Brian Brooks is Managing Editor of MovieLine.

Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant collaborate on their third project together, Promised Land, headlining the holiday weekend’s specialty releases and the final round of newcomers for 2012.  Van Sant came in as director after Damon tapped him to spearhead the film, which is set in small town Pennsylvania. Also headed to theaters is Sony Pictures ClassicsWest Of Memphis, the latest film centered on the so-called Memphis Three who many believe were wrongly convicted of a grisly murder in a notorious miscarriage of justice. The military takes the spotlight in Allegiance with Aidan Quinn and Bow Wow, which opens via XLrator Media and Adopt Films opens its foreign-language Berlin ’12 pick-up Tabu.

Promised Land
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: John Krasinski, Matt Damon, Dave Eggers (story)
Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt
Distributor: Focus Features

Focus Features came on board with Promised Land after the script was completed in partnership with Participant Media. The story moved from an Alaska mining operation backdrop to a small town in Pennsylvania, which must choose whether to allow an energy company to extract natural gas through the controversial method popularly known as “fracking.” Matt Damon originally was set to direct the film but his schedule made it impossible. He reached out to Gus Van Sant with whom he worked with on Good Will Hunting and Gerry to take on the project. “They thought the project might go away, but then he contacted me – and a year ago, I said yes”, Van Sant said during a pre-release event last month in New York. “It is modest [in budget terms] but spiritually strong,” said Focus CEO James Schamus. “For people looking for an audience experience that doesn’t include a body count, this is a great chance. It’s an alternative.” Although starring some big names, the pic’s budget came in at roughly $15 million.

While the title has remained relatively under the radar compared with some of the other heavy-hitting Oscar contenders crowding theaters, the pic has sparked the ire of pro-fracking interests who have already decided it’s “anti-fracking.” A pro-fracking pic is in the works and proponents have “been very active in framing the movie as a fracking movie”, said Schamus. “It’s a little movie that’s national and they’ve managed to frame it in a particular way and have been extremely effective. They’ve managed to make it appear as an issue movie but it’s not”, he said “Just got to get the movie out there. It’s been educational.” Promised Land opens in 25 theaters across 14 markets this weekend including LA, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. Focus will expand to 1,500 runs on January 4th.

West Of Memphis
Director-co-writer: Amy Berg
Co-writer: Billy McMillin
Subjects: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Classics typically tries to release two documentaries per year and their finale of 2012 will take a cue from its successful Searching For Sugar Man, which is still in theaters since opening in July. “I think a movie like this needs word of mouth and a local profile as it goes from city to city,” SPC co-president Michael Barker said. “That’s how a movie like this works. It is a similar methodology we used for Searching for Sugar Man and it’s a similar methodology we’ve learned over the years.” In its 22 weeks of release, Sugar Man has taken in nearly $3 million, although Barker said that when they release a doc, they’re also looking toward its post-theatrical performance. “We also look at what impact a theatrical release will have on audiences who see the film after it’s out of theaters,” said Barker. “Films like Inside Job ($4.3 million theatrically in 2010) continue to produce revenue years later. Our goal is to have a successful theatrical release, but for the film to be evergreen over time.”

SPC picked up the film at Sundance where it debuted last year. The subject matter covered in West Of Memphis, which follows a grave miscarriage of justice in the ’90s when a group of social misfits were accused and convicted in the brutal deaths of three boys. The story became the subject of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s three docs beginning in 1996 with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996, which rallied celebrity support for the men convicted, one of whom sat on Death Row. Released from prison but still technically guilty, one of the accused, Damien Echols is a producer on West Of Memphis.

“We were taken by Amy Berg’s filmmaking but also the subject of American injustice,” said Barker. “This kind of case that will continue to play and there’s not enough that can be said about this case. People are interested in what happened and what’s still happening. We think it’s worthy of more movies, more books and even more plays. It’s one of those cases in which even more information comes out after all these years.” SPC will open West Of Memphis in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles followed by a slow rollout into additional markets. SPC expects it to have a strong showing in the South.

Director-writer: Michael Connors
Cast: Aidan Quinn, Bow Wow, Seth Gabel, Reshma Shetty
Distributor: XLrator Media

Distributor XLrator received an early version of Allegiance, which centers on a lieutenant in the National Guard who faces the dilemma of one of his soldiers going AWOL as their unit faces deployment to Iraq. I thought if the movie was half as good as the teaser then I’m in,” said XLrator CEO Barry Gordon. “It’s a thriller but there are no bad guys.” The film debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year and Gordon bought the film soon afterward. “I call this the perfect little movie,” said Gordon. “When you look at multiplatform aspect you can see that there are some that just work. It’s a thriller with a military aspect, it’s multicultural, it’s millennial-youth and also appealing to grandparents. So we see that these are the demos that work across platforms.”

Military personnel advised writer/director Michael Connors in making the film, who himself comes from a strong military background. Financing also came from people with close ties to the military. “The soldier is not demonized and the military is not demonized,” said Gordon. “It’s a film where people who know [this world] will say, ‘this shit really happens.’ You know it’s made from a soldiers’ hand.” Allegiance opened via VOD two weeks ago and is “doing well,” noted Gordon. Over the holiday weekend, it will bow theatrically in New York, followed by Austin and Los Angeles the following weekend. Further theatrical expansion depends on performance.

Director-co-writer: Miguel Gomes
Co-writer: Mariana Ricardo
Cast: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira
Distributor: Adopt Films

Tabu was one of four films boutique distributor Adopt Films picked up last year at the Berlin International Film Festival. The Portuguese drama-romance revolves around a restless retired woman who teams up with her deceased neighbor’s maid to seek out a man who has a secret connection to per past life as a farm owner near Mount Tabu in Africa. “The film was one of the quartet of films in Berlin that we grabbed this year,” said Adopt Films’ Jeff Lipsky. “We saw it there and fell in love.” Lipsky called the job of distributing the film “sheer bliss” and noted its critical success save for the ever-important New York Times. Lipsky said that at at time when there’s “minimal interest” in foreign-language film, he sees a symbiotic relationship between Leos Carax’s Holy Motors and Tabu. “We’re not an Oscar contender so that allows us to not rush this thing out and that will allow it to breathe,” said Lipsky. “It’s a beautiful dream of a film and the fact it’s in black-and-white and 35 mm will be attractive to people.”

The Match Factory sold Tabu, which screened at the New York Film Festival last fall, to Adopt. The distributor will open the title in New York this weekend, followed by LA, Seattle and Minneapolis in January with seven more markets through the first quarte.