Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance onto the big screen this weekend with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the latest in a string of Academy Award contenders crowding the waning days of 2016. Lionsgate is opening the title, which should grab the lions share of the Specialty box office this weekend, in limited release starting Friday ahead of going wide by Christmas. The feature is not the only one with high profile names attached. Katie Holmes stars in All We Had, which is her feature directorial debut, opening via Gravitas Ventures. Sundance debut Frank & Lola starring Michael Shannon and directed by former film journalist Matthew Ross heads out in the U.S. from Paladin, while Screen Media’s Sugar Mountain featuring Cary Elwes and Jason Momoa bows in ten cities. And, SXSW debut Slash with Michael Johnston and Hannah Marks will play at Drafthouse theaters in Brooklyn and Austin before heading to L.A. next week.

Other films opening in limited release include Yash Raj Films’ Befikre starring Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor in 284 theaters in North America. And TWC announced that this week it’s giving an Oscar qualifying run for The Founder at the Arclight Hollywood before opening nationwide January 20.

La La Land
Director-writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, Finn Wittrock, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothe, Tom Everett Scott, Josh Pence
Distributor: Lionsgate

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Lionsgate

’Tis the season for Oscar hopefuls, and a current frontrunner for Best Picture, La La Land, will make its bow this weekend. Academy Award-nominee Damien Chazelle began writing the musical shortly after re-locating to the Left Coast a while back. “I started writing this movie about six years ago,” he said during an onstage interview with the New York Film Critics Series recently. “I had just moved to L.A. and I was trying to figure out my way in. I wanted to make movies like a lot of people in that city.”

Given the title, it’s probably no surprise that the feature is set in Los Angeles. La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian. Mia is an aspiring actress and Sebastian is a dedicated jazz musician. Both are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts.

“We saw Whiplash at Sundance in 2014 and immediately tracked down Damien Chazelle to tell him we were blown away by his filmmaking and couldn’t wait to work with him on his next movie,” commented Erik Feig, co-president of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “Bringing Damien’s incredible talent and passion to a genre like an original musical was a unique opportunity, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have given him the tools and experience to make his singular film come to CinemaScope life.”

Channel received an Oscar-nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Whiplash, which Sony Classics debuted in October, 2014. The film, Chazelle’s second feature directorial, grossed over $13M domestically.

Music from La La Land came via Justin Hurwitz, who Chazelle went to college with and has worked on all of his films. Hurwitz immediately bunkered down with the project after catching wind of it. “We have this kind of shorthand and relationship that is at the foundation of everything I do,” he said. “So by the time I had even this basic idea for this movie he was writing the melodies that became the score and songs.”

Lionsgate will open La La Land in five locations this weekend, expanding to about 200 runs on December 16 ahead of going nationwide by Christmas Day. The company said it “expects to be fully wide in January,” adding: “The film’s critical success, early awards buzz and general word-of-mouth have been fantastic, so the film is truly the best [marketing] tool we have. Damien has made a film that is uplifting and joyful, about believing in and pursuing your dreams – something that everyone can relate to this holiday season.”

All We Had
Director: Katie Holmes
Writers: Josh Boone, Jill Killington, Annie Weatherwax (novel)
Cast: Katie Holmes, Stefania LaVie Owen, Eve Lindley, Richard Kind, Mark Consuelos, Luke Wilson
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

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Gravitas Ventures

Actress Katie Holmes optioned the book which would become the feature All We Had and her first outing as a feature film director. She also received some help from her friends. Veteran producer and friend Jane Rosenthal joined the project in its early stages. “She had been talking about wanting to direct and get out of what people had traditionally been bringing her,” said Rosenthal. “She ended up wanting to direct this piece. It’s a wonderful mother-daughter story that I could relate to as well. I also believed in Katie and her talents.”

The feature centers on Ruthie Carmichael (Stefania LaVie Owen) and her mother Rita (Holmes), who teeter on the edge of poverty when their landlord kicks them out. After some time, the pair head East in search of a better life. Their money runs out, however, and when their car breaks down, they find themselves stranded in a small town called Fat River where their luck finally takes a turn. Rita lands a steady job waitressing at the local diner. With enough money to pay their bills, they rent a house. Meanwhile, Peter Pam, a transgender waitress, becomes Ruthie’s closest friend, and Arlene, the no-nonsense head waitress, takes Rita under her wing. But, into this quirky utopia comes smooth-talking mortgage broker Vick Ward, who entices Rita with a subprime loan.

“I wanted to make this film for my directorial debut because the story is full of humanity with characters I felt were very authentic,” noted Holmes, who previously directed a short on Nadia Comenici for ESPN. “The size of the film felt right for my first feature and one that was a character study in which I could really play and direct my actors in. I have always wanted to get behind the camera.”

