This is a very busy weekend for Specialty theatrical debuts. With well over a dozen new titles heading onto the big screen starting Friday, Phase One of awards season is clearly in full swing, with one insider in New York commenting this week, “Apparently the theatrical business is still healthy.” In the debut mix is Sony Pictures Classics’ Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House starring Liam Neeson and Diane Lane in a story about Watergate’s Deep Throat, told from his POV. The late Harry Dean Stanton stars in Lucky, the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch, which will bow in New York and L.A. via Magnolia. IFC Films is opening Rory Kennedy’s latest doc Catch Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton day and date, while on the Bollywood side, FIP is launching Judwaa 2 in 192 North American theaters. And the Film Arcade is opening doc The Pathological Optimist about Andrew Wakefield, the man at the center of the controversial 2016 film Vaxxed, which was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Additional limited releases include Screen Media’s Literally, Right Before Aaron with Justin Long, The Orchard’s thriller Super Dark Times and Freestyle Digital Media’s Generational Sins. Abramorama is opening Pearl Jam doc Let’s Play Two, which had pre-sold $15K in tickets by Thursday. Pure Flix is opening A Question of Faith with 661 runs, and Freestyle Releasing is opening horror Don’t Sleep. Also bowing is Newcity/Chicago Film Project’s Signature Move at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The distributor said the title had $13K in pre-sales as of earlier this week.

Sony Pictures Classics

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Director-writer: Peter Landesman
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn, Michael C. Hall, Tom Sizemore, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ike Barinholtz, Bruce Greenwood, Brian D’Arcy James, Kate Walsh, Noah Wyle, Maika Monroe
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Classics picked up historical-drama Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House while the project was still in the editing stage. Many on the film’s producing team including Ridley Scott, Peter Guber and Marc Butan have worked with SPC previously.

“We had been tracking the film for a long time,” said SPC co-president Michael Barker. “We felt that considering everything that’s going on in the United States right now, there’s an appropriateness to this film.”

The title centers on Deep Throat, the nickname given to the notorious whistleblower for one of the greatest scandals of all time, Watergate. The true identity of the secret informant remained a mystery and source of much public curiosity and speculation for more than 30 years. That is until, in 2005, special agent Mark Felt shockingly revealed himself as the tipster. This unbelievable true story chronicles the personal and professional life of the brilliant and uncompromising Felt, who risked and ultimately sacrificed everything – his family, his career, his freedom – in the name of justice.

“The film is very much like what [director] Peter Landesman has said it is: ‘Looking through the key hole’ from Mark Felt’s perspective,” said Barker. “That makes it feel very different from any other past movie on this subject.”

Appropriately, SPC hosted a major event recently in the center of where the 1970s scandal took place, Washington, D.C., but the company has played the film to a number of “opinion-maker” screenings in major cities throughout the U.S. following its World Premiere in Toronto earlier this month.

“We feel there’s a real desire on the part of older audiences who lived through this to see this movie as well as younger audiences to experience what happened,” added Barker. “We feel this film has tremendous commercial potential.”

SPC will open Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House in several New York and Los Angeles locations today, followed by Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Chicago the following week. It will then head to about a dozen cities with further expansions planned throughout October and into November.

Magnolia Pictures

Lucky
Director: John Carroll Lynch
Writers: Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley, Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

John Carroll Lynch was originally slated to be in Lucky as an actor but took on director duties after the original helmer dropped out, according to Greg Gilreath, a producer of the film which stars the late Harry Dean Stanton along with David Lynch, Ron Livingston and Ed Begley, Jr. Gilreath’s production outfit, Divide/Conquer boarded the project in March, 2016, joining Superlative Films, which was involved earlier on. Writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja wrote the feature with Stanton in mind.

Lucky follows the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old atheist and the quirky characters that inhabit his off the map desert town. Having outlived and out smoked all of his contemporaries, the fiercely independent Lucky finds himself at the precipice of life, thrust into a journey of self exploration, leading towards that which is so often unattainable: enlightenment. Acclaimed character actor John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut is at once a love letter to the life and career of Harry Dean Stanton and a meditation on mortality, loneliness, spirituality, and human connection.

