Focus Features is taking The Zookeeper’s Wife starring Jessica Chastain into well over several hundred theaters this weekend, the highest-profile Specialty release in a weekend that includes the debuts of some very limited releases. Two documentaries are among the slate of newcomers: God Knows Where I Am, the directorial debut of producers Jedd Wider and Todd Wider, and All This Panic, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and begins its theatrical run in New York today.
China Lion is opening thriller The Devotion of Suspect X in over forty locations. In limited release this weekend is The Orchard’s Carrie Pilby starring Bel Powley in a day and date bow. Reliance Films is opening Indian action spy thriller Naam Shabana, while Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award winner Here Alone from Vertical Entertainment will begin its theatrical run. Drama Tony Conrad will open at New York’s Anthology Film Archive, and Arrow Releasing will re-release the 2001 fantasy feature Donnie Darko. Newmarket originally opened the latter, which helped propel Jake Gyllenhaal to stardom. The film has cumed over $1.2M in its various releases.
The Zookeeper’s Wife
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Angela Workman, Diane Ackerman (book)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Timothy Radford, Iddo Goldberg, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas,
Distributor: Focus Features
Filmmaker Niki Caro was approached by producers of The Zookeeper’s Wife with a script from Angela Workman. Caro felt that the story “had the potential to become a new kind of Holocaust movie emphasizing kindness and compassion.” Noted Caro: “Like most, I had never heard the name Antonina Zabinska, let alone the remarkable role she played in history…The Zabinskis connection to animal life, their radical humanity, and their determination to do what was right even at huge risk to themselves and their family, was hugely inspiring to me.”
Set in Poland in 1939 and based on the New York Times best-seller, the film follows Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) who oversee the flourishing Warsaw Zoo. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance to save lives of the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and her children at great risk.
The script went through a “couple of drafts,” according to Caro before approaching Jessica Chastain for the lead. The actress “said yes immediately,” according to the filmmaker.
“Shooting in Warsaw was out of the question, as 90% of the city had been destroyed in the war,” explained Caro. “Prague was a great alternative, in that we could recreate 1930s Warsaw, a thriving, cosmopolitan city known as ‘the Paris of the North.’ The biggest production challenge was how we were going to express a Belle Epoch zoo. Although we did explore it, there was no way we could shoot in a real zoo. From a production design perspective, no modern zoo was ever going to be period accurate, let alone be able to withstand the stages of destruction required to express the war years.”
Instead, the production set out to find a place to create their own zoo. Production Designer Suzie Davies found a neglected exhibition park near the center of the Czech capital and from there, the team created their own zoo.
On the promotion side, the film’s trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife bowed November 23, targeting adult audiences attending Allied, Nocturnal Animals, Loving, La La Land, Lion and Fifty Shades Darker, according to Focus Features, which picked up the title in the script stage in summer 2015. The company has been getting the word out ahead of the feature’s release through various institutions including U.S. Jewish film festivals, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, the Anne Frank Center & Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, UJA Federations of Los Angeles and New York and International Rescue Committee.
In addition to media focused on Chastain, there were digital activations surrounding International Women’s Day on March 8 including custom content features like a Facebook Live chat with the actress and Caro in addition to other events.
Focus Features will open The Zookeeper’s Wife in about 472 locations this weekend.
God Knows Where I Am
Directors: Jedd Wider, Todd Wider
Subjects: Linda Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Paul Applebaum, Joan Bishop
Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated producers Jedd Wider and Todd Wider have been producing documentaries for 17 years, though God Knows Where I Am is their directorial debut. The roots of the feature came over five years ago when a homeless person broke into the foyer of Todd Wider’s New York apartment. The experience motivated the Widers to explore mentally ill homeless people for their next project.
“It was in the dead of winter,” said Jedd Wider. “He wasn’t armed, though the police said they could arrest him or take him to a shelter. You become so conditioned to step over these people, but in a civil society, that should not be the case.”
