So far, 2017 has not produced many Specialty box office stars, though this weekend’s wave may signal renewed momentum. Laura Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2015 for Citizenfour, returns with Risk. The feature is much different from the rendering she gave as a sneak at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Neon is releasing the title in 30 locations Friday. Grasshopper Film’s Last Men In Aleppo may have a slower start, though it shouldn’t. The film, which captures the tragedy in Aleppo, won the Best World Documentary prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
New narratives this weekend boast some high-profile stars. The Orchard will reach a milestone with its biggest ever bow: The Dinner, starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall. Naomi Watts, Elle Fanning and Susan Sarandon are featured in TWC’s 3 Generations. A24 is opening The Lovers by Azazel Jacobs starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, and the Duplass brothers-produced Take Me will have a limited theatrical run this weekend. Also opening this weekend in limited release is IFC Films’ drama Chuck starring Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts and Ron Perlman.
Director: Laura Poitras
Subjects: Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison, Jacob Applebaum
Documentary feature Risk from Oscar-winner Laura Poitras is the second release for distribution newcomer Neon, following sci-fi action title Colossal (currently at over $2M in theaters). Neon president Tom Quinn released Poitras’ previous feature Citizenfour at his previous label RADiUS in 2014. That film took Best Documentary at the Oscars and grossed just over $2.8M at the box office.
Filmed over six years, Risk is a complex and volatile character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story with unprecedented access, Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle.
“Everyone who you see in this film has taken enormous personal risks in the work they do,” said Poitras at a pre-release screening earlier in the week at the Whitney Museum in New York. “Julian and Wikileaks have angered not just the U.S. government but pretty much every government on the planet, and the title basically embodies that. It also embodies me personally. There are tensions you see in the film because the stakes are so high for the people depicted.”
Poitras began filming Assange and Wikileaks in 2011. The feature screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but two weeks later, harassment allegations against one of the film’s subjects, Jacob Applebaum came to light, forcing Poitras to re-evaluate the project.
“I knew immediately afterward I’d have to either walk away from this film or go back and change it,” she said. “I had to reveal things about myself and my involvement with Jake. I couldn’t avoid either of them. This was a shift in the film…It’s not like this is new that there are f*cked up gender politics in social movements. It’s not about Jake and Julian [per se], but let’s have a conversation about how people are acting.”
Citizenfour subject Edward Snowden also makes an appearance in the film. Assange and fellow Wikileaks collaborator Sarah Harrison were instrumental in getting Snowden to Russia from Hong Kong, which is covered at length in Citizenfour. “I had to put that into the film. When Snowden reached out to me I had to deal with top secret documents and that created tensions between me and Wikileaks…Julian and Sarah Harrison took great personal cost to get him on the plane to asylum. I felt it was important that be a part of the film.”
Poitras said during the talk at the Whitney that tensions with Assange had rendered an end to their communication. The Wikileaks founder is also, apparently, against the release of Risk. “He said the film is a severe threat to his freedom and that he had to treat it accordingly,” said Poitras.
Neon will open Risk at IFC Center and the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn in New York as well as the Arclight Hollywood and Laemmle Monica in L.A. as well as in Washington, D.C., the Bay Area, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago and other markets totaling about 35 locations. It will expand further throughout the month.
Last Men In Aleppo
Director: Feras Fayyad
Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Documentary Last Men In Aleppo won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in addition to other nods at Full Frame, Sarasota and CPH: Dox.
The film follows the efforts of the internationally recognized White Helmets, an organization comprised of ordinary citizens who are the first to rush towards military strikes and attacks in the hope of saving lives. Incorporating moments of both heart-pounding suspense and improbable beauty, the documentary draws viewers into the lives of three of its founders – Khaled, Subhi, and Mahmoud – as they grapple with the chaos around them and struggle with an ever-present dilemma: do they flee or stay and fight for their country.
Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad first encountered the White Helmets in 2013 in Syria’s besieged largest city, Aleppo. A barrel bomb had just been dropped and a group ran toward it in an effort to save civilians. Shortly afterward, another one dropped and many White Helmets lost their lives. “These are people who volunteer to risk their lives for their families and neighborhood. I was [drawn by their willingness] to turn loss into motivation,” commented Fayyad. “In 2014 I started working with the Aleppo Media Center, which [has ties] to international media like CNN, BBC and others. We started shooting in 2014 and by 2016, the city was under complete siege.”