“There was a sense of urgency with this because all of these elements came together,” explained Gilreath. “David Lynch said he had two days at one point, and we had [received] an enthusiastic ‘yes’ from Harry. We wanted to get him while he was into the idea. Those two driving pieces moved the train. It was a unique scenario, but with those two, you can really move the needle.”

Lucky shot for 18 days in the L.A. area with exteriors picked up in Santa Clarita and outside of Phoenix. An experienced team was assembled despite the tight budget. “It’s a crap shoot with low-budget movies,” said Gilreath. “Sometimes you have inexperienced people, sometimes it’s a mix. With Lucky, we had a very experienced crew who felt a connection to the project. Our D.P. Tim Shurstedt is a veteran and he brought in a lot of guys who had just finished shooting Silicon Valley.”

The film debuted at the SXSW Film Festival in March. Magnolia Pictures came on following the festival. “We’ve known [Magnolia exec] John von Thaden for years,” said Gilreath. “We decided to go with them over other options. They know how to treat a film like this with proper messaging and a proper release.”

Magnolia Pictures is opening Lucky at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark in L.A. as well as in New York at BAM, Lincoln Plaza and the Quad Cinemas. The title will head to 17 additional cities the following week, before going wider around the country throughout October and into November.

IFC Films

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
Director: Rory Kennedy
Writers: Mark Bailey, Jack Youngelson
Subjects: Laird Hamilton, Gabrielle Reece
Distributor: IFC Films

Producer Paul Speaker organized a lunch between doc filmmaker Rory Kennedy and producer Mark Bailey with professional “big wave” surfer Laird Hamilton in the spring of 2015. Through that initial conversation came a new documentary project, which developed over the course of that summer.

“I’ve always been in awe of what they do,” said Kennedy about big wave surfers. “For this, I was less interested in doing a typical surfer doc, but much more interested in going into his personal story.”

The film is an up-close personal portrait of Laird Hamilton, one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time. Amongst the surf community, he is also one of the most controversial figures, an innovator who has revolutionized the sport often to the dismay of purists. Take Every Wave traces Hamilton’s journey, from his rebellious childhood in Hawaii to his fearless first forays into surfing to his relentless pursuit of ever-bigger waves, a quest that ultimately led him to conquer what’s been called “the heaviest wave ever ridden.”

“There are few athletes who have impacted their sport or have been as dominant of a figure as Laird has,” explained Bailey. “As Rory was getting to know his narrative, she also found that he’s very multifaceted and interesting.”

On most projects, Kennedy and her filmmaking team have worked directly with broadcasters that have distribution and financing built in, but Take Every Wave was underwritten privately with the idea that the title would be sold. Over the 15 month shooting process, Hamilton gave the filmmakers access to his contacts and gave Kennedy control.

“Laird proved early on in being completely open. He handed over his story and Rolodex so Rory could do what she wanted to do,” said Bailey. “You never know when doing a film on a subject how involved they’ll want to be and how the issues of creative control [will play out]. He was clear from the beginning this was hers to tell and he trusted her.”

Take Every Wave debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. IFC Films picked up the title in spring in part beating out competitors with an agreement for a theatrical run. “We made it for the big screen,” said Kennedy. “Others weren’t offering that. We hope people will see the big waves on the big screen, surrounded by the sounds of the ocean.”

Bailey and Kennedy noted that the film had beach screenings at the Maui Film Festival as well as the Newport Film Festival, while Alec Baldwin moderated a talk in Montauk after a screening of the feature during the Hamptons Film Festival’s summer doc series.

IFC Films is opening Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton day and date with an initial limited theatrical run.

