Perhaps the most beloved film critic will get his starring spotlight on the big screen this holiday weekend. Filmmaker Steve James, one of many directors who was discovered in part because of Roger Ebert and his partner (and rival) Gene Siskel, looks at Ebert’s life in Life Itself, which opens July 4 in select cities via Magnolia Pictures. The doc will go up against a trio of studio blockbusters over the long weekend along with the latest from Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci, Me And You, which will open as the fourth Italian film under an initiative with Emerging Pictures. A re-release by Janus Films will be the weekend’s “largest” Specialty release. Acclaimed 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night will roll out into 100-plus theaters with more cities expected into July. And thriller The Girl On The Train will open with two runs from Monterey Media.

life itself posterLife Itself
Director: Steve James
Subjects: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, A.O. Scott, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Filmmaker Steve James first met Roger Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 where his doc Hoop Dreams debuted. Ebert and Gene Siskel championed the film, which went on to receive an Oscar nomination the following year. “Like many, I had a relationship with him though he didn’t with me. I watched the show when I first fell in love with movies,” said James, referring to Siskel and Ebert’s show At The Movies. “I had hoped to one day make them as well.” James had formed a professional relationship with Ebert and that status remained so up to his involvement with the big screen version of Life Itself, which is based on the 2011 memoir penned by the critic about his life.

“[The documentary] came about because Steven Zaillian and Garrett Basch who are producers of the film read the memoir,” explained James. “They are both big doc fans and they thought it would be the basis for a great film. So they reached out to Roger [Ebert’s] literary agent and talked to Roger. He was intrigued by the idea, but not ready to commit to anything. He then reached out to me and asked me if I was interested, so I quickly read the memoir and said that I’d love to do this.” Initial funding for the screen version of Life Itself came from private investors from Chicago and was in place before concerns about Ebert’s health arose. “[His wife Chaz Ebert] had an intuition that it was necessary to get things started, so we started filming,” said James. “The next big investor was CNN Films which was great and after that we received a substantial grant from Michael Ferro’s family foundation [and owner of the Chicago Sun-Times].”

Soon after filming began, Roger Ebert went into a Chicago hospital with a fractured hip and was expected to be out fairly soon, but it was only initially thought to be a temporary setback. “We had a schedule in place in which we planned to film him going to a screening the following week and there was a dinner party being planned by he and Chaz that some of the people I wanted to interview were going to be at,” said James. “So I envisioned that to be a great theme and that would be a great springboard to interview these folks.” Ebert would only be home again for two days for the rest of his life between stays in hospital. Life Itself follows Ebert’s final days but uses his steadfast determination as a springboard to go into his past from joining the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 up through his often contentious relationship with Gene Siskel, who also figures prominently in the film, offering up some of the feature’s most humorous moments. “With Gene, the humor is very present,” said James. “It’s one of the funniest parts of the movie and even cringe-inducing in places because of the sheer vitriol and competitiveness between these two guys.” The production raised finishing funds through an Indie Go Go campaign which also recruited what James described as “proselytizers” for the film. Life Itself debuted at Sundance in January and, fittingly, at Ebertfest in April. It also screened in Cannes, Sydney and the recent Nantucket Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures picked up rights to the film in February. It will open day and date Friday, screening in nearly two dozen cities theatrically July 4 weekend including two locations in L.A. and New York. It will expand to an additional two dozen locations, adding major markets the following week, with more markets added throughout July and August.

Me And Youme and you
Director-writer: Bernardo Bertolucci
Writers: Niccolò Ammaniti, Umberto Contarello, Francesca Marciano
Cast: Tea Falco, Jacopo Olmo Antinori, Sonia Bergamasco, Veronica Lazar, Tommaso Ragno, Pippo Delbono
Distributor: Emerging Pictures/Cinema Made In Italy

Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci was in Cannes in 2011 to receive an honorary Golden Palm. While appearing in good spirits, he was nevertheless confined to a wheelchair, leading some to conclude that his filmmaking days were essentially over. He hadn’t directed a feature since The Dreamers in 2003. But Bertolucci surprised afterward with Me And You, a family drama about an introverted teen who tells his parents he is going on a ski trip, but instead hides out in a basement. “He’s working in a modest way which he’s not typically known for,” said Emerging Pictures head Ira Deutchman. “But he’s used his current physical limitations [to tap] renew himself creatively…and production was small in scale that allowed for his [limited physical mobility].” Me And You is the fourth film in the ‘Cinema Made In Italy’ series, a combined effort between Instituto Luce-Cinecittà, the Italian Trade Commission and Emerging to bring five films to a nationwide release in the U.S. The first film in the series was Paolo Sorrentino’s Academy Award-winner The Great Beauty, which Janus Films opened in the U.S., and was one of 2013’s most successful foreign-language films ($2.85M domestic gross).

