This weekend is shaping up to mirror early fall, when specialty distributors packed theaters with new titles. Many of those disappeared quickly, and this weekend could be similar as companies usher in about a dozen limited-release theatrical newcomers. Focus Features’ The Theory Of Everything, however, has amassed a good amount of attention. Directed by Oscar winner James Marsh (Man On Wire), the Stephen Hawking biopic is opening two months after its Toronto debut. Two notable nonfiction titles also join the fray this weekend: Cinema Guild’s Actress, from director Robert Greene, and Zipporah Films’ National Gallery by nonfiction maverick Frederick Wiseman. Both deserve attention as the awards-race heats up. Two years after the theatrical bow of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the 16th U.S. President is the focus of Amplify’s The Better Angels — though it focuses a very different phase of his life. Distrib Films is opening Italian political comedy Viva La Libertà starring Toni Servillo, and Main Stream Films is opening West just in time for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Also opening this weekend are Hannover House’s On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter in more than 150 theaters; Music Box Films’ The Tower; Strand’s The Way He Looks; The Vladar Company’s Death Metal Angola and Millennium’s Elsa & Fred.

The Theory Of Everything
Director: James Marsh
Writers: Anthony McCarten, Jane Hawking (book)\
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior, Sophie Perry, Finlay Wright-Stephens, Harry Lloyd, Alice Orr-Ewing, David Thewlis, Emily Watson
Distributor: Focus Features

The Theory of EverythingWorking Title Films co-chair Eric Fellner was no stranger to scripts that had at their center world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, but he never acted on them. But for The Theory Of Everything, it clicked. Fellow producer Lisa Bruce, with whom he had worked several years prior on a TV movie, asked him to read the script, but he didn’t expect much. “I accepted because I’ve known [Bruce] but thought it would be like the others we’d had seen about Hawking,” said Fellner. “But I was bowled over by it because it was such a fresh take. I thought I’d seen everything there was to know about him.” Starring Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking (based on her book Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen), the story focuses on the pair beginning when they meet at Cambridge and fall deeply in love. Once an active, healthy young man, Hawking received a life-altering ALS diagnosis at age 21. After learning his fate and with Jane fighting with him, Stephen Hawking begins his most ambitious scientific work: studying time, of which he seemingly had very little on his side. Together they defy odds, making breakthroughs in medicine and science along the way and achieving more that they thought possible.

“I was first sent the script in 2013, and it all happened very fast,” said Fellner. “They wanted to partner on packaging, finance and casting. We worked with [Bruce] and [screenwriter] Anthony McCarten on further drafts and locked in James Marsh as director in May 2013.” Said Bruce: “Marsh became a very interesting prospect to us because of [of his Oscar-winning docu] Man On Wire, which was both a unique telling of a true-life story and profoundly emotional. We sent him the script in October of 2012, and he immediately responded to the material, saying it surprised him.” Fellner had been a fan of Eddie Redmayne’s work on Les Miserables and set up a meeting with the actor and Marsh at a pub. Fellner also had worked with Redmayne on 2012 miniseries Birdsong. “We decided to cast him as Stephen,” said Fellner. “We then had a shortlist of women to play Jane. It was blistering clear when we got him in a room with Felicity [Jones that] they worked together.” Working Title, meanwhile, had approached Universal International, with which it has a first-look agreement, to consider the project. Fellner said the company’s recently departed exec David Kosse (who now leads Channel 4’s film division) championed the project. “It’s not an obvious choice,” said Fellner. “But Donna Langley read the script and loved it and greenlit the movie in July of last year.”

Bruce said the project had “the right amount of money and time” but was still a “modest budget.” Shooting began in September 2013, lasting through October. Said Fellner: “It was a great shoot, but it was also difficult for Eddie and Felicity. It was traumatic in terms of work, but luckily most of the drama happened on film and not on the set.” Universal handed The Theory Of Everything over to its Focus Features label for release. A Focus rep said the company has targeted “upscale adult moviegoers and females by promoting the film on morning shows, early and late news, prime cable and spots in release markets.” Focus organized “an extensive word-of-mouth” screening program, and Hawking has lured in 2 million fans since joining Facebook last month. The title had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will begin its theatrical rollout Friday in 5 locations in New York, L.A., and Toronto.

