This weekend, Sundance Selects will open director Matt Tyrnauer’s doc Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, with Marisa Tomei voicing the author/activist who fought entrenched power in New York for her vision of urban life. The Orchard, meanwhile, is opening a non-fiction feature, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent from Lydia Tenaglia. The Tribeca ’16 debut has a high-profile ally in the form of Anthony Bourdain who will appear at select weekend Q&As. The weekend is a comparatively slower one for the Specialties vs. last weekend. Other openers include Mubi’s The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Mäki, which won last year’s Un Certain Regard in Cannes and Under the Milky Way’s Russian feature, The Student.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Subjects: Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, Marisa Tomei (voice), Vincent D’Onofrio (voice)
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Veteran filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer has long been interested in architecture and urban space. He picked up the 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by writer and activist Jane Jacobs a half-dozen years ago while walking along Bleecker Street in New York.
“Her message was extraordinary and made me understand what a city is,” said Tyrnauer. “The sum of a city is its buildings and roads etc. It’s a collection of human interactions. It’s an ecology.”
Citizen Jane is a “tale of what can happen when engaged citizens fight the power for the sake of a better world.” Arguably no one did more to shape our understanding of the modern American city than Jane Jacobs, the visionary activist and writer who fought to preserve urban communities in the face of destructive development projects. Director Matt Tyranuer focuses on Jacobs’ 1960s showdown with ruthless construction kingpin Robert Moses over his plan to raze lower Manhattan to make way for a highway, a dramatic struggle over the very soul of the neighborhood.
“I wanted to make a movie that could [be seen] by the general audience rather than something that would only work for architecture graduate students,” said Tyrnauer whose 2009 doc Valentino: The Last Emperor grossed over $1.75M at the box office. “We felt if we told people we’re making an urban planning movie, people’s eyes would glaze over. She spoke truth to power. Her chief was Robert Moses, one of the most powerful unelected officials in American history, but she [and her allies] took him down late in his career. We tell that story…”
Funding for Citizen Jane came from the Ford, Rockefeller and Knight Foundations with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Tyrnauer wanted to make sure the NEA received credit here since it is, as he noted, “being threatened right now.”
Tyrnauer connected with Marisa Tomei through a mutual friend about giving voice to Jane Roberts’ work. There are only limited interviews from the author/activist who died in 2006. Vincent D’Onofrio to lends his voice for Robert Moses. Citizen Jane: Battle For the City took about three years to complete.
“The challenges about making a film about someone who isn’t a household name and topics like urban planning and activism, is that people are pessimistic,” said Tyrnauer. “But right out of the box, we sold out every festival show — and fingers crossed — things will be that way in theaters.”
Continuing he added: “When making this, we could never have imagined a Trump presidency. We played the film two days after the election. People were morose, but they came back to me and said it was the ‘happiest they’ve been in the past 48 hours.’ Even if you’re not passionate about urban planning, this movie has a universal message about speaking truth to power.”
Sundance Selects will open Citizen Jane in limited release in theaters this weekend as well as on-demand platforms.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
Director: Lydia Tenaglia
Subjects: Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, Martha Stewart
Distributor: The Orchard
Distributor The Orchard saw documentary Jeremiah Tower just ahead of its Tribeca Film Festival debut last year. The company picked up theatrical rights to the doc by Lydia Tenaglia, who is a producer of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, from CNN Films.
“We have a strong relationship with CNN,” said The Orchard EVP Paul Davidson. “A lot of people aren’t aware of him and his contribution to the food landscape in America, but he [is a central figure] in the concept of local food. He’s one of the first to open up the kitchen and allow customers to see and interact with people making their food.”
The feature explores the life of Jeremiah Tower, one of the most controversial and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy. Tower began his career at the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1972, becoming a pioneering figure in the emerging California cuisine movement. After leaving Chez Panisse, due in part to a famously contentious relationship with founder Alice Waters, Tower went on to launch his own legendary Stars Restaurant in San Francisco. Stars was an overnight sensation and soon became one of America’s top-grossing U.S. restaurants. After several years, Tower mysteriously walked away from Stars and then disappeared from the scene for nearly two decades, only to resurface in the most unlikely of places: New York City’s fabled but troubled Tavern on the Green. There, he launched a journey of self-discovery familiar to anyone who has ever imagined themselves to be an artist.
“People like Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain recognize his contributions,” said Davidson. “There are foodies everywhere who are passionate about food and the personalities behind these creations, so in addition to early tastemaker screenings, we are socializing and sharing the movie with food bloggers and groups.”