Rosenthal said that Jim Dolan was a “great supporter” of the project and she worked with Berry Welsh, who also works with her at Tribeca Film Institute, on the project. Avy Kaufman, who actually had cast Holmes in her first feature, spearheaded casting for the film. Rosenthal said Kaufman was “key” in finding actors for the roles of Ruthie and Peter Pam (Eve Lindley) among others.

“This was, in a lot of ways, about surrounding Katie and the whole team with people who wanted to roll up their sleeves and make a movie. It was exhilarating,” said Rosenthal. “One thing about Katie is that she had prepped so much before with storyboards — she was also filming the storyboards. She also benefitted with rehearsal with the cast, but she would also change things in the moment if she needed to.”

Rosenthal added that despite taking on both acting and directing, Holmes did have one particularly helpful thing on her side. “It’s a challenge to direct and act without question, but [her character] Rita is basically wearing the same thing, so there weren’t a lot of costume changes,” she said. “But, having [produced] Bob De Niro’s two [directorials], I know it’s a challenge for any actor…”

The bulk of the shoot took place in Monty, New York in August, 2015 in addition to one week on Staten Island. Not surprisingly, the film debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Gravitas Ventures came on board for the U.S. release, while Sony is handling worldwide. All We Had will bow in 12 markets this weekend.

Added Rosenthal: “She’s looking for her next project and we’re looking forward to doing it again. This is not an only time outing.”

Frank & Lola
Director-writer: Matthew Ross
Cast: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette, Emmanuelle Devos, Alex Lombard, David Atrakchi
Distributor: Paladin

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Paladin

Sundance 2016 film Frank & Lola is the feature directorial debut from former Variety and IndieWire journalist Matthew Ross. The title was ten years in the making, facing the travails of money and actors on and off the project, though everything eventually went into production with most of its original vision in tact.

Frank & Lola is described as a “psychosexual noir romance about love and sex, obsession and betrayal, revenge and redemption, set in Las Vegas and Paris. Michael Shannon stars as Frank, an up-and-coming chef, and Imogen Poots as Lola, an aspiring fashion designer, who find one another at a point when each is at a defining moment in life. Their affair is sudden, passionate, and seemingly everything Frank has always wanted. But his happiness proves short-lived when a man from Lola’s past, a past that is full of secrets, turns up on the scene, forcing Frank to question whether he can trust Lola or himself.

“I wrote the script over ten years ago, and we went into production almost two years ago to the day,” said Ross. “I’ve had producers on it for the past eight years, but it was unbelievably excruciating for many years. We would have some of the actors or some of the money. It was like you’re chasing a carrot for most of that time right in front of your face. [At some points] even some of my most staunch supporters were saying, ‘maybe you should take a break.’”

Ross met Michael Shannon in 2009 just prior to the Oscars that year in which the actor was nominated for Revolutionary Road. Shannon remained attached for two years, but by the time the financing had been seemingly completed, the actor had to bow out.

“We talked with other actors, but once I picture Michael being in the movie, I couldn’t really picture anyone else,” said Ross. “But then he came back on. He hadn’t done a romantic lead before.”

While all the parts seemed to fall into place, a calamity happened throwing the project into a tailspin. Two weeks prior to the start of prep, all of the financing disappeared. “I had already moved out of my apartment and was staying in my future assistant’s place on an air mattress in downtown Las Vegas,” said Ross. “We had two weeks to try and save this thing, but literally, with just one or two hours to go, we got the money…I had taken a walk and came back seeing I had missed some phone calls. I found out we had the money. I knew filmmaking is a gambler’s business, but until you’re living like a gambler, you don’t fully appreciate it.” Executive producer Robert Halmi, Jr. had come through with financing.

Frank & Lola shot over 17 days in December, 2014 in Las Vegas in addition to five days in Paris in February, 2015. The film debuted in the Eccles Theater at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, an event Ross had attended many times as a journalist. “It’s intense and stressful, but I already knew all that,” he said. “I’ve seen people make it and seen dreams absolutely crushed… We screened late, but we had a couple thousand people staring at us and we got a standing ovation — that was just awesome.”

Universal picked up U.S. ancillary rights to the film in addition to worldwide rights, while Paladin is handling the film’s domestic theatrical release. Frank & Lola opens day and date this Friday, launching Friday theatrically in 25 theaters in ten cities.