The documentary unfolds focusing on the life of Linda Bishop, a loving mother and well-educated, happy woman. Then her body was found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse, dead from the cold and starvation. Linda Bishop became a mystery, accompanied by a diary that documents starvation and the loss of sanity.
For nearly four months, Bishop survived on apples and rainwater during one of the coldest winters on record — waiting for God to save her. As her story unfolds from different perspectives, including her own, audiences witness the heartbreaking reality about a systemic failure to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Bishop’s story appeared in a New Yorker magazine article about the challenges of treating mental illness. Producers contacted Linda Bishop’s sister, Joan Bishop,and gained access to what Todd Wider calls Linda’s “poignant, funny and disturbing diary.”
“The more time we spent with her diary and family, the more we realized we wanted to tell a more personal story,” said Todd Wider. “We figured we’d get more empathy from the audience if we emotionally went into the story of Linda.” God Knows Where I Am shot over two years in addition to a year-and-a-half edit.
The Widers turned to actress Lori Singer to give voice to Linda Bishop through her diaries. The filmmakers said that crews along with Bishop were moved by the topic to participate, in many cases deferring payment.
“We had the privilege of having a techno-crane for some of the bigger shots,” said Jedd Wider. “This is something you’d normally see in big narratives. The chief operator of the crane loved what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it. Also [cinematographer] Gerardo Puglia who has worked with big people who wanted to do it. Lori [Singer] also wanted to do it because she felt inspired by what we were trying to do. It takes a village for sure in any filmmaking, but an artistic film like this — really does take a village.”
The title won a special jury prize at Hot Docs in Toronto last year. Bond/360 acquired the film shortly afterward, while Cinefilm acquired international rights. Bond/360 will open God Knows Where I Am in limited release this weekend and has been booked in about 60 cities around the country so far.
The Devotion of Suspect X
Director: Alec Su
Writers: Li Jiaying, Huang Hai, Chang Jiang, Wang Chao, Chi Hai, Feng Yuanling
Cast: Wang Kai, Zhang Luyi, Lin Xinru, Ye Zuxin, Ding Guansen, Deng Enxi, Cheng Taishen, Zhao Yang
Distributor: China Lion
Based on the novel of the same name by Keigo Higashino, Chinese thriller The Devotion of Suspect X is had previously been made into both Japanese and Korean language films. Distributor China Lion had been tracking the latest version of the big screen version since it was announced by production company, Enlight Pictures.
“It’s widely read throughout China and it’s part of a series, so we’re looking forward to future installments,” commented China Lion exec Robert Lundberg. “The rollout itself has been handled smartly, with the production company revealing cast and story elements over the last six months resulting in tremendous interest in the film.”
The Devotion of Suspect X follows a professor (Wang Kai) assisting in a murder investigation, only to find that a longtime rival and friend (Zhang Luyi) from his early university days may be involved.
“The lead, Wang Kai, is an extremely talented and popular actor, known for multiple blockbuster television series in the Mainland,” added Lundberg. “His fans have pushed to get this film played worldwide and will support him at the box office.”
Chinese genre have been consistent box office go-getters overall for the niche distributor. Bank heist thriller Congqing Hot Pot grossed $800K in North America, while Christmas release and period thriller The Wasted Times took in over $386K and The Witness took in $418K. Noted Lundberg: “Mr. Six, which starred Feng Xiaogang, Kris Wu and Li Yifeng, continues to be our highest grossing film in company history. We’ve been very fortunate that Chinese language audiences have embraced this genre.” A Christmas 2015 release, Mr. Six cumed over $1.4M in North American theaters.
“This was the same weekend in 2016 we released Chongqing Hot Pot, so we’re looking toward historical analytics to play to our favor,” said Lundberg. “We’re the only new Chinese language film in the space since our previous release Duckweed came out on February 10th. The director and stars have been instrumental in getting the word out [for our] North American release and our special United Kingdom select shows. And, more importantly, Wang Kai’s extensive fan base has spread the word and is already supporting the film at those theaters offering advance ticketing.”
