchard will handle the digital release. Theatrically, Hunter Gatherer opened at Cinefamily in L.A. on Wednesday and will have a one-week run at IFP Media Center in New York. It will be available digitally starting in February.