Amanda Lipitz’s Step made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January when the documentary was being picked up for $4 million by Fox Searchlight, which also nabbed remake rights. Now the film opