Three big titles, based on true stories and likely factoring in this year’s awards race, are opening a very busy weekend of Specialty newcomers. Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Fox Searchlight’s Battle Of the Sexes, following its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Also out of that festival is David Gordon Green’s Stronger with Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson, which had an exclusive bash earlier this week in New York. Roadside Attractions is bowing the title in 574 theaters Friday, the widest Specialty opener of the weekend. Focus Features’ Victoria & Abdul, also from the Toronto fest, stars Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and is based on the true-life story of the monarch’s unlikely friendship with an Indian attendant. On the doc side, Oscilloscope is opening dance feature Bobbi Jene exclusively in New York.

Other limited releases opening in theaters this weekend include A24’s Woodshock, The King’s Choice from Samuel Goldwyn and Happy Hunting from Vertical Entertainment. Additional big screen Specialty titles are Epic Pictures’ Last Rampage, Paladin’s Shot and Global Digital Releasing’s Elizabeth Blue. Also opening is Good Deed Entertainment’s Loving Vincent at Lincoln Plaza in New York.

Roadside Attractions

Stronger
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Jeff Bauman (book), Bret Witter (book), John Pollono
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane, Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke
Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Another high-profile Toronto ’17 title, Stronger, is making its way into theaters with an eye at the burgeoning awards season. The feature, directed by David Gordon Green, had its New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with cast as well as Jeff Bauman, the real-life personality at the center of the story, followed by a dinner. The evening was hosted by awards maven Peggy Siegal.

Stronger is the true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. It is Jeff’s deeply personal account of the heroic journey which tests a family’s bond, defines a community’s pride and inspires his inner courage to overcome devastating adversity.

“It’s very heartfelt,” offered up Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. “By virtue of being a recent [event], it’s still a raw wound for some people. It honors the true story and the people of Boston yet it’s also a commercial movie. It’s hard to pull off all of those things.”

Cohen touted its 96% RT rating and the positive words being generated around the media for actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany as well as Miranda Richardson. Ahead of its release, Roadside launched Stronger’s trailer on Facebook, generating 30M views.

“It’s mostly 25 and older adults with an emphasis on women,” said Cohen about the film’s core audience. “Jake and Jeff [Bauman] are doing a [word-of-mouth] screening tour. We feel bullish going in.” Gyllenhaal, who plays Bauman, has been doing a heavy round of late night as well as news shows including CBS Sunday Morning, The Lead with Jake Tapper and Hardball with Chris Matthews.

“This is a mid-level release we’ve done successfully with films like Mud, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. Holmes and Love & Mercy,” said Cohen. “We’ve had success [with this model] which works well with a movie star doing a lot of PR.”

Roadside is opening Stronger in 574 theaters today including 43 in Canada. It will head to about 800 the following week. “We think the movie is well-timed,” added Cohen. “We’ve had a difficult time in this country for any number of reasons and seeing this is [the boost] we need.”

Fox Searchlight

Battle Of the Sexes
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Pullman
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

In 2012, producer Christian Colson came across the story about tennis great Billie Jean King going up against Bobby Riggs in a tennis match. That match in 1973 hit the socio-political zeitgeist pitting feminists against unabashed chauvinists. Colson Googled to find out more about the story and became even more enthralled when he discovered that no big screen movie had been made about a match that riveted the nation.

“I pitched it to [writer] Simon Beaufoy and he loved it,” said Colson. “We then took it to Danny Boyle and then to Fox Searchlight.”

Colson also approached King a year into the process, but ahead of a completed script. The producer had accepted an invitation to a documentary premiere in the U.K. and by coincidence, King was in attendance. “We started talking about it over the course of a few months,” said Colson. “We discussed possible approaches and six months later, the writing process began. There was quite a long gestation period of about 18 months before Simon began writing.”

Battle Of the Sexes tackles not only the public match-up between King and Riggs, but also delves into her private life, which was kept hidden at the time. Colson said that aspect was a delicate one to address in the screenplay.

“As dramatists, the story that drew us was the public battle and her private battle,” he said. “We knew that would be uncomfortable for her. She could stand up for her sex but not her sexuality in 1973. We had to gain her confidence.”

Once Simon Beaufoy dove in on the script, it went “very fast,” according to Colson. The filmmaking team approached Fox Searchlight about producing the project. “We have a long-standing relationship with them,” noted Colson. The other piece was Danny [Boyle’s] Trainspotting sequel was coming together, so there was a narrow window.”

A fan of Little Miss Sunshine, Colson and team tapped filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to direct Battle Of the Sexes after meeting with the pair in L.A. in 2015. Further development took place on the script in order to put “their imprint on it,” according to Colson. “We like their warmth, humor and taste,” he said. Emma Stone was in mind for the role of Billie Jean King early on. Both Colson and Boyle met with her before a script had been written. She later “jumped on straight away,” after reading the script.

