After a slow start to 2015 in the wake of awards-hungry titles and holiday studio offerings, the Specialty Box Office is swinging into gear with a number of new titles. Focus Features’ Kevin Macdonald-directed Black Sea with Jude Law, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn is looking to offer character-driven adventure to the marketplace in the tradition of such titles as Das Boot or men on-a-dangerous-mission pics like The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Adding its own named cast, The Film Arcade/Cinedigm’s Song One by Kate Barker-Froyland starring Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn and Mary Steenburgen joins the weekend fray. The titles may have some uphill climb against a crowded market including a trio of studio titles entering the mix. Sony Classics will open its Jerry Weintraub-produced doc Red Army this weekend, while Roadside Attractions will bow celebrated French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s Cannes-winner Mommy. Sundance Selects is tempting audiences with the rollout of Toronto debut The Duke Of Burgundy and Strand Releasing is opening gay-Arab feature Salvation Army by author/director Abdellah Taïa. Other limited release openers opening this Sundance Film Festival 2015 weekend include documentary Manny, narrated by Liam Neeson, in select cities as well as on-demand via Gravitas Ventures, Big Muddy from Monterey Media, Drafthouse’s R100 and Cinelou Films’ Cake.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Dennis Kelly
Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Jodie Whittaker, David Threlfall, Michael Smiley, Bobby Schofield, Sergey Veksler, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Tobias Menzies, Paulina Boneva, Grigoriy Dobrygin
Distributor: Focus Features
Scottish-born director Kevin Macdonald teams with Jude Law in adventure-thriller Black Sea, which Focus Features took rights to in Cannes 2013 ahead of its shoot. Film4 developed, co-produced and co-financed Black Sea with Focus, a Cowboy Films production. In the film, Law plays a submarine captain who suffers a lay-off from a salvage company. He makes a deal with a shadowy backer to look for a storied sunken German U-boat full of WWII-era gold sitting on a bed in the Black Sea. He puts together a misfit crew to travel to the depths and find the treasure, using a vintage Russian submarine manned by British and Russian roughnecks along with a lone American (played by Scoot McNairy). The group evades the Russian Navy above and battles each other below as greed and desperation rise aboard the claustrophobic vessel.
“It was the passion for Kevin’s vision and for the material from James Shamus, Jeb Brody and the international team, that made us feel Focus was the best fit,” said producer Charles Steel referring to former Focus chief James Schamus. “Focus came on board once we had the script and were ready to start casting.”
The script is Dennis Kelly’s first feature screenplay. He did extensive research on submarines, though at the heart of the film is a group of desperate men trying to salvage their lives. In 2009 Macdonald had heard of a private collector who had an old stripped submarine lying in Kent, England. Steel noted that the vessel “took our breath away,” and it was just what they had imagined. Named the Black Widow, a compromise was reached between shooting in the UK’s Pinewood Studios and for two weeks aboard the submarine.
Kevin Macdonald won an Oscar in 2000 for his doc One Day In September. His previous Focus release, The Eagle (2011) with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell grossed $19.49M. Macdonald’s James McAvoy starrer The Last King Of Scotland cumed over $17.6M (Fox Searchlight) and his studio thriller State Of Play with Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams totaled north of $37M. His last doc, Marley (2012) grossed over $1.4M in theaters. Focus will open Black Sea in two theaters in New York and three in L.A. Friday with a nationwide expansion set for January 30.
Director-writer: Kate Barker-Froyland
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield, Gideon Glick, Al Thompson, Crystal Lonneberg, Li Jun Li, Shawn Parsons
Distributor: The Film Arcade/Cinedigm
Writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s foray into feature directorial filmmaking began with her fascination with music and its ability to unite people from disparate worlds. “I wanted to write about that,” said Barker-Froyland. “I had a clear idea of [the character] Franny.” Anne Hathaway stars as Franny who leaves to work in Morocco in the wake of her estrangement from her musician brother Henry (Ben Rosenfeld). Franny returns to Brooklyn after her brother is in a coma following a car accident. She seeks out the musicians and artists Henry loves and while doing so, meets James Forester (Johnny Flynn), his musical idol. Along the way, a romantic connection develops between Franny and James.