FIP

Judwaa 2
Director: David Dhawan
Writer: Yunus Sajawal
Cast: Varun Dhawan, Jacqueline Fernandez, Taapsee Pannu, and Anupam Kher
Distributor: FIP

Frequent Bollywood distributor Fox Stars Studios India boarded Judwaa 2 before it shot. The company was looking for comedy for its 2017 release slate, and director David Dhawan, “Has delivered [many] commercial comedy blockbusters in the last 20 years,” according to FIP exec Rohit Sharma.

Judea 2 follows twin brothers who are born to an “honest businessman” but are separated at birth when their father exposes a smuggling racket and a king pin. One of the brothers is thought to be dead but only resurfaces stronger after living life on the streets to reunite with his family over a sequence of events and twist of fate. Genetically bound by reflexes both the brother’s lives interlink in strange ways and a comedy of errors. They eventually come together to destroy the smuggling nexus and save their family from a downfall that awaits them.

“The film is reboot of the 1997 blockbuster Judwaa which featured Salman Khan and was directed by David Dhawan and produced by Sajid Nadiadwala,” said Sharma. “This time around, there’s the same producer and director with his son Varun Dhawan — playing a double role. Varun is one of the leading younger stars [in India] and he appeals to audiences across all age groups… The original has great recall value and the director and producer felt that time was right to target the younger audience with this film.”

Judwaa 2 is being billed as a “family comedy” targeted primarily to the South Asian audience. Varun Dhawan starred in FIP’s March release, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, which grossed $2M in the North American box office. FIP is going for his core fans for Judwaa 2.

FIP is opening the title in 192 theaters in North America, coinciding with the feature’s release in India and 46 other countries, totaling about 4,000 theaters, according to the distributor.

The Film Arcade

The Pathological Optimist
Director: Miranda Bailey
Subject: Andrew Wakefield
Distributor: The Film Arcade

Andrew Wakefield made news last year when his controversial documentary, Vaxxed: From Cover Up to Controversy, was programmed at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was then pulled from the line-up. Wakefield had also been stripped of his medical license for suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease and autism.

About the time filmmaker Miranda Bailey finished her first doc Greenly, she and producer Marc Lesser began exploring the vaccine issue. They had heard of the scandal and looked into it. “I read Paul Offit’s book Austim’s False Profits, which was quite intriguing,” explained Bailey. “Like almost all documentaries we weren’t really sure of our style or angle until after a few years of shooting and seeing what we could get access to.”

The Pathological Optimist is a character study of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, one of 13 co-authors of a notorious 1998 paper in the UK medical Journal The Lancet, but who became the very public face of what has come to be known as The Anti-Vaccination Movement. An expat from Britain who lives in Austin, Texas, Wakefield allowed Miranda Bailey and her team to follow him and his family for five years beginning in 2011 as he fought a defamation battle in the courts against the British Medical Journal and journalist Brian Deer.

Initially, Wakefield did not want Bailey and Lesser to tell his story, but in late 2010, the duo decided to do a documentary regardless. Commented Bailey: “So at one time we considered the film to be ‘Chasing Andrew Wakefield.’ We interviewed people who knew him and a parent whose son was a patient of his and we showed up at events where he was speaking. But then the British Medical Journals came out and Wakefield ended up on Anderson Cooper so we gave it another try with him.”

Bailey and Lesser spoke with Wakefield as well as his relatives. They acknowledged her filmmaking chops and finally agreed. “Then, the movie changed again, and again, and again…until 2016 when Tribeca Film festival programmed and pulled Vaxxed.”

Cold Iron Pictures financed the project, which involved a considerable amount of time following Wakefield, his supporters and family and they attempted to sue for defamation for the 2011 BMJ articles. Added Bailey: “We had no idea what would happen with this but we followed it as we did with his everyday life — traveling to events, raising money for his court case, taking his kids to Rugby etc., and in the film we bounce back and forth between real time and how he got there which was based on the MMR scandal dating back before the infamous 1998 Lancet paper.”

Like Vaxxed, The Pathological Optimist did not go to other high profile festivals but did screen at the DTLA Film Festival starting on Sept. 25. The Film Arcade is opening the title at the Angelika today, followed by the Laemmle Monica on October 6 in L.A.