Fayyad told the White Helmets that capturing the atrocities in Aleppo would not only be important share with media organizations outside Syria, but to also serve as a historical document as well as evidence in the future. “I told them that you need somebody to record this moment,” he explained. “They trust that when people see this evidence, they’ll be able to prosecute those responsible in the future.”
Initially, Fayyad had difficulty finding the €1,000 needed for the type of camera he needed. After kicking in some of his own money and with the hep of international organizations including Danish group, International Media Support (IMS), he raised €2,000.
“I put together a trailer in Copenhagen and many people saw it and then more organizations gave money,” added Fayyad. “The [wider media] can look at Syria as a business and governments only pay attention to ISIS and the refugees. They aren’t looking at the humanity of the majority of people who live there.”
Grasshopper Film opened Last Men In Aleppo Wednesday, May 3 in New York at the Metrograph and will bow at Laemmle Music Hall in L.A. May 18 with more cities added around the country in the coming weeks.
Director-writer: Oren Moverman
Writer: Herman Koch (novel)
Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer
Distributor: The Orchard
Distributor The Orchard read the script for The Dinner about a year-and-a-half ago, but came on board at last year’s Cannes Film Festival after viewing some footage. The company then sweetened an earlier proposal to acquire the film, starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Steve Coogan.
“We made another off that was more than before and locked up North America,” said The Orchard’s Paul Davidson. “We had read the script Oren had written [before we acquired it]. He had written it for Cate Blanchett to direct, but then Oren directed.”
Based on Herman Koch’s international bestselling novel, Oren Moverman’s The Dinner is a dark psychological thriller about a fierce showdown between two couples during the course of an ornately prepared meal at a fancy restaurant.
“The book is an international best seller,” noted Davidson. “The success of that book has driven films internationally, but none have been done in English. This is our largest release to date, so this marks a milestone. It’s exciting for us.”
The company is pushing the film on a number of fronts including the publisher of Koch’s book on a re-release. The Orchard has also worked with groups focused on mental illness, while cast members have been making their rounds with national press. “It’s a great weekend for counter-programming,” added Davidson. “This is the only [new] moderate-size release this weekend [going up against] Guardians Of the Galaxy, which will appeal to an adult audience looking for something different. Next week is also a slow one for moderate-sized release.”
The Orchard will take The Dinner to 510 theaters across North America. It may add locations next weekend. “Sometimes you can stick to a certain space and do better ultimately at the box office than had you gone wider,” said Davidson. “[Our release] Hunt For the Wilderpeople was never in more than 200 theaters but grossed more over time than films that had been in over 600 [locations].” Released in June, 2016, Hunt For the Wilderpeople grossed over $5.2M in the U.S. box office.
Director-writer: Gaby Dellal
Writer: Nikole Beckwith
Cast: Naomi Watts, Elle Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Linda Emond, Antonio Ortiz, Andrew Polk, Tessa Albertson
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
TWC went to bat with the MPAA to change its initial R-rating for its drama, 3 Generations, soliciting the help of GLAAD, which wrote an open letter of support for the film, which centers on a trans youth. The group gathered nearly 35,000 signatures through a change.org petition, which it launched the week prior. The efforts paid off, the MPAA gave the title a PG-13.
“It’s organizations such as GLAAD, the ones that don’t shy away from the difficult conversations, that are the reason we are able to move this country forward and really shift the cultural conversations,” said Harvey Weinstein in a statement following the rating change. “I spoke with Joan Graves at MPAA extensively on this and I am thrilled that we came to a solution that maintains the integrity of this crucial film while making it accessible to its intended audience.”
3 Generations follows Ray (Elle Fanning), a teenager who has struggled with the body assigned to him at birth and is determined to start transitioning. His single mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) must track down Ray’s biological father (Tate Donovan) to get his legal consent to allow Ray’s transition. Dolly (Susan Sarandon), Ray’s lesbian grandmother, is having a hard time accepting that she now has a grandson.
