Following a short qualifying run for other categories late in 2017, Sony Pictures Classics’ foreign-language nominee A Fantastic Woman by Sebastián Lelio is heading to theaters this weekend. The Chilean filmmaker had a seven-figure success in the U.S. with his 2014 feature Gloria, which opened via Roadside Attractions.

Other limited release titles will seek some of the box office from Oscar nominees still dominating the Specialty space. Vertical Entertainment will take its animated superhero pic Bilal: A New Breed of Hero to 300-plus locations, the widest roll out among this weekend’s Specialty newcomers. Sundance Selects will open documentary The Cage Fighter, which it picked up through the San Francisco International Film Festival’s The Launch Initiative last year in a day and date roll out. And Cinedigm is taking post-apocalyptic feature Scorched Earth with Gina Carano to 10 cities.

Among other limited release titles heading to theaters this weekend are Janus Films’ 24 Frames by the late Abbas Kiarostami, which debuted in Cannes last year, as well as Lies We Tell starring Harvey Kettle and Gabriel Byrne.

Sony Pictures Classics

A Fantastic Woman
Director-writer: Sebastián Lelio
Writer: Gonzalo Maza
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguero, Néstor Cantillana, Alejandro Goic, Antonia Zegers, Sergio Hernández
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Following a short qualifying run toward the end of 2017, Sony Pictures Classics is going out with its Oscar Best Foreign Language nominee, A Fantastic Woman on Friday. It is the first time SPC has worked with veteran Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who had a hit stateside in 2014 with Gloria, which grossed $2.1M. The company acquired A Fantastic Woman ahead of its premiere in Berlin last year, but held most of its subsequent festival run until Telluride and Toronto this past fall to position it for awards.

A Fantastic Woman centers on Marina and Orlando, who are in love and planning for the future. Marina is a young waitress and aspiring singer. Orlando is 20 years older than her and owns a printing company. After celebrating Marina’s birthday one evening, Orlando falls seriously ill. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes away just after arriving. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, Marina is treated with suspicion. The doctors and Orlando’s family don’t trust her. A detective investigates Marina. Orlando’s ex-wife forbids her from attending the funeral. And to make matters worse, Orlando’s son threatens to throw Marina out of the flat she shared with Orlando. Marina is a trans woman, and for most of Orlando’s family her sexual identity is an aberration — a perversion. So, Marina struggles for the right to be herself. She battles the very same forces that she has spent a lifetime fighting just to become the woman she is.

“We wanted to work with him on Gloria, but it didn’t work out. We’ve worked with [many] of his producers before and have a very close relationship with Participant Media [which produced the film],” noted Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker. “We feel like the stars are in alignment with this film. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reviews were terrific. It’s a fresh movie and Daniela Vega is an incredible actor.”

Barker said that, while they did not ultimately get nominations, the company felt Vega and Lelio’s work warranted a qualifying run late last year. Barker added that its initial release “did well.”

“I think it’s a fresh movie and not like anything you’ve seen,” he added. “It has the qualities that people want to see in a great romantic drama.”

A Fantastic Woman will open in New York and Los Angeles Friday, followed by runs in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Chicago the following week. It will then expand to the next 10-12 top cities.

Vertical Entertainment

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero
Directors-writers: Ayman Jamal, Khurram H. Alavi
Writers: Alexander Kronemer, Michael Wolfe, Khurram H. Alavi, Yassin Kamel
Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, Jacob Latimore, China Anne McClain, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Michael Gross
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Writer-director Ayman Jamal initially conceived of animated feature Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, which opens in 300 theaters on this continent this weekend, when he saw his 7 year-old wearing a Superman costume. He then read a couple of books that attracted him to the story of Bilal. Jamal said he believed there was a dearth of animated superhero pics on the big screen.

“It’s a story [from long ago],” said Jamal. “He’s an African boy who is taken to Arabia to be a slave, but it [was a fate] he couldn’t accept.”