Me And You is also Bertolucci’s first Italian-language film in many years. Emerging and Cinema Made In Italy will open the feature exclusively in New York City, but will head out to most major markets in the coming weeks. Incidentally, Bertolucci had traveled to Los Angeles for the 3D premiere of The Last Emperor last fall, which was a surprise. Deutchman said that there had been some talk he would visit New York to do press for Me And You, but he’s apparently prepping yet another production. The current Cinema Made In Italy initiative will conclude with Gianni Amelio’s L’Interepido, which will open in September. Deutchman said that there is early talk with the other entities spearheading the current program to have a second edition, potentially starting in November with another round of Italian films.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964 re-release)Hard Day's Night Poster 1
Director: Richard Lester
Writer: Alun Owen
Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti, Anna Quayle
Distributor: Janus Films

Considered one of the most influential musical films of all time, A Hard Day’s Night went on to receive two Oscar nominations and had grossed $11 million globally by 1971. The 1964 feature by Richard Lester starring The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania is an 87-minute comedy-music film that depicts a “typical” day in the life of the Beatles and features a number of their big hits. The film will have another release this weekend stateside, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of its original release and 20 years after Criterion issued its laser disc edition. “No release of Hard Day’s Night has ever shown a more faithful representation of the film than this restoration taken from the original camera negative,” said Janus Films’ Peter Becker. “Even the original 1964 prints would have been a couple of generations down from what audiences will see now.” The film bowed at the London Pavilion, taking in over $20K its first week. At its height, over 1,600 prints were in circulation.

“By opening the film simultaneously in 120 theaters across the country, we’re breaking the traditional mold for repertory releasing and making the 50th anniversary release of A Hard Day’s Night the national media event it deserves to be,” said Becker. “This is not just the anniversary of a movie’s release, it’s the commemoration of a major cultural landmark. Apple and the Beatles marketing arm have been supporting the release every step of the way and they are committed to helping us get the word out to their huge fan base through social media and merchandising.” The film will open Friday in 79 locations, going up to 107 Friday and Sunday and is slated to head to 158 theaters after the 4th of July weekend.

The Girl On The TrainGirl on the Train_poster
Director-writer: Larry Brand
Cast: Henry Ian Cusick, Nicki Aycox, Stephen Lang
Distributor: Monterey Media

Distributor Monterey Media became aware of Larry Brand’s The Girl On The Train after a ‘high-profile’ ally reached out to the company. The thriller centers on a chance encounter with a mysterious young woman who leads a documentary filmmaker down a very different road than he intended while working on his latest project. Kathleen Glynn, who has been a producer on most of Michael Moore’s movies of the last decade or so (in addition to being his spouse) called up Monterey Media to solicit their possible involvement. The thriller played at last year’s Traverse City Film Festival, an annual event spearheaded by Moore, and had been produced by a Michigan production company. “[Glynn] called us and said that this is a movie that needs care, so she got us in touch with the producers,” said Monterey Media’s CEO Scott Mansfield. “It doesn’t have a ‘name cast’ but it’s a wonderful film and so we decided to take it on.” The Girl On The Train has also played festivals in Sedona, AZ and Newport Beach, CA where Mansfield said audiences took to the film. It won a best screenplay prize at the Napa Valley Film Festival. “We’re relaying on [positive] critical reviews and grassroots and guerrilla marketing to spread word-of-mouth on the film,” added Mansfield. Guerrilla marketing includes canvasing areas within a specific radius of its two locations that will be showing the film this week. “That’s not atypical of a lot of independent films,” said Mansfield. “And of course there’s social media which is a given now. “Perhaps a tweet from Michael Moore will happen.” Mansfield said that geo-targeted advertising on Facebook has become a crucial method of recruiting audiences with very limited runs and a tight to almost non-existent marketing budget. The Girl On The Train will open in one theater each in Los Angeles (the Downtown Independent) and Detroit. It will head to at least ten additional markets in the coming weeks and the hope is that a good Los Angeles Times review will propel it to more cities this summer.