Two Academy Award-nominated films are on this weekend’s offerings of specialty releases. Undefeated directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin shared with me their charmed experience bringing their Oscar-nominated doc to the screen, while Bullhead director Michael R Roskam gave me insight into the maze of funding he exploited behind his feature heading to theaters Friday. On The Ice producer Cara Marcous offers her take on self-distribution. Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu talks about walking a fine line releasing Michael, a film with good word of mouth but a taboo subject. And distributor Kino Lorber shares its marketing outreach to maximize its roll out of doc Putin’s Kiss.

Director: Dan Lindsay, TJ Martin; Theatrical Release Date: February 17, 2012; Distributor: The Weinstein Co.; Awards: 2012 Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature Nomination

One of two specialty Oscar-nominees coming out this week, the trajectory of this project from concept to completion is the sort of thing aspiring filmmakers dream of. After moving to Los Angeles, producer Rich Middlemas met up with Dan Lindsay for breakfast. The two lamented having to “find permission” to make a film. Lindsay told Deadline, “So we said, ‘let’s just find something and do it’…”

Momentum began when they found an article about a high school football team in inner-city Memphis which finds an inspirational coach and aspires to win the first playoff game in the school’s 110-year history. “We were encouraged to go to Memphis to shoot a little footage to see what we might get,” said Lindsay. “The footage was emotionally candid from the start and we knew we found something very compelling.” Lindsay and fellow director TJ Martin gathered material in March, April and May of last year and decided to shop the footage around town in June.

“We went to five or six production companies that have an appetite for docs,” said Lindsay. “We told them our approach and we said we were going to do this with or without them.” But Exclusive Media at Spitfire Productions bit, taking the project under its wing. Spitfire had previously concentrated on music docs including Martin Scorsese’s recent George Harrison: Living In The Material World and the filmmakers happened upon the company right when they were looking to move beyond music-based material. Another dose of good luck came when a brother of one of the company’s principals, a Florida surgeon, decided to finance the project.

“This all came together in a week, so by beginning of July we were living in Memphis making this film,” said Lindsay. “We still joke that this will never happen to us again.” Added co-director TJ Martin, “We shot, cut and did the sound on the film. We were consumed by this film. It became instinctual.” Shooting primarily from July to December, they logged 500 hours of footage which they trimmed to 113 minutes. Undefeated received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary last month and The Weinstein Company will release beginning this week.

Director Michael R Roskam; Writer: Michael R. Roskam; Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy; Distributor: Drafthouse Films; Awards: 2012 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film of the Year Nomination

Government grants were crucial for this film to get to the screen, Bullhead Belgian director Micahel R. Roskam told Deadline. Small territories are inherently at a disadvantage so European projects typically turn to a web of funding sources to get their films underway. While Roskam and his producers waded into a web of funding boards with language and crew requirements, Bullhead secured most of its €2 million budget. “It’s time consuming to get a film financed that way but it’s usually the only way,” Roskam told Deadline by phone from Belgium. “Private financing is usually only for very commercial films here.”

Roskam raised half the budget through his native Belgium’s two sources which reflects the country’s historical division between the Dutch speaking Flemmish and the Francophone Walloon regions. The film also received money from nearby Holland and secured additional cash via European television pre-sales.

“We were very lucky to get this because many apply and don’t get all this,” added Roskam. The outlays were greatly augmented by Belgium’s generous tax shelter program. Seventy per cent of Bullhead was shot in the country’s Flemmish area and 30% in the Walloon region in the south. The project also included actors from the Netherlands. “I think the script had benefits from this process, but at times it can be very slow,” Roskam said. “If you get €500,000 the money stays good while you’re trying to raise additional funding. It’s comfortable to have that money in place instead of worrying about a private investor who decide to pull it. And it’s not like a film commissioner is going to come and tell you how to change or oversee your production like a private investor might.”

On The Ice
Director: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean; Writer: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean; Cast: Josiah Patkotak, Frank Qutuq Irelan, Teddy Kyle Smith, Adamina Kerr, Sierra Jade Sampson

U.S. productions have very little in the way of direct government funding but a myriad of private groups work individually and sometimes in tandem to bring specialty work to the big screen. Writer/director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On The Ice sidestepped traditional distribution for a release utilizing a DIY approach with help from some established organizations in the business. “On The Ice has all first-time actors from an [Alaskan native] community,” producer Cara Marcous told Deadline. “But we understand that audience since we’re a part of that community and we can hand pick theaters we think will best fit this film. We think we can create a better release [strategy] than a formal distributor could.” The film opens in New York at the Village East downtown and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Film Center in the Upper West Side in addition to locations in Alaska where the film is set this Friday. The Best Debut Film winner at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, On The Ice centers on two teenagers whose bonds are tested when a friend dies while on a seal-hunting trip that goes wrong.