Sugar Mountain
Director: Richard Gray
Writers: Abe Pogo, Catherine Hill
Cast: Drew Roy, Haley Webb, Shane Coffey, Cary Elwes, Jason Momoa
Distributor: Screen Media

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Screen Media

Drama-thriller Sugar Mountain had initially been set in Australia, but after taking a trip to the Anchorage Film Festival, the location headed to the 49th state. The festival, in fact, had touted the state, which sold filmmaker Richard Gray. “Our previous film played there,” he said. “They flew us up there and I was just blown away by the place and how spectacular it was. They took us to Seward. It has Killer Whales, bears. I’ve found that when you have an independent film with a budget that’s super modest, but can take the audience to a spectacular place, it’s a [plus]… We also found out that Alaska had a great filming incentive.”

The film centers on a local thug (Jason Momoa), who is deeply in debt. Miles persuades his girlfriend Lauren and brother Liam to help fake a disappearance in the Alaskan wilderness. While the town works together to find Miles, the local chief of police (Cary Elwes) begins to suspect foul play. As he closes in on the truth, Liam struggles to conceal the hoax, and in the process exposes a secret that rocks him and Lauren to the core. Now the two are struggling to stay one step ahead of a sadistic thug and the tenacious cops before Miles is gone for good.

Gray spoke with Jason Momoa about the film prior to the actor’s involvement with Aquaman. During production, Momoa integrated himself pretty closely with the locals and even showed up at a party unannounced. “He was a generous actor and took the crew and cast out whale watching,” said Gray. “He’d also set up a table at a bar and would arm wrestle with folks. He also showed up unannounced at a Game of Thrones party people living there had. Jason’s rising star along with Cary Elwes has been a great asset for us.”

Gray noted that the ‘bigger’ cast in the film had the supporting roles, which allowed the comparatively younger stars, Drew Roy and Shane Coffey to have an easier time. “We were able to shoot chronologically, which was important for how the film goes down,” added Gray. Sugar Mountain shot for six-and-a-half weeks, though Gray noted that there were only limited hours of sun, so that shortened their days. The film was privately financed.

Sugar Mountain sold at the Cannes Market for many territories including North America. “It means a big deal to get multiple territories,” added Gray. “You can tackle piracy better if you’re releasing in major English-speaking areas around the same time. There are many titles that go directly to VOD, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s great to be able to go to ten cities along with a premiere in L.A.”

Screen Media is opening the feature in two New York locations theatrically today with an additional nine markets bowing with one run each.

Slash
Director-writer: Clay Liford
Cast: Michael Johnston, Hannah Marks, Deborah Abbott, Michael Ian Black, Missi Pyle, Violett Beane, Laura Bailey, Kelli Bland, Susan Burke
Distributor: Self-release/Gravitas Ventures

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Gravitas Ventures

Slash filmmaker Clay Liford and producer Brock Williams met each other at the 2012 Dallas Film Festival where both had projects screening. At the time, Liford was also in post-production on the short version of Slash and later sent a link to Williams. “We kept talking about things to work on together,” said Williams. “He decided to write a feature version of Slash. I ended up being one of the earliest people to read it.”

Williamson then collaborated with Liford on re-writes. Both together and separately attended various writing labs hosted by IFP, Film Independent and the Austin Film Society. Liford continued to re-write based on feedback, while both pursued financing. “We raised [money] through private equity from people he had worked with and also I had worked with,” said Williamson. “We hired a casting director, J.C. Cantu. We did wide calls and also went after established actors. But since we were a lower budget film, we had some people eventually back-out.”

Michael Johnston read for the starring role early on. Later, the actor was cast on MTV’s Teen Wolf series. Hannah Marks, meanwhile, boarded after a previous actor left the production. “We were lucky she did,” said Williams. “We also worked with UTA on some of the other roles, including Michael Ian Black [and] Missi Pyle. It was a juggling act.”

Shooting took place in Houston, Austin and Los Angeles in 2015. A small crew shot for 2 days at Houston’s Comicpalooza, while the bulk of principal photography took place over 22 days in Austin. Three days of shooting took place in Los Angeles for a sci-fi sequence that takes place in Slash.

“There were so many people shooting different things at Comicpalooza that it wasn’t unusual,” noted Williams. “We would have to get people to sign off who were standing in the background, though. Comicpalooza was very helpful in showing us around as was the Houston Film Commission. They gave us press badges.”

Slash debuted at SXSW where the hometown cast and crew saw the feature as did principal cast who traveled to the March festival. Gravitas Ventures boarded the project for ancillary releases, while the filmmakers are directly handling the theatrical roll out.

“We’ve been working directly with Drafthouse,” said Williams. “Tim League loved the film. We’re doing a premiere at the [new] Drafthouse in Brooklyn and also opening at the South Lamar [Drafthouse in Austin] this weekend.” The title will later head to IFP’s Made in New York Center and to the Laemmle Noho in L.A. next week. Slash began an exclusive window with iTunes on Tuesday for a week. The feature will then be available via other platforms December 13.