Director: Robert Greene
Subject: Brandy Burre
Distributor: Cinema Guild

ActressVeteran docu filmmaker Robert Greene (Fake It So Real, Kati With An I) found his latest subject near his home in Beacon, NY, in 2012. Actress Brandy Burre had been a steady feature as Theresa D’Agostino on HBO’s The Wire but had put her career on hold to start a family with her partner Tim in the Hudson Valley community. After a period focusing on motherhood, the acting urge reared its head, sparking Greene’s interest in what looked to be a new phase in Burre’s life. “I had this idea of showing a woman in her late 30s going through transition [as well as] the idea of watching people ‘perform’ as themselves,” said Greene, who is neighbors with Burre in Beacon. “She’s a trained actor with a master’s. I had always watched The Wire and thought it was funny that my neighbor was on my favorite show.” Greene picked up his mini DV and began shooting without any upfront financing, though his former employer 4th Row Films (which also produced his previous movies) was integral along the way with equipment and other resources.

Unplanned as shooting continued was the upheaval that ensued between Burre and her partner as their relationship took a turn. Greene discussed stopping the process as the situation worsened, but then the pair decided to continue. “I offered to turn off the camera, and Brandy said OK,” said Greene. “But as we talked, it made sense that if the movie is about Brandy’s changing roles, then this is part of that process.” Greene noted that he didn’t ask anyone to sign a release until the end of the process because he didn’t want people in the film to feel trapped. “Tim didn’t necessarily like it, but he accepted it,” added Greene. “He said it was a good movie. There has been strain in our relationship … but he accepts it.” Greene noted that the film is squarely from Burre’s point of view.

After post, which 4th Row financed, Greene did a crowd-sourcing campaign to finance three songs in the film he felt were crucial to include and to pay 4th Row back some of what it had extended. He decided to debut the film at the docu-centered True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO, last March (the festival often screens first-time titles but doesn’t use the term “world premiere”). “It was an unorthodox choice,” said Greene. “I wanted [Cinema Guild’s] Ryan Krivoshey to see it, but he ended up not getting to until a few months after True/False.” After seeing it, Cinema Guild picked up rights. It played festivals in Nantucket, New York and Virginia ahead of its release this weekend (it will also play Copenhagen’s CPHDOX, which starts November 8). The title has media and awards momentum as it heads into theaters, including two New York Times features in addition to its current Gotham nomination for Best Documentary. “We’re taking a long span of time for the rollout,” added Greene. Actress will have an exclusive one-week run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and will head to select locations through February. One particular city that boasts its own pool of actresses — L.A. — has yet to book the film. Said Greene: “Los Angeles is a riddle that’s hard to figure out when it comes to documentaries.”

The Better Angels
Director-writer: A.J. Edwards
Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Braydon Denney, Cameron Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship
Distributor: Amplify

the_better_angels_posterNearly two years to the day after the initial theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Lincoln, the Civil War president is the focus of another big-screen story, though from a much different period in his life. Produced by Terrence Malick, The Better Angels is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in the harsh wilderness of Indiana and the hardships that ultimately shaped him. It is laced with tragedy but also spotlights the two women who guided him to ultimate greatness. “If you have an interest in Lincoln, you notice there’s [a gap] in his biography,” said director A.J. Edwards. “In 2007, I began doing research on this period, which eventually led to a treatment. [Learning] about this period was enticing because it’s inherently a drama between father and son.” Edwards spent a year researching and received help familiarizing himself with the period from historian William Bartelt, author of There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth. As the screenplay developed, the filmmaking team raised seed money from a group of investors to take the production into its first year. It took about that much time to find its entire cast, including the person who would be selected to play the young Abe Lincoln, Braydon Denney. “It took a year for producer Jake DeVito and casting director Stefni Colle to get the young Lincoln,” said Edwards. “We searched all over Kentucky seeing thousands of kids. We didn’t want an actor. We wanted an outdoorsy person who had an Appalachian accent.”