“John and Valerie had the relationship with Steve through Little Miss Sunshine,” said Colson. “It was a perfect piece of casting.” Battle Of the Sexes shot in California over eight weeks, premiering earlier this month at Telluride and Toronto. Fox Searchlight will open Battle Of the Sexes today in seven markets including New York, L.A., San Francisco, Toronto, Phoenix, Chicago and Washington, D.C. in 21 theaters. The following week, Searchlight expects the title to be in 1,100 – 1,200 theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

Focus Features

Victoria & Abdul
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Shrabani Basu (book), Lee Hall
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar
Distributor: Focus Features

The true story at the center of Focus’ Friday release Victoria & Abdul was somewhat of an accidental discovery. Journalist/author Shrabani Basu was researching a book on the history of curry. She learned that Queen Victoria, who reigned over the British Empire in the 19th century, including India, enjoyed eating curry. While investigating further, she uncovered an unlikely close friendship the monarch had in her later years with a clerk from India.

“She went to [royal residence] Osborne House and found pictures of [the attendant],” said director Stephen Frears at a post-screening Q&A earlier this week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “There were quite a lot of pictures, so she followed it up.”

Victoria & Abdul is the true story of the surprising friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who becomes her teacher, her spiritual advisor, and her devoted friend. In 1887, Abdul travels from India to present a ceremonial medal as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and finds favor with the elderly monarch. The unprecedented and unlikely relationship causes a battle royale within the royal household, pitting the Queen against court and family. Victoria & Abdul humorously explores questions of race, religion, power, and the farce of Empire through the prism of a highly unusual and moving friendship.

Basu went to Windsor Castle where the royal archives are located. According to Frears, she asked to see Queen Victoria’s journals written in Hindustani. She expected to find one volume, but instead a trolly rolled out with 13.

A book was written and then came screenplays based on the relationship. Frears, who was nominated for Best Director for his 2006 film The Queen (about Victoria’s great-great granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II), read three drafts before agreeing to direct the project.

“I read this three or four years ago. It was like a soufflé that takes place on a high-wire act, but then it would collapse,” he said of the earlier versions. “Then they reconstructed part of the story to [include] another [less obvious story]… I make films in which there is a story going on underneath, and then I muck around at the top.”

Production company Cross Street developed the project with Christine Langan at BBC Films. Dame Judi Dench portrayed Queen Victoria previously in 1997’s Mrs. Brown about another unlikely relationship Victoria had with a man. Dench previously worked with Frears in Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) and Philomena (2013).

Focus Features, which co-financed Victoria & Abdul will open the title in four New York and L.A. theaters this weekend before expanding out to markets around the country in the coming weeks. The film opened in the U.K. September 15, grossing over $2.9M last weekend.

Oscilloscope

Bobbi Jene
Director: Elvira Lind
Writer: Maja Jul Larsen
Subjects: Bobbi Jene Smith, Or Schraiber
Distributor: Oscilloscope

Oscilloscope discovered documentary Bobbi Jene at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring. The title centers on American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who after a decade of stardom in Israel, decides to leave behind her prominent position at the world-famous Batsheva Dance Company, as well as the love of her life, to return to the US to create her own boundary-breaking art. The film captures the dilemmas and inevitable consequences of ambition, observing the artist in both private and public settings, moving between uninhibited scenes of life at home, grueling rehearsals, and Bobbi Jene’s revealing choreography.

“Lind’s film is intimate and provocative and unlike any other dance documentary in quite some time,” said Oscilloscope’s Andrew Carlin. “Bobbi Jene Smith is a true visionary in the world of contemporary dance and Lind’s documentary is a wonderful testament to her creativity.”

Not surprisingly, Oscilloscope is working closely with dance schools and other related organizations to spread the word as the documentary heads out to theaters this weekend. The distributor has put an emphasis on dance recently. On the dramatic narrative side, it released French-Russian feature Polina at the end of last month. Starring Juliette Binoche, the title has grossed nearly $118K so far.

“We’re confident that the contemporary dance community, as well as fans of the Batsheva Dance Company, will support this film in a big way,” added Carlin. “Based on early pre-sales numbers, it’s likely we’ll have numerous sell out shows at the Quad [in New York] this weekend.”

This fall, Oscilloscope will release doc Brimstone & Glory October 27 followed by Song of Granite, Ireland’s submission for Best Foreign Language consideration, on November 15.

Following its exclusive bow at the Quad this weekend, Bobbi Jene will head to Los Angeles in a couple weeks followed by other markets.