Fox Searchlight is heading out with Guillermo del Toro’s latest, The Shape Of Water, starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg in an exclusively New York launch in two theaters. The Venice Golden Lion winner is a headliner packed with some fellow high-profile limited release titles the first weekend of December as well as a plethora of others, marking the final stretch of phase one of awards season. Amazon Studios is opening Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel with Kate Winslet, the first title the company is doing sans a distribution partner. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is making its way to 18 locations around the country via A24. The film has the makings of a possible cult hit. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s latest, The Other Side of Hope opens this side of the Atlantic via Janus Films and Abramorama/Mongrel Media will bow documentary Big Time exclusively at one New York location.

Among other films opening in limited release are Vertical Entertainment’s Slumber by Jonathan Hopkins as well as Freestyle Digital Media’s Bad Idea Gone Wrong by Jason Headley. Sony Pictures Classics is doing a qualifying run for Independent Spirits Award-nominee Loveless, while Vitagraph Films is opening The Dancer by Stéphanie Di Giusto. Others include IFC Films’ Tribes of Palos Verdes, Hannover House’s Daisy Winters, Cinedigm Entertainment’s Gangster Land, and Badsville by Epic Pictures.

Fox Searchlight

The Shape of Water
Director-writer: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

The winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Fox Searchlight is opening Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water at the Angelika and AMC Lincoln Square exclusively in New York this weekend. Del Toro conceived the project while working on TV series The Strain.

“In the middle of it, he talked about wanting to do something more personal. He had done a bunch of bigger projects,” explained producer Miles Dale. “I thought that in anyone else’s hands, this [sort of story] would be crazy, but I also know his affinity for monsters. I thought it actually made sense to me. In 2014 we talked to Searchlight about it and I suggested we do it between seasons of the television show.”

The Shape of Water is “an other-worldly fable” set against the backdrop Cold War-era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.

“Sally [Hawkins] was the first one in the movie and it was written for her,” said Dale. “Having two leads who can’t speak to each other puts a lot of burdens on the actors. Guillermo knew it would have to be Sally for [the part of Elisa Esposito]. He wouldn’t have made it without her.” Dale added that later drafts of The Shape of Water also included the voices of main actors including Doug Jones.

“We shot in Toronto where we shoot The Strain over three months in August to early November,” said Dale. “There were a lot of days for the budget we had. When I started working with these actors, we felt we were in the presence of something very special at the time. You never know of course. There were times when the sand dunes started blowing and there were a couple of car crashes. So, it was not without its challenges. Sometimes things will go very smoothly and then not turn out as amazing as you think and then [there are shoots that are] hard and have big challenges, but they come with a lot of [reward].”

The Shape of Water had a long standing ovation at its World Premiere in Venice, picking up the festival’s top prize. “Guillermo said that after six months he could finally exhale,” added Dale. “I think the takeaway for him is it’s easy to be cynical and ironic and look smart, but the fact is when you wear your heart on your sleeve, you’re really taking a chance and that’s what he did with this movie.”

Following its exclusive two runs in New York this weekend, the title will expand to 12 markets to between 35 – 40 theaters on December 8. Searchlight plans to have The Shape of Water in 700 to 800 theaters by December 22.

Amazon Studios

Wonder Wheel
Director-writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Junto Temple, Justin Timberlake, Jack Gore, David Krumholtz
Distributor: Amazon Studios

Wonder Wheel is Amazon Studios’ first fully self-release title. Work on Woody Allen’s latest began while he was filming the Amazon series, Crisis in Six Scenes last year. Allen had in mind a blast from New York’s past, though gentrification had interfered on a preferred location until Mother Nature apparently intervened.

“Woody had a period story in mind and wanted to film at Coney Island but had concerns about how much the boardwalk and amusement park had changed,” explained producer Erika Aranson. “He actually wanted a run-down, honky-tonk look. But after the hurricane a lot had been fixed up.”

In Wonder Wheel, four peoples’ lives intertwine amid the hustle and bustle of the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s: Ginny, an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house; Humpty, Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband; Mickey, a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright; and Carolina, Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who is now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment.

Along with Coney Island, the production used a stage as part of the six-week shoot, which is typical for Allen. The casting process is also mostly organic.

“Some of the actors come read for Woody at his cutting room, others are offered parts based on their past work,” commented Aranson. “When he was writing this script, Woody knew he would need a deep actress like Kate Winslet. Woody sent her a script and he was lucky to get her. He worked with casting director Patricia DiCerto to cast Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Jim Belushi. Sometimes they just stop by to shake hands, sometimes he has them read some lines.”

Wonder Wheel is the first for Allen that includes major VFX. Editing the VFX took about six months, which Aranson noted is, “much longer than his previous films — even period ones,” adding: “Woody is lucky to have worked with his artistic collaborators from his past films so they know what he is trying to achieve. Production designer Santo Loquasto, Vittorio Storaro, and costume designer Suzy Benzinger do an amazing job of capturing the tones of Coney Island on the decline.”

Amazon Studios is opening Wonder Wheel Friday in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The title will expand to the top ten markets next weekend and will go nationwide in its third frame.

A24

The Disaster Artist
Director: James Franco
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Greg Sestero (book), Michael H. Weber (book)
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Eliza Coupe, Alison Brie, Lizzy Caplan, Kristen Bell, Zac Efron, Bryan Cranston
Distributor: A24

The Disaster Artist’s future seemed a bit clouded until the SXSW Film Festival happened. Warner Bros/New Line had the rights to the feature, but no date had been set at the time. It’s World Premiere screening at the March festival, where it played as a “work in progress,” breathed new life into the title which is directed and stars James Franco and is opening theatrically this weekend via A24. Deadline announced A24 picked up the title in May.