Set 1,400 years ago, the story finds Bilal and his sister under the tyranny of slavery. Throughout his life he undergoes many hardships, through which he discovers an inner strength he did not realize he possessed. Through these experiences, Bilal comes to realize that if he is brave enough to raise his voice and choose his own path, everything becomes possible. It is through his courage, that he frees himself and ultimately his community. 

“Usually, the hero [in movies] is a strong guy with a [weapon],” explained Jamal. “But Bilal’s strength is his voice and words. I told some friends in the U.S. about it [including co-writer] Alex Kronemer. He said it would be a very hard story to get made. Most animation avoids using humans.”

The initial script was written over eight months. Jamal began started his own production house, Dubai-based Barajoun Entertainment, to produce the project, which took three years to make, with animation taking two years. The project received financing through private investment and equity.

“Production was a challenge,” said Jamal. “We had a couple of executive producers join and then resigned. They thought we were crazy because of the [relatively] low budget and the complexity of what we wanted to do with the animation. There were animation challenges, but we wanted to show the capabilities of our studio.”

Jamal said that one particular challenge in the film was a battle scene that runs for 11 minutes, 40 seconds. He added: “I think it’s the longest battle scene in animation history. Most of the experts we talked to said not do that with as many horses, people and weapons as [we wanted].”

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero debuted at the Dubai International Film Festival a couple years back, and then went on to win a prize in Cannes during its animation showcase. It was shortlisted for last year’s Oscars.

Vertical Entertainment became involved with the title’s American distribution last year. Said Jamal about the long search for a company to take on its release: “Many distributors liked the story, but they found it challenging to present something new like this to an audience. Most like talking animals etc., but Vertical accepted the challenge. I thank them for having the courage.” Jamal noted that the title has also found a home in 35 territories globally, with many rolling the feature out in March.

Sundance Selects

The Cage Fighter
Director: Jeff Unay
Subjects: Joe Carman, Vernon Beach, Callie Carman, Delanee Carman, Kira Carman
Distributor: Sundance Selects

Filmmaker Jeff Unay met the person who would be the subject of his documentary, Joe Carman, through his yoga teacher. After striking up a conversation, Carman said that it was “clear he had a story to tell.” Said Unay: “He said he was getting back into training, but that his family didn’t know. At that point, his wife was ill and when he feels he is losing control of his life, he goes back to the one thing he knows, which is cage fighting.”

After their initial introduction, both had reached out to the yoga instructor in order to contact one another and they met again. “When I went to his home and met his family, I realized that there was a real story there,” said Unay. “I began filming him with his family, but also him fighting. He’d have to go home and explain why he was bruised and battered.”

The doc centers on Carman who punches back when life gets rough. Newly 40, Joe juggles long hours working in a boiler room, an ongoing custody battle, his wife’s chronic illness, and the demands of raising four girls. The one place he finds release is in the ring, where he competes in the bruising sport of mixed martial arts. Despite the promise he made to his family to stop fighting, Joe continues to train secretly, determined to prove that he can keep up with the new crop of younger, up-and-coming competitors. But as he contends with a series of increasingly worrying health scares, the question arises: how much is Joe willing to risk—his family, his marriage, maybe even his life—to keep fighting?

Initially, Unay expected The Cage Fighter to be a short film until he overheard a conversation between Joe Carman and his wife.

“A few months in, she asked Joe, ‘Why did you start fighting again? Do you have something to prove to your dad?’ I thought, ‘wow, what guys don’t have something to prove to their dad?’”

Unay tapped his friend James Orara to help with behind the scenes photography. As his participation continued, he also assumed a producer’s role, getting clearances and handling logistics. “I needed access to court houses and doctors offices,” explained Unay. “All of that takes a long time. Also Andrea Meditch came on as executive producer after I showed her some footage during a retreat [arranged by the Tribeca Film Institute].”

Initially, Unay funded the project himself, but later found resources through various organizations including Tribeca and ESPN as well as Cinereach, Sundance Institute and Points North Institute. “It was piecemeal,” he added. “I just needed to collect enough money for post-production and pay our editor who worked for seven months. Our goal was to have a cinema vérité film where an audience [not familiar with the story] would [not necessarily] realize they’re watching a non-fiction film.”

