Documentaries take the spotlight this weekend ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. The Weinstein Company, however, is bucking that weekend trend with Stephen Frears’ Philomena, which it hopes will lure the frequently lucrative older demographic into theaters. Roman Polanski’s “lost” documentary Weekend Of A Champion, which has been re-discovered and given a clean-up and a present-day update for its bow four decades later this weekend. The film looks at Formula One racing through champion Jackie Stewart in post ’60s Monaco. Sundance’s Narco Cultura joins the non-fiction offerings via Cinedigm along with Michel Gondry’s animated Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?. The IFC Films title is closing out this year’s DOC NYC event Thursday night. Last year, DOC NYC featured Bettie Page Reveals All, which also hits theaters this weekend, giving a big screen look at one of the world’s most famous pinup figures.
Director-writer: Stephen Frears
Writers: Jeff Pope, Martin Sixsmith (book)
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
A best screenplay winner in Venice and the best narrative feature audience award winner at the Hamptons International Film Festival, Stephen Frears’ drama centers on a world-weary political journalist. He follows the story of a woman’s search for her son who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and forced to live in a convent. “We screened it and we knew we had something really special — Judi and Steve Coogan are great,” said TWC’s president of Theatrical Distribution. “We took it to the middle of the country and it screened really great and that’s when we decided to open big.” Lomis noted that Philomena opened strong in the UK with second week grosses only falling 3 percent. “I think there isn’t really anything like this for an older demography. It’s like a road trip that makes you laugh.” Lomis said they hope to tap the older demograph, which has proven to be very lucrative at the box office in recent years, most notably Fox Searchlight’s 2012 hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which also starred Judi Dench. That film opened in 27 theaters at the beginning of May last year, grossing over $737K and averaging over $27K. It went on to gross over $46.4 million domestically. The Weinstein Company will open Philomena at the Paris and Sunshine in New York and the Landmark and Arclight in L.A. this weekend, but will expand the title to about 700 theaters next Wednesday heading into the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.
Weekend Of A Champion (1972, updated re-release)
Directors: Frank Simon, Roman Polanski
Subjects: Jackie Stewart, Roman Polanski, Helen Stewart
Distributor: Submarine Deluxe
Roman Polanski invited doc filmmaker Frank Simon (The Queen) to take on a documentary project with him after meeting the young filmmaker at the ill-fated 1968 Cannes Film Festival, which was closed down in the wake of the now famous student uprisings in France. Polanski wanted to capture his friend, famed Formula One race car driver Jackie Stewart as he defended his streak of championships at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1971. The film went on to limited festival runs including a Special Mention at the Berlinale in 1972, followed by other festival runs before virtually disappearing for four decades. “One of his people asked if he should just scrap it,” said Stewart. “But he remembered that my son Mark had another reel, which was actually in very good condition and then he decided to take a look at it with Mark and myself. The three of us watched it and he said, ‘This is very well worth doing. Let’s take another stab at it.'” Submarine Deluxe’s Dan Braun spoke with producer Brett Ratner who told him about Weekend Of A Champion. He immediately wanted to get involved. “My salivary glands starting going,” said Braun. “This is a lost film that has only been screened 3 times in the world; a 7-day run in Paris in 1971, this summer in Cannes in a special screening and recently at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their film restoration screening series. The racing subject makes it intrinsically exciting but at its core it’s a film about the relationship between Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski, both at the height of their powers. It felt like something that could work theatrically for the racing fans and for Polanski fans as a document of its time.”
Clearly racing fans and fans of now the now titled Sir Jackie Stewart are obvious draws, according to Braun. Polanski and Stewart took part in a “live” press conference via satellite in New York and the company has tapped Sports Illustrated, Spike TV and the like ahead of its limited roll out this weekend at IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York. Stewart and Ratner will also participate in select Q&As this weekend.
