Oscar-nominee Matthew Heineman’s Sundance debut City of Ghosts from Amazon Studios/IFC Films is riding a critical and media wave as it heads out to theaters in New York this weekend ahead of other cities throughout summer and into fall. A24’s A Ghost Story also is opening, though all similarities end with the titles. Directed by David Lowery and starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, A Ghost Story bows in four New York and L.A. locations. China Lion is opening war drama Our Time Will Come targeting first-language Chinese speakers on this side of the Pacific in 17 theaters Friday, while Argot Pictures is launching doc Swim Team on both coasts. Additional limited releases this weekend include Parade Deck Films’ Superpowers and Vertical Entertainment’s Undercover Grandpa.

Amazon Studios/IFC Films

City of Ghosts
Director: Matthew Heineman
Distributor: Amazon Studios/IFC Films/A&E Indie Films

Oscar buzz will likely mount as Academy Award-nominee Matthew Heineman’s latest, City of Ghosts, slowly rolls out to theaters into fall. The film goes inside one of the world’s most enduring flashpoints, Raqqa, Syria, which has made headlines recently as the fight against ISIS reaches a critical stage.

City of Ghosts follows the journey of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014. With astonishing, deeply personal access, this is the story of a brave group of citizen journalists as they face the realities of life undercover, on the run, and in exile, risking their lives to stand up against one of the greatest evils in the world today.

“I think it’s coming at a critical time. Hopefully some of the attention in the movie can help people understand the situation,” said Amazon Studios head of Marketing and Distribution, Bob Berney. “This gets down to the personal and individual tragedies as well as the heroism that is happening there. [Heineman] was able to use the footage the [subjects] took and he filmed them. You really get to know these [citizen journalists]. This puts you in their situation, making it personal.”

Berney said documentary releases are generally driven by reviews. City of Ghosts had a high-profile position this week in The New York Times, featuring one of the subjects in the film. The title also has a 100% on RT as of Friday afternoon.

“I feel like this can [thrive] going into summer as counter-programming,” noted Berney. “But it also set the movie up for awards season. If a doc can open in summer and play through, it creates great awareness ahead of the fray. It’s still a good time to open a serious film.”

IFC Films is partnering with the title’s theatrical release, opening City of Ghosts at Lincoln Plaza and IFC Center Friday. Next week, it will bow at the Landmark and Arclight in L.A. as well as locations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Added Berney: “I think the word-of-mouth will be beneficial [to its release] along with the reviews. You come out wanting to talk about it.”

A24

A Ghost Story
Director-writer: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Distributor: A24

Fantasy-romance A Ghost Story reunites filmmaker David Lowery with Casey Affleck and Roony Mara who starred in his 2013 feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Lowery showed his producers James Johnston and Toby Halbrooks an image of a ghost, which sparked the idea for the film, which opens this weekend.

“He had these very elaborate photos,” said Halbrooks. “We knew that if we could pull it off and not make it totally laughable, it would be something very special.”

In the film, Affleck plays a recently deceased, white-sheet ghost who returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife (Mara), only to find that in his spectral state, he has become unstuck in time. He is forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away. Increasingly unmoored, the ghost embarks on a cosmic journey through memory and history, confronting life’s ineffable questions and the enormity of existence.

“It was ‘scrappy,’” said Halbrooks referring to A Ghost Story’s production, which was by design much more low-scale than previous project Pete’s Dragon. “It had been nearly a year since David had been behind the camera. He was hankering to do something and wanted to do something that nobody could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to. We decided to be bold and do whatever the hell we wanted.”

Lowery along with the producers and a few individuals put up the money for A Ghost Story. The team decided to do it under-the-radar, shooting the film in Dallas, mid-June through mid-July with some significant pick-ups in August.

“We thought [Affleck and Mara] would be perfect to bring on board,” said Halbrooks. “They were an obvious match. There was something magical about building an alternative universe in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Plus this was a small time commitment. They were on [board] right away.”

A24 picked up A Ghost Story ahead of its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January. The company has organized and designed a unique marketing experience in the form of a storefront in Manhattan’s Chinatown dubbed Ghost Store.

“It’s a fun, playful, but also wonderfully weird esoteric art project, which reflects the movie,” said Halbrooks about the pop-up store. “The movie is not nearly as [morose] as people might think.”

A Ghost Story will bow at the Sunshine and AMC Lincoln Square in New York as well as the Landmark and Arclight in L.A. Friday. It will add runs July 14 and July 21 ahead of going nationwide July 28.