With cast finally set – the film does include some well-known actors such as Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling and Wes Bentley — the film shot in fall 2012 over 23 days in the Mohonk Mountain resort area in upstate New York in addition to three days that following winter to capture some of the bleakest scenes. Postproduction took place over 9 months in San Antonio, finishing up in New York. The Better Angels debuted at Sundance in January followed by Berlin, Seattle, Deauville and Woodstock fests ahead of this weekend’s rollout. Amplify picked up rights to The Better Angels last spring and will open the title Friday at Landmark’s Sunshine and Nuart theaters in New York and L.A. It will head to Cambridge, MA, and Chicago’s Music Box on November 14 with Seattle, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Berkeley and other major markets throughout November and into December.

Viva la Liberta
Director-writer: Roberto Andò
Writer: Angelo Pasquini
Cast: Toni Servillo, Valerio Mastandrea, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Michela Cescon, Gianrico Tedeschi, Eric Nguyen, Andrea Renzi
Distributor: Distrib Films

viva_la_libertaItalian actor Toni Servillo won praise for his starring role in The Great Beauty, which won the Best Foreign Language Feature at the Academy Awards in March. American audiences will have a chance to see him again in Roberto Andò’s political comedy Viva la Libertà. Francois Scippa Kohn picked up the film for his Distrib Films label, which opened French title Jealous ($64K gross) after opening an office stateside. Servillo plays two roles: a disgraced ideologue and party leader and his unhinged twin brother who seizes control of the country in the void of his brother’s disappearance. “Art house comedies aren’t common from abroad,” said Kohn. “This is not a critics’ movie, but the bookers really like it and audiences at festivals like it. The question mark has always been the press.” Kohn noted that while French film generally has a larger infrastructure in the U.S. in terms of sales agents and industry, who serve as advocates for that country’s cinema, Italy overall does not enjoy the same level of advocacy. “I’ve noticed French films [in the U.S.] are very competitive in receiving distribution,” said Kohn, who has released titles from both countries in Europe and now in this country. “We enjoy Italian films and not just from its [most famous] directors. We think they should have the same [momentum here] as French films.”

Emerging Pictures head Ira Deutchman has helped spearhead interest in Italian films recently via the Cinema Made In Italy program. Organized along with the Instituto Luce-Cinecittà and the Italian Trade Commission, the initiative receives marketing and distribution support for select films with the aim of broadening their U.S. audiences. Last year’s titles included The Great Beauty (Janus Films, $2.85M gross). Kohn noted that Distrib is currently in discussions to include Viva la Libertà in the program as it heads further into its release. It will open at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad in New York this weekend and is booked in 42 markets including L.A., San Francisco and Miami in the coming months.

National Gallery
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Distributor: Zipporah Films

National GalleryContinuing his series of films that goes inside the operation of great institutions, legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman returns to the topic with National Gallery. The 180-minute film chronicles the day-to-day operation of the National Gallery in, the venerable art museum in London’s Trafalgar Square that was founded in 1824 and houses more than 2,300 paintings dating from the 13th century to the start of the 1900s. “I had wanted to do a museum as part of my series on institutions for a long time but couldn’t,” said Wiseman. “But I spoke to a friend I met during a skiing trip who worked at the museum, and then I met with the [National Gallery’s director] in spring 2011.” Wiseman showed some of his work to the museum’s senior curators and received a final OK. He and a small crew had mostly free rein at the institution in 2012 just as it transitioned between some major exhibitions. “I wanted to be there at the tail end of the Leonardo exhibition and as they set up for Titian,” said Wiseman. “I had the run of the place. I just couldn’t shoot personnel issues.”

Wiseman has been a towering vérité figure in the documentary scene since the 1960s and more recently with 2009’s La Danse and last year’s At Berkeley. The filmmaker said that despite his longevity, financing is “always complicated,” though he ultimately worked with groups that have given funds to his previous work. National Gallery is a French co-production that also received resources from CanalPlus, PBS, ITVS and other foundations. At Berkeley, which focuses on the travails of one of the world’s premier public universities, UC Berkeley, grossed just about $32K during its domestic theatrical run. That film’s run time of more than four hours clearly made it a challenge to even find venues. It played only six theaters during its widest release. National Gallery times in at about 2 1/2 hours. Wiseman’s Zipporah Films, which he founded 44 years ago, will release the title, bowing exclusively Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum. It will head to 25 cities from there in the coming weeks.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell?
Director-writer: Sion Sono
Cast: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Hiroki Hasegawa, Gen Hoshino
Distributor: Drafthouse Films