Shaul Schwarz’s doc Narco Cultura turns the spotlight on the music genre known as narcocorridos, a style of music popular among some for its bloodthirsty and explicit lyrics which take their cues from the ongoing narcotic drug wars in Mexico and beyond. A debut at Sundance last January, the film goes behind the scenes of the subculture of both sides of the border. “I started covering the story as a photo journalist and decided that pictures alone were not enough,” said Schwarz. “I wanted to see the cultural angle on how this is affecting people on both sides of the border and I wanted to take the crowd on a ride — take it to the belly of the beast.” In one particular sequence, Schwarz follows popular musicians who live in the U.S. but head to well-known cartel infested areas in Mexico for gigs. The lyrics take on real meaning, but it was also a real danger for the filmmakers. “To use a National Geographic slogan, we go further so you feel closer, but we took some risks,” said Schwarz. “We thought it would be easier to go with the cultural side of the film and we got great access.” Schwarz said that they had to leave Juarez, Mexico in a hurry on more than one occasion, but declined to specify the nature of what moved them to flee. While they took risks, they also knew their limits and mostly accepted that. “For every ten things we had there were also so many things we could have shown,” added Schwarz. “We only had a two-man team and we never spent more than a week in Juarez. If we were told not to shoot, we didn’t argue even as much as I would have liked to shoot sometimes. It’s not worth dying for.”
Cinedigm picked up Narco Cultura after its Sundance debut, though the company’s Vincent Scordino said he had had his eye on it beforehand after producer Lars Knudsen of Parts and Labor told him the description. “On the one hand this is an extremely powerful and effective indictment of the war on drugs, but it’s also the most intense horror film you’ll ever see,” said Scordino. “When you add in the music and unparalleled access, you start to understand how commercially minded audiences will connect with the film as well.” The film will open in New York and Miami this weekend with other “key markets” including L.A. added December 6. It will expand based on results.
French Oscar-winning filmmaker Michel Gondry continues his American-centered subject matter of late, following last year’s quasi-experimental drama The We And The I. In his latest, he takes on late left-wing U.S. philosopher/logician Noam Chomsky through a series of interviews that features the activist, presented in hand-drawn animation. “This was Michel’s idea,” said longtime Gondry producer Georges Hermann. “He started little by little. When he started to have something that made sense and required production support he then came to me and told me about it.bI thought it was so new and creative and I thought we should do it, but I wasn’t that familiar with Chomsky [at the time], but Michel was.” Prep on the project began in 2010 and Gondry immediately decided to go with animation, tapping their production fund at production company Partizan to get things going. “We knew we couldn’t get equity partners on a project like this,” said Hermann. “So we had to fund it and this was the challenge.” The film will have its World Premiere in the U.S. before going to the Berlinale in February. It will then head to France in May or June. IFC Films will open Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? at IFC Center in NYC as well as the Sundance Sunset in LA and the Playhouse in Pasadena this weekend. It will head to the Roxie in San Francisco for the holiday weekend, followed by several additional markets December 6.
Music Box Films picked up Bettie Page after viewing the film at the non-fiction fest DOC NYC last year. The film takes a look at one of the world’s most popular pinup icons and her image which served as a pre-cursor to the sexual revolution in America. “The film has a lot of sellable qualities that were readily apparent to us, but the thing I remember most vividly is the first time I saw Bettie’s official Facebook page,” noted Andrew Carlin, Music Box’s head of theatrical sales. “I was blown away. It wasn’t just the number of fans she had, it was how interactive they were. A picture would go up and within 15 minutes, you’d see tens of thousands of people ‘liking’ it, thousands more sharing it with their friends, and hundreds of comments. So it was clear that these weren’t passive fans — this was a community.” Music Box hopes to tap into that enthusiasm as the film, which also has notables of its own featured in the title hits theaters this weekend. The distributor is also going to tap burlesque performers, roller derby organizations and rockabilly groups as the film heads out market by market. The company has also partnered with the figure’s official clothing line, Bettie Page Clothing, to coordinate in-store promotion.
“A lot of credit is due Mark Mori, the director,” said Carlin. “This film is obviously his baby and he’s done a truly remarkable job mobilizing Bettie supporters across the country through his own social media channels.” Music Box is taking the traditional theatrical roll out route, holding off on VOD until March 2014. Bettie Page Reveals All will open at Village East in New York, followed by the NuArt in Los Angeles and Regal Westpark in Irvine Thanksgiving weekend. It will add 18 – 20 locations December 6, targeting theaters nearby Bettie Page Clothing retail stores.