The Devotion of Suspect X will bow in over forty locations in North America, a fairly wide roll-out for the company including cities like Honolulu where the China Lion doesn’t usually tap in order to appeal to Japanese speakers who are familiar with the book. Noted Lundberg: “It’s a strong film, so we’re hoping between word-of-mouth and critical response we can roll it out beyond our first language Chinese speakers.”
All This Panic
Director: Jenny Gage
Subjects: Dusty Rose Ryan, Delia Cunningham, Lena M, Ginger Leigh Ryan, Olivia Cucinotta, Sage Adams
Distributor: Factory 25
Jenny Gage and husband Tom Betterton were interested in the lives of the teenage girls who had moved to their New York neighborhood. Gage would contemplate their lives while taking care of her newborn at home.
“I’d see them walking, talking and laughing and was fascinated about what they were talking about and thought about how it might be different from what I did when I was their age,” said Gage. “I sent their parents an email and asked about following them with a camera. [Tom and I] met them at Columbus Circle for our first meeting. They said they were going to the mall.”
All This Panic takes an intimate look into the lives of seven teenage girls as they come of age in New York City. The film mixes portraiture and vérité as the teens navigate the ephemeral and fleeting transition between child and adult.
“We wanted to get a film they would want to see,” said Gage. “I wanted to give them the space to talk freely. We both felt there weren’t films out there that did that.”
Both Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton, who is the film’s cinematographer, said that the young women would ask the duo what they found interesting in them. Gage and Betterton committed to stay with their subject to see what would develop. All This Panic shot over three years.
“There was just the two of us with a small camera,” said Betterton. “I don’t think they realized we were doing motion. It was organic and became very comfortable for them. It was all of us talking and talking. We kept it small in that way.”
Gage and Betterton self-financed the film, keeping their day jobs. Editing and sound took deferment in good faith that payment would happen later. Said Betterton: “They took a gamble that they would get money down the line and fortunately, they did.”
All This Panic premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. At the start of the project, the filmmakers said that nobody in the New York area would see the film, though that prophecy didn’t pan out. “The girls have been very positive toward their film,” said Gage. “They definitely bare their souls and at times it’s hard.”
The filmmakers began working with distributor Factory 25 on the release around the end of 2016. All This Panic opens at IFC Center and the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn this weekend.
Director: Na Hyeon
Cast: Han Suk-Kyu, Kim Rae-Won, Lee Kyoung-Young, Jung Woong-In, Jo Jae-Yun, Shin Sung-Rok, Kim Sung-Kyun
Distributor: Well Go USA
Distributor Well Go USA saw footage from Korean crime-drama The Prison at last year’s American Film Market (AFM). The company read the script and decided to take on its North American release. “The combination of smart plot and action was just what we were looking for,” said Well Go USA’s Dylan Marchetti. “We’ve got a catalog of smart Korean crime thriller/heist films ranging from The Assassination ($1.9M) to The Thieves (nearly $686K) to The Man From Nowhere (over $528K in theaters via CJ Entertainment and video via Well Go USA).”
Posing as a prisoner, an undercover police inspector (Kim Rae-Won) gets close to an inmate who controls both the jail and a powerful crime syndicate.
“We are releasing this just 11 days after it’s release in South Korea,” explained Marchetti. “The film has done excellent business over there, topping both Beauty And The Beast and Ghost In The Shell on the daily charts for the last week or so. It’s done over 1.7 million admissions so far, by far the biggest home-grown movie on the charts, and has been showing increases. So we think Korean-American audiences in North America are primed for the film.”
Well Go USA will open The Prison in 23 locations, targeting Korean-American and Korean-Canadian audiences. Added Marchetti: “Depending on reviews and audience response, we may expand to more arthouse audiences as well. As always, we’ll be executing a new campaign for the home video and VOD audience, because we always want to ensure we expose our audience to new and exciting films from around the world, and at this point our audience expects nothing less.”