China Lion

Our Time Will Come
Director: Ann Hui
Writer: He Jiping
Cast: Eddie Peng Yuyan, Zhou Xun, Wallace Huo Chienhwa, Guo Tao, Huang Zhizhong, Jiang Wenli, Tony Leung, Ivana Wong, Ray Lui, Deanie Ip
Distributor: China Lion

Distributor China Lion picked up war drama Our Time Will Come ahead of Cannes from Distribution Workshop, which had shown the company early footage of the title. The feature is set in Hong Kong, which was also a plus for China Lion. “With the 20th Anniversary of the Hong Kong transfer of sovereignty, the timing was right for a lush historical epic, which we knew [director Ann Hui] would deliver,” commented China Lion’s Robert Lundberg. “The cast hits Mainland, Taiwanese and Hong Kong audiences equally, which we hope realizes a broad Greater China audience turnout.”

The film is set during Japanese occupation in 1941. The anti-Japanese Dongjiang guerrilla unit is tasked with rescuing cultural figures and extracting them from the besieged city. Primary school teacher, Fang Lan (Zhou Xun) and her mother (Deanie Ip) are trying to live out this difficult period in a small run-down flat in Wanchai. After the schools are shut down, Lan unwittingly finds herself embroiled in the guerrillas’ mission to save a famous novelist. In the process, she meets Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng), the intrepid sharpshooter captain of the guerrillas’ Urban and Firearms unit. Taking notice of Lan’s calm, intelligent nature, Blackie recruits her to join the guerrillas. Worried for her daughter’s safety, Lan’s mother volunteers to take Lan’s place as a courier, only to be arrested on the job. To save her mother, Lan is forced to turn to a friend, who now works for the Japanese…

“We’re generally very selective about our historical dramas; our audience gravitates more towards contemporary portrayals so we have to make sure we have a very special film on our hands for this genre,” noted Lundberg.  “Thankfully, Ann never disappoints.  We’ve gotten universal positive reviews out of the trades after the Shanghai Film Festival and are excited to see what North American critics will say about it. The star power of Eddie Peng, Zhou Xun and Wallace Huo, along with notable supporting cast including Ivana Wong, Tony Leung and Deanie Ip, only adds to this great piece. “

Our Time Will Come opened July 1 in Mainland China, coinciding with the anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong two decades ago. China Lion said the feature had “great word of mouth” there and opened third overall despite “having 30% fewer showtimes than the number 2 competition Chinese film” and less than 50% fewer than the number 1 film, Transformers.

Speaking broadly about its slate through the rest of summer, China Lion is eyeing one or two releases before gearing up in September for additional roll-outs. Added Lundberg: “Our summer slate is limited, as we’re looking for only those films that could be good counter-programming to popular Hollywood fare like Our Time Will Come.”

Our Time Will Come opens in 17 theaters Friday, concentrating on first-language Chinese speakers. China Lion will do a slow roll-out to other audiences at select locations, based on response.

Argot Pictures

Swim Team
Director: Lara Stolman
Distributor: Argot Pictures

Argot Pictures’ Jim Browne met filmmaker Lara Stolman at the Independent Filmmaker Project’s IFP Week last fall when the two spoke about Stolman’s latest project, Swim Team. “We did one of those ’speed-dating’ meetings,” said Browne. “I then saw it at Doc NYC. It’s a smartly made film.”

The feature documentary chronicles the rise of a competitive swim team made up of teenagers on the autism spectrum. Based in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the cast of Swim Team is largely Latino and Asian, minorities that are underrepresented in competitive swimming and underserved in autism intervention and education. The film follows three of the team’s star athletes, boys on the cusp of adulthood as they face a future of exclusion and dependence. But everything changes when they come together as a team with parent coaches who train them with high expectations and zero pity.

“We did [another autism film], Best Kept Secret, a couple years ago,” said Browne. “That was much more of a challenge in terms of how to engage audiences. Swim Team is a much more hopeful story about the relationships these kids have with their coach. I thought based on that, there was a lot more potential to get it a life theatrically and engage audiences.”

Argot Pictures is working with a number of related organizations like Autism Speaks as well as the YMCA to spread the word. Additionally, in its first screenings in New York and Los Angeles, Swim Team will show in “sensory friendly screenings,” allowing viewers with autism to experience the film. Observed Browne: “If they need to talk during the screenings or move around, it’s OK.” Stolman will take part in Q&As this weekend accompanied by various organizations.

Swim Team is opening at IFC Center and the Laemmle Monica in New York and L.A., respectively. The title is booked into a dozen markets so far, but the company is “expecting a lot more to come, especially with sensory sensitive showings.” Swim Team will also be available on POV October 2.