The film is the true story of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero who become friends after meeting in an acting class in San Francisco. Hoping to achieve Hollywood stardom, Sestero moves to Los Angeles and signs on to appear in his buddy’s project. Financed with his own money, Wiseau writes, directs and stars in The Room, a critically maligned movie that becomes a cult classic.

Franco became familiar with the story through the memoir The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room by Greg Sister and Tom Bissell. While filming The Interview (2014) with Seth Rogen, Franco brought up the idea of a possible project based on the book.

“James read the book and identified with the lead character,” said producer Vince Jolivette. “James said we needed to bring in Point Grey Pictures to help the development process. They blazed a trail for us.”

Point Grey had made This Is The End (2013) which featured known actors playing themselves. The company’s James Weaver (and a producer of The Disaster Artist) said the idea was to emulate some of that for this project.

The filmmaking team also recruited Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber to adapt the book. “Despite the strange folks in The Room, the story is very classic. They wrote it in six months. These are actors who are in-demand. We shot it in 28 days in L.A., which is obviously a big character and is very much a part of the story.”

Jolivette said that Tommy Wiseau attended the SXSW opening under the radar. He also admitted that he didn’t want to see the movie “at all before that,” but the reaction ended up being life imitating art as the producers describe it.

“None of us were sure how it was going to go,” said Jolivette. “SXSW felt like a very good fit, but Tommy was the wildcard. He was sitting in the row and we were looking down the aisle to see how it would all go. He wasn’t announced before the movie but we knew he would be there. It became life imitating art. There he was getting cheered by the audience coming down the aisle. It’s an amazing experience for filmmakers to have a film received that way. We wanted regular lay people to respect the film itself. Audiences really care about him and that came out.”

A24 will open The Disaster Artist in 18 locations in key markets around the country including Lincoln Square and Union Square Stadium in New York as well as Century 15 and The Landmark in Los Angeles.

Janus Films

The Other Side of Hope
Director-writer: Aki Kaurismäki
Cast: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen
Distributor: Janus Films

Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year for The Other Side of Hope. The film is a follow-up to Le Havre (2011). Janus Films caught the feature at its Berlinale debut and saw a fit. “It feels perfect for this moment,” commented Janus Films’ Peter Becker. “[It’s] a warm, funny realist fable that brings a global crisis down to the unmistakably human scale of Kaurismäki’s world.”

The Other Side of Hope tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian asylum seeker from Aleppo, and Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a fifty-something traveling salesman who’s left his alcoholic wife and purchased a restaurant in the back streets of Helsinki with his meager winnings from poker. When the authorities decide to return Khaled to the ruins of Aleppo he opts to stay illegally in the country and disappears into the streets of Helsinki, where he meets racism as well as pure kindness. Wikström finds Khaled sleeping in the inner yard of his restaurant and seeing something of himself in the battered man, hires him as a cleaner and a dishwasher. Together, they help each other through the challenges they face in their unfamiliar and often baffling new worlds.

“Aki Kaurismäki has a big, passionate following, as we saw with the breakout success of his last film, Le Havre,” noted Becker. “The Other Side of Hope is Kaurismäki in top form, displaying all the traits people love in his work – a gorgeous noir-infused aesthetic, a quick, deader-than-deadpan wit, and a deep humanistic streak. So we’re definitely aiming to reach his many existing fans, but we’re also looking for new converts.”

The Other Side of Hope took in a half million dollars in the box office at home in Finland, according to Janus Films. The company added: “It did especially well in France where it made close to $1.5M. It’s been embraced in Europe.” The film is nominated for two European Film Awards.

Theatrically, Janus Films will open the feature in three theaters in New York and L.A. this weekend including Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC as well as the NuArt in Los Angeles.

Abramorama/Mongrel Media

Big Time
Director: Kaspar Astrup Schröder
Subject: Bjarke Ingels
Distributor: Abramorama/Mongrel Media

Andrew Frank, VP, Sales & Acquisitions at Canadian-based distributor Mongrel Media attended an event in Toronto celebrating chefs and designers. One of the guests at the event was Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Cut to a year later in Copenhagen, a friend of Frank’s took him to visit buildings designed by Ingels, which left a big impression.

Big Time follows celebrated Danish architect Bjarke Ingels during the course of seven years (2009 – 2016) while he struggles to finish his biggest project so far. We are let into Bjarke’s creative process as well as the endless compromises that his work entails.

“I realized he was an architect that could transform the way people are building in a positive way,” said Frank. “Buildings could [serve] as improvements to quality of life.” Another coincidence also occurred regarding Frank’s exposure to Ingels. Some time later, a sales agent friend from Vienna-based Autlook Film Sales said they were involved with a theatrical documentary about Bjarke Ingels.

“I thought this would totally make sense for Mongrel,” said Frank. “We made an informal offer in Cannes, 2016 and then closed the deal at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.”

“We weren’t sure if we’d do [the deal] for just Canada or North America,” Frank added. “We partnered with Abramorama for the release in the U.S. in 10 to 15 cities. We have been talking with Abramorama about doing modest theatrical releases [generally]. We’re actively looking to do a half dozen films in North America [going forward].”

Mongrel has 2,000 films in its catalog and releases roughly 40 films per year north of the border. For Big Time’s U.S. bow, the title will have an exclusive start at The Landmark 57 West on Manhattan’s west side which is located in a new building designed by Ingels. In addition to the theatrical run, the doc will be available on-demand via iTunes and other digital media starting February 27, while its Netflix window begins April 1.