In all, 18 theaters throughout the U.S. have signed on to screen On The Ice and PMK/BMC is on board as an outsourced marketing and distribution partner for the rollout. The filmmakers raised $86,000 through a Kickstarter campaign that received an extra push through the Sundance Institute’s artist services initiative in which the organization lends its name and expertise for Sundance Film Festival alumni who choose to self-distribute. PR and online strategist Brigade Marketing is handling online outreach and the creative team at WME’s Self Serve created the trailer.

“We have ten 35mm copies of the film so we’re layering our release,” said Marcous. “We know we’re not going to be screening in a theater for two months, so we can bank on maybe a four-week window and then take a print on to the next theater. This way we can target more cities than we might have otherwise.” In addition to New York and Alaska, the film will open in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City and other locales. The filmmakers are also eyeing WME’s Netflix arrangement or Sundance’s Hulu partnership for its non-theatrical plans. “Sundance and WME are in contact so we’re their fortunate guinea pig in that regard,” noted Marcous.

Director-writer: Markus Schleinzer; Cast: Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger, Christine Kain, Ursula Strauss; Distributor: Strand Releasing

Strand Releasing knew it had its work cut out for it when it picked up Austrian film Michael ahead of its North American premiere in Toronto last September. In Cannes, U.S. distributors and critics quietly lauded the film but many speculated privately how it could possibly be released Stateside. The tense drama focuses on the last five months of a 10-year-old boy’s life under the control of a man who keeps him locked away in a basement. Not exactly an obvious sell to a general public rightly horrified by child abuse. Still, the film continued to receive hushed good word of mouth in Toronto and although disturbing, the film is not a salacious account of child exploitation, its supporters say.

“It’s a really amazing auteur driven movie,” Strand Releasing’s co-head Marcus Hu told Deadline. Strand co-head “Jon Gerrans and I thought the filmmaking was impeccable. Markus [Schleinzer] is an incredible new voice. It’s not an exploitation film but a study of an upsetting tale of a man who is keeping this kid captive. It never panders or is gratuitous. It’s controlled and amazingly well told.”

Taking a cue from the film, Strand said it is not using anything “gratuitous” in its promotional material and is targeting its limited roll out to venues frequented by audiences that are accustomed to challenging material. “We’re trying to be as tasteful as we can be,” said Hu. “We don’t want to misconstrue that it’s in any way exploitational. We’re playing it in intellectualized venues where a really smart audience goes to see auteur driven movies. They understand that they’re not going to be seeing something that’s titillating.” Hu noted that last year’s closure of the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood has limited the options for challenging films, though the people behind Cinefamily and their single screen on Fairfax where Michael will open in LA has helped fill a vacuum. “Cinefamily will help the release,” said Hu. “It’s an auteur venue for alternative material.” Along with its LA theatrical release, Michael will screen at Film Forum in New York. In addition to Michael, Strand will bow Danis Tanovic’s Cirkus Columbia this weekend in NYC at the Quad.

Putin’s Kiss
Director: Lise Birk Pedersen; Distributor: Kino Lorber

A North American premiere in the World Documentary Competition, Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen’s Putin’s Kiss may very well be the first theatrical release from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Distributor Kino Lorber had initially eyed a summer roll out, but the upcoming presidential elections in Russia in March resulted in a strategy change. The New York distributor is targeting groups and organizations with ties to America’s Russian community to increase awareness and interest in the film, which is a critical look of Putin through the viewpoint of an individual Pedersen met by chance in St. Petersburg.

“September 24, 2011, marked the day when Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that they would, by all intended purposes, switch jobs in 2012, and that lead to enormous protests and street political activity throughout Russia,” Kino Lorber’s Rodrigo Brandão told Deadline. “It was amazing to see how young Russians are engaged and politicized, and this engagement ripple is also making its ways through Russian communities in the US.” Capitalizing on events in their homeland, Kino is targeting Russians in New York through 30-second spots on Russian news network RTN. Famed dissident journalist Oleg Kashin figures prominently, raising awareness of the film, which focuses on an ambitious-19 year-old girl who initially drinks the Kool-Aid of Putin’s nationalistic youth organization, Nashi, but then becomes disenchanted when she comes into contact with persecuted opposition journalists.

Kino Lorber will bring Pedersen to New York to speak with local outlets and will target organizations with interest in Russia. “We’re also screening the film to local influencers at The Core Club, and the Institute of Modern Russia as well as the Harriman Institute at Columbia University [all of] which are supporting this release in one way or another.”