As The Orchard opens Jeremiah Tower this weekend and in the coming weeks in additional markets, it is soliciting locally regarded chefs to engage with audiences. Tower, Tenaglia and Bourdain will take part in conversations in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.
Davidson said that it has had success with releasing culturally-centered documentaries this time of the year. The Orchard released Dior and I in April, 2015 grossing just over $1M, while last year it opened The Music of Strangers in June, taking in over $1.17M. Food docs have shown traction at the box office. Magnolia’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012) cumed over $2.5M. A Place at the Table (also Magnolia), which tackles hunger, took in a comparatively smaller $231K.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent will open at the Landmark in L.A. and Sunshine in New York this weekend, with Bay Area locations and other cities including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas set for the following week. The Orchard has another 100 runs in place through May and June. CNN Films will broadcast the doc following its theatrical run.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Director-writer: Juho Kuosmanen
Writer: Mikko Myllylahti
Cast: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Esko Barquero, Joonas Saartamo
Last year, Mubi descended on Cannes with 14 of their staff in order to find films that would fit for their model of tailored theatrical windows, followed by their mainstay subscription on-demand service. The company saw a broad section of work throughout the festival’s various main slate and sidebars, and honed in on The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which ended up taking the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.
“Twenty minutes into the film, we really fell in love with it,” said Mubi CEO Efe Cakarel. “We bought the film before it started to gain a lot of critical recognition at the festival. It was under the radar, but it is a wonderful little film from Finland from first time director on 16mm black and white — and it won Un Certain Regard.”
The film revolves around the true story of Olli Mäki, the famous Finnish boxer who had a shot at the 1962 World Featherweight title. Immensely talented and equally modest, Olli’s small town life is transformed when he is swept into national stardom and suddenly regarded as a symbol of his country. There’s only one problem: Olli has just fallen in love. Inside of the ring, it’s Finland vs. the USA, but outside, boxing and romance become unlikely adversaries vying for Olli’s attention.
“We are a subscription-based video-on-demand service like Netflix,” explained Cakarel. “Like them we saw a lot of value in buying all rights for films and releasing them, but unlike others, we really do care about the theatrical window. It aligns with our philosophy to make it ‘easy to watch films.’”
Mubi is opening Olli Mäki simultaneously in the U.K., where it also has rights, as well as stateside. The company said by doing so, they hope to “leverage” all social media taking place in the lead-up to this weekend.
“The best way to market a film these days is letting other people do it for you,” added Cakarel. “The most effective messaging aren’t big ads on a subway — which we do also have — but having something go viral in one of our screenings at advance word of mouth screenings. That happened at an event we did at MoMA last week.”
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is opening at Lincoln Plaza and Angelika Film Center in New York as well as the Royal Theatre in Los Angeles Friday. It will expand to Orange County the following week, followed by additional markets in the Bay Area, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle and St. Louis May 5 with further rollouts going into early June.
Added Cakarel: “It’s the first film we’re releasing in a major way. We’re not a traditional distributor but we’re learning. It requires a lot of resources. We’re excited to have it come out and we’re excited to be in the best venues in those cities.”
Director-writer: Kirill Serebrennikov
Writer: Marius von Mayenburg
Cast: Pyotr Skvortsov, Aleksandra Revenko, Viktoriya Isakova, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Anton Vasilev
Distributor: Under the Milky Way
Founded in 2010, distributor Under the Milky Way has concentrated its efforts in the digital space, but more recently in the U.S. has taken on theatrical as a premium component for a later non-theatrical platforms.
“For us, the idea of going through a theatrical release is to create further value around a film,” said the company’s Pierre-Alexandre Labelle. “[We achieve] a wider reach than what we might have received with only a digital release. For The Student, we hired outside PR and have targeted foreign film aficionados and others who are attracted to culturally driven content.”
The Student centers on Veniamin, a high school student who recently has become a fervent Christian, reciting Bible passages from heart for seemingly every occasion. He is convinced that the world has been lost to evil, and begins to challenge the morals and beliefs of the adults around him. When the school psychologist teaches sex-ed using condoms on carrots, he tears off his clothes to rail against fornication. Neither his mother, an Orthodox priest, nor the principal can discipline the increasingly vehement evangelist. His next steps, attempting miracles and smiting sinners.
The Student screened last year in Cannes in Un Certain Regard and later in Toronto where Under the Milky Way picked up the title.
“The Student depicts Russian society today and that’s very interesting,” added Labelle. “We’re targeting main markets in L.A. and New York — but especially New York — because it seems be a best fit there.”
Aside from The Student, Under the Milky Way is releasing French feature Tomorrow in New York and L.A. following a bow last week in San Francisco where it grossed over $7K in one location over the weekend.