“Harvey and the team here believe this is an incredibly powerful movie in the vein of Bully ($4.1M) and The Imitation Game ($91.1M), both of which deal with powerful issues,” said TWC’s David Glasser. “It is extremely timely in the world to day and I think audiences will like it because it combines real-life issues with a star-studded cast.”
In addition to its efforts to change the film’s rating, which caught press attention, the company has been using both traditional media buys and a grassroots campaign in the lead-up to 3 Generations’ release this weekend.
The title will open in limited runs in New York and Los Angeles Friday and will expand to more markets May 12.
Director-writer: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, Lesley Fera, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Producer Ben LeClair was introduced to filmmaker Azazel Jacobs through fellow The Lovers producer Chris Stinson over the holiday season in 2015. After reading the script and boarding the project as a producer, LeClair and the initial filmmaking team brought the script over to A24.
“I was working with [A24] on another film, Woodshock, which is coming out later this year,” said LeClair. “They were looking to be more active in production. This is their second movie to fully finance — Moonlight being the first.”
The Lovers centers on Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) who are a long-married and completely dispassionate husband and wife. Both are in the midst of serious affairs and are increasingly committed to their new partners. But on the brink of officially calling it quits, a spark between them suddenly and unexpectedly reignites, leading them into an impulsive romance that forces them to navigate the hilarious complications of “cheating” on their respective lovers.
“A24 was really supportive from the beginning and were adamant Azazel make the film with the cast he envisioned,” said LeClair. “Debra signed on first. She was a fan of [Jacobs’] Terri (2011) and they developed a rapport over the years.”
Casting agent Nicole Arbusto spearheaded the rest of the cast, which came together fairly easily, according to LeClair. “We weren’t trying to force anything,” he said. “We’ve never had this kind of freedom in casting before. Typically, the financier is telling you that you need a certain kind of cast, but they said to get people [that we’re excited for]. You talk about filmmaker freedom — everyone wants that, and in this case, it was the case.”
The Lovers shot over 23 days in Santa Clarita, CA last May and debuted at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, at a venue only steps from the Lower Manhattan neighborhood where Jacobs grew up.
A24 will open The Lovers in two theaters each in New York and Los Angeles ahead of a traditional platform release. Added LeClair: “Azazel is always after authenticity and the performances in the film reflect that. It’s all him and I think A24 is responding to that originality of his work.”
Director: Pat Healy
Writer: Mike Makowsky
Cast: Taylor Schilling , Pat Healy, Alycia Delmore, Jim O’Heir, Mark Kelly
Distributor: The Orchard
The Duplass brothers financed Take Me, with a limited theatrical run ahead in conjunction with its digital/ITunes availability, which began Tuesday. Take Me is a part of a first look agreement Mark and Jay Duplass have with Netflix (it will be available through the streaming service later). Mel Eslyn, who works with the Duplasses on their slate, had met filmmaker Pat Healy on the festival circuit. Eslyn had been taking some time off when a script landed in her email.
“I saw it and read it. I said to Jay, ‘let’s do it.’ Duplass financed it not knowing if it would be a right fit for Netflix and The Orchard but then they decided to take it under our first look deal.”
The film centers on Ray who is in the boutique simulated abduction business. An understandably threadbare market, he jumps at the chance when a mysterious caller contracts him for a weekend kidnapping with a handsome payday. But the job isn’t all that it seems.
Writer Mike Makowsky had done a short film with Pat Healy. He also did this script and gave it to him, but after Pat said he wanted to do it, [Makowsky] said, ‘no.’ But after they sent it to the [Duplass brothers] he said, ‘yes.’ The script was good to begin with, but we did spend some time putting more work into it.”
The Duplasses used connections to tap cast for Take Me, which shot over 18 days in Los Angeles and the mountain community of Crestline.
“Taylor Schilling was our first choice and Pat agreed,” said Eslyn. “Mark called Taylor and up and she read it, and Alycia Delmore is a friend of ours who played Mark’s wife in Humpday. Casting was pretty easy. Everyone attached to this was really just a phone call away.”