Barker-Froyland began writing the script for Song One six years ago, and sent an early draft to Jonathan Demme to get his reaction. “He told me he connected with it and wanted to produce it,” said Barker-Froyland. “We worked on the script and I did [a number of] re-writes.” Demme had worked with Anne Hathaway and knew the Oscar-winning actress and her spouse Adam Shulman were interested in producing. “Anne loved the part of Franny,” said Barker-Froyland. “Originally Franny was a younger character, but once [Anne Hathaway was on board] I did some re-writes and tailored the character to her.” Marc Platt and Kate Barker-Froyland’s husband, Thomas Froyland also came on as producers.
Song One shot in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side over 26 days, using a number of locations. “I wanted to capture live music, so that was a challenge since we didn’t have a lot of time,” she added. “I worked with [sound mixer] Jeff Pullman which was key. Worldview, which backed Alejandro González Iñárritu’s multi-Oscar-nominated Birdman also provided financing for Song One. Barker-Froyland noted the editing room was “all-female” and the production finished color correction just ahead of its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The Film Arcade and Cinedigm picked up the film last May with the former handling theatrical and the latter spearheading all other platforms. Hathaway, Demme, Barker-Froyland, cast, crew and a glittering crowd turned up for the film’s premiere Tuesday night hosted by the Cinema Society, Tod’s and Grey Goose in New York with a party at hotspot Omar’s. Song One will open in three New York and L.A. theaters this weekend with simultaneous on-demand day and date platforms also launching Friday.
Director-writer: Gabe Polsky
Subjects: Slava Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak, Scotty Bowman, Vladimir Pozner
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The son of Soviet immigrants, filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s parents rarely spoke to him about their past. He was given a pair of skates at six and ultimately played hockey for Yale University. When he was 13, he played for a team that had hired a Soviet coach whose methodology for training was quite unorthodox compared to the American approach. As a teen, his only knowledge about Soviet hockey was the country’s loss to the U.S. at the 1980 Olympics, but his training methods were “eye opening” for Polsky who said that his entire concept of the sport had been “transformed” by the experience. He even tracked down old Soviet hockey footage, which continued to impress him.
Decades later, his personal epiphany resulted in Red Army, a feature documentary about the Soviet Union and one of the most successful reigns in sports history: the Red Army hockey team. The doc is told from the perspective of its captain, Salva Fetisov, and tells of his transformation from national hero to political enemy. He later left the country to join the NHL. Red Army trails the evolution from the U.S.S.R. to Russia and looks at how sport mirrors social and cultural movements and parallels the rise and fall of the famed hockey team along with the Soviet Union. It’s a Cold War played out on ice.
“Gabe Polsky came to me because my name is useful in the movie business and I thought it was extraordinary,” said Jerry Weintraub who went on to executive produce the film. “I didn’t get paid and didn’t ask to get paid. I gave him advice based on my experience over the years, which he didn’t always take, but I was very interested in helping him and the movie.” Advice and encouragement resulted in a Cannes debut last year. “I was actually a concierge,” joked Weintraub. “The subject matter is something I’m very interested in. I’ve seen governments use sports for political purposes. Hitler did it, the Russians did it and so have others.” Sony Classics picked up rights to the film ahead of its Cannes debut. Red Army will bow in New York and L.A. Friday, adding San Francisco and Washington, D.C. playdates next week, followed by Chicago. It will expand throughout February and into March into major markets nationwide.
Director-writer: Xavier Dolan
Cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan has the distinction of having four of his five feature films at the Cannes Film Festival beginning with I Killed My Mother in 2009 — his previous film, Tom At The Farm screened in competition in Venice — not bad for a 25-year-old . His latest film, Mommy, screened in competition in Cannes, picking up the Jury Prize at the festival, a prize he shared with Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language. Dolan had the idea for Mommy after reading a Reader’s Digest article.
“It was about a mother who’d dropped her son off at a [psychiatry] hospital,” he said. “He was violent and unpredictable. So the article [dealt with] about the drive to the hospital and his mother loved him, but couldn’t tell him where they were going. I wanted to tell that story about loving your child but having to make the biggest sacrifice ever.”
Mommy centers on a complicated mother-son relationship. Québécois actress Anne Dorval plays a passionate widowed single mother who takes on full-time custody with her unpredictable and sometimes violent son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who is expelled from a supervised detention center. They find a home in the suburbs of Montreal and the reunited family struggle to make ends meet. Along the way, they meet Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the peculiar new neighbor across the street who offers to help. The unlikely trio then strive to find a workable balance.