The Cage Fighter played as a work-in-progress secret screening at last year’s True/False Film Festival before having its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival as part of The Launch Initiative, its program of curated narrative and non-fiction titles it gives special exposure to participating distributors and press. IFC Films came on board for the title’s release, which will go out under its Sundance Selects label.

“I’m very thankful to the San Francisco International Film Festival for this,” said Unay. “I had a memorable conversation with [SFIFF senior programmer] Rachel Rosen. She said that it was one of the most unique ways to tell a story about addiction. That was one of the themes that we had in mind when editing the film and she got it right away.”

The Cage Fighter will open at IFC Center in New York as well as Arena CineLounge Sunset in Los Angeles Friday. It will also be available day and date via VOD.

Cinedigm Entertainment

Scorched Earth
Director: Peter Howitt
Writers: Kevin Leeson, Bobby Mort
Cast: Gina Carano, John Hannah, Stephanie Bennett, Dean S. Jagger, Patrick Gilmore, Alisha Newton, Sarah Troyer, Ryan Robbins
Distributor: Cinedigm Entertainment

Producer Kevin Leeson met the original writer of action sci-fi Scorched Earth, Bobby Mort, through a mutual acquaintance about five years ago. At the time, it was not told as a post-apocalyptic story. Leeson was attracted to the script and began collaborating with the writer.

“Bobby is very talented. I liked his ability to characterize and his writing style,” said Leeson. “So, we worked together into making it into a dystopian world. It took about three years from script stage to go into production.”

Scorched Earth takes place amidst a planet that suffered an environmental collapse, the air became dangerous to breathe, the water became toxic, and billions of people died. Generations later, mankind has finally re-established a rudimentary society, in an attempt to pick up the pieces that continue to blister in the sun. Attica Gage (Gina Carano) is a bounty hunter with a chance at the bounty of a lifetime: to bring down the ruthless outlaw Elijah Jackson. Gage infiltrates Jackson’s gang, and everything is going to plan until she meets a slave girl who reminds her of her dead sister.

The process to find the feature’s lead began several years ago. Leeson said they approached various agencies for a role he had particular ideas about. “I’m a big fan of strong female leads,” he said. “In the back of my mind, it had to be the right screen presence. I wanted the demeanor [of someone] that’s a hardened wanderer in a wasteland.”

Eventually, the idea of Gina Carano came up via her reps at Gersh. The filmmaking team were impressed with the actor’s past work in Haywire, Heist and others. Carano joined the project. Filmmaker Peter Howitt also came to the project through his rep, who is a good friend of Leeson’s at Pacific Artists Management.

“We had been talking to a lot of filmmakers,” said Leeson. “But Peter had a great concept. He thought of it as a post-apocalyptic Donnie Brasco. He’s an incredibly talented director.” Leeson added that Howitt had worked with actors John Hannah and Ryan Robbins on previous projects and brought them on board as well.

Financing came together through Great Point Media, which was attracted to the story in part by the success of another movie also with a post-apocalyptic setting.

“When [Mad Max] came out, it put the genre on the front burner,” he said. “It all fell into place and put it the gas peddle on to get it going. We were in the right place at the right time.”

Scorched Earth shot over six weeks in Vancouver. “There’s a lot of exteriors, and we were lucky that the weather cooperated with us for the most part,” said Leeson. “The world is supposed to be basically unlivable, so navigating inclement weather when your movie is so dependent on exteriors is a creative challenge. I’ve worked in the film industry over 20 years, so at some point in time you’ve pretty much seen it all. We had our share of production problems, but you adapt…”

Distributor Cinedigm Entertainment came on board to release the title following production. Scorched Earth will open in 9 U.S. cities and one in Canada this weekend. Added Leeson: “To get a theatrical release [with this genre] of this budget level is exciting.”