why-dont-you-play-in-hell-posterJapanese filmmaker Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell? played well at the genre-centric Fantastic Fest last year, winning both a Best Director and Best Picture prize. The bloody mob feature even manages to weigh in on the demise of film on the big screen. Drafthouse’s website quotes a statement from Sono about his latest, “[It’s] an action frill about the love of 35mm.” Noted Drafthouse Films CEO Tim League: “Layered into the yakuza battles and blazing gunfire is a fun narrative thread about cinephilia, the death of 35mm film and the unstoppable passion of the director to create.”

Based on a screenplay he wrote 15 years ago, Hell follows an eager wannabe film crew known as the Fuck Bombers who follow their dreams of making the ultimate action epic. Ten years prior, a yakuza heavy known as Ikegami had led an assault on his rival Muto. Now on the eve of his revenge, Muto wants to complete his masterpiece before his wife is released from prison — a feature film starring his daughter. The Fuck Bombers, meanwhile, are ready to seize their big chance to make a real-life yakuza battle to the death on 35mm. “I first saw the film at the Cannes Market in 2013, [and] I’m a huge fan of Sion Sono,” said League, who added that the director’s 2008 feature Love Exposure is one of his favorites. “When I found out this would be screening, I made it a huge priority. … We only work on films we love, and this certainly fits the bill. This movie is absolutely bonkers. We love movies that crescendo into hysteria – on screen and in your seat.”

Drafthouse waited until 2014 to release Why Don’t You Play In Hell? because by the time it acquired the title the company already had queued up its slate of about 10 movies per year. The feature has continued to play a host of international festivals throughout 2014. “Sono has a decent and growing fan base in the states. There’s also a cult fan base for Asian action movies, [which is] where we’ve been focusing our marketing efforts,” said League. “Even though we are focusing on this core, I think a larger audience might find and connect with this film.” Drafthouse will open Why Don’t You Play In Hell? on Friday at IFC Center in New York and its Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and day-and-date via iTunes, VHX and VOD. It will add about a half-dozen markets the following week with additional bows into next month including Los Angeles on December 19.

Director: Christian Schwochow
Writers: Heide Triebel, Julia Franck (novel)\
Cast: Jördis Triebel, Tristan Göbel, Alexander Scheer, Jacky Ido
Distributor: Main Stream Films

WestMain Stream Films Chairman Craig Chang first caught West, appropriately perhaps, at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. The German rep for the film handed him a DVD copy of the title, and Chang watched it at his hotel. “I couldn’t sleep, so I watched it [into the morning], and afterward I wrote the rep that I wanted to have this film,” said Chang. “Americans aren’t as educated about [the Berlin Wall’s] history, and yet it completely affected our lives.” The feature begins in late-’70s East Germany. Nelly Senff decides to escape from behind the wall with her son in the wake of her boyfriend’s apparent death. Pretending to marry a West German, she crosses the border to start a new life in the West. But soon her past starts to haunt her as the Allied Secret Service begins to question her boyfriend’s mysterious disappearance, inquiring whether he might be still alive and perhaps a spy. Plagued by her past and drowning in paranoia, Nelly is forced to choose between discovering the truth about her former lover and her hopes for a better future.

In its marketing material, Chang said the company has included a famous tagline from an American leader to drum up attention. “We’ve been using [President Reagan’s line from his June 1987 Berlin speech], ‘Tear down this wall!’ in all of our promotional material.” West had its U.S. debut at the Seattle International Film Festival in the spring, and Main Stream has teamed up with the German film office stateside to spread the word ahead of this weekend’s theatrical rollout in New York.

“There are 250,000 [German] expats in the New York area,” said VP Communications Sophie Nicolaou. “We’ve been doing a grass-roots campaign which we began earlier this year.” Part of that campaign has been a series of screenings at universities including NYU and over a dozen others as well as events through the Goethe Institute, targeting markets Main Stream hopes to eventually release the film theatrically. For now, Main Stream will open West at the Anthology Film Archive in Manhattan’s East Village on Friday, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend. It will head to additional markets including L.A. and Seattle and will be available on iTunes in the first quarter.