“I feel I’m very drawn to the mother figure, It’s not a once in a lifetime subject, I could spend the rest of my life talking about moms,” said Dolan during a conversation at a recent event hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “It’s a bottomless well for me..It’s always been there and the mother-figure is something through which I can express my ideas and frustrations.” Not surprisingly, the mother-figure also played a central role in Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, in which he starred opposite Anne Dorval. The film was heaped with international praise and found distribution in many international territories, but found a home stateside with Here Films, but only had a small release via Kino Lorber after rights became available. Roadside Attractions picked up Mommy last summer and goes into release with a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. It will open in 4 theaters in New York and L.A. and will head to the top 50 markets over the next three weeks. The film has grossed over $3M in Canada, the highest-grossing French-language film north of the border.
The Duke Of Burgundy
Director-writer: Peter Strickland
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Eugenia Caruso, Monica Swinn
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Writer-director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) heard about the idea of doing a re-make of the mid ’70s horror Lorna The Exorcist, but he ended up going another direction. “The re-make ultimately didn’t appeal, but then we thought of refashioning something for £1M,” said Strickland. “It’s lower than my last movie, but with that, you also get more control.” Strickland wrote the script for The Duke Of Burgundy beginning in May 2012 and it started “taking shape” by Christmas of that year. The bulk of financing came from the British Film Institute (BFI), FilmFour and pre-sales in various territories including Wild Side in France.
Referencing the rare butterfly species, The Duke Of Burgundy follows an intimate relationship that develops between the wealthy Cynthia (Knudsen) and her new housekeeper, Evelyn. Cynthia’s desires evolve into the sadomasochistic, and Evelyn’s domestic servant role soon morphs into that of a sex slave, but she gives into what becomes humiliation with relish.
The Duke Of Burgundy began pre-production in May 2013, and Strickland kept writing up until the last minute. Locations were scouted in Hungary and actress Chiara D’Anna’s role as Evelyn had been written for her. Other actresses had been approached for the role of Cynthia, but they fell through and casting agents Shaheen Baig and Katalin Baranyi found Sidse Babett Knudsen. “She’s brave and really great,” said Strickland. “The shoot was quick, [with photography taking place] over 24 days with an extra-day pick up.” Strickland had originally wanted to film later in the fall to capture the palate he envisioned. The pick-up day included more autumnal shots. “Post-production was great for once in my life, I got so used to things being hell,” said Strickland. “I was nervous after [shooting] but it all went so well.” The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films/Sundance Selects had picked up the title ahead of its shoot. It will open the film in select theaters as well as on-demand (day and date) this weekend.
Director-writer: Abdellah Taïa
Cast: Said Mrini, Karim Ait M’Hand, Amine Ennaji, Frédéric Landenberg, Hamza Slaoui, Malika El Hamaoui, Abdelhak Swilah
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Salvation Army is the directorial debut of acclaimed Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, based on the novel of the same name which he adapted for the screen. Set in Morocco and Geneva, the film opens in the North African country and centers on Abdellah, a young gay man growing up amidst the sexual, racial and political climate of the country. He comes from a large working-class family, caught between a distant father, an overbearing mother, and an older brother he adores all the while rendezvousing with a handful of predatory older men in a society that denies homosexuality. Abdellah moves to Geneva for university, and though he discovers new freedoms, he grapples with the loss of his homeland.
“I saw Salvation Army at the  Toronto International Film Festival and absolutely fell in love with it,” said Strand co-president Marcus Hu. “I was already familiar with Abdellah’s work and his background brings an amazing voice as a writer and now filmmaker.” Taïa is the first Moroccan and Arab writer to have openly come out about his homosexuality and his novels are translated into several languages. Taïa’s creative influences both for this film and his writing came via Egyptian movies. For Salvation Army, Taïa used the “main line of the novel” trying to be “faithful to it.”
Shooting in Morocco was difficult outside of the cast and crew given the film’s underlying sexual topic. Elements of the country’s press tried to ban production and there was the threat of confrontations from Islamists who a month before the shoot had violently demonstrated against a conference on Taïa’s novels at El Jadida University — El Jadida is also one of the Moroccan cities where the film is shot. Karim Aït M’Hand, who plays the older Abdellah, is a French actor of Moroccan origin whom Taïa had met in Paris, while the young Abdellah is played by Saïd Mrini who Taïa found in Casablanca only three months before the shoot. Strand picked up the title last August and, according to Hu, has connected with Arab-American, French and gay media ahead of its initial rollout exclusively at the Film Society of Lincoln Center beginning Friday. It will head to L.A., San Francisco and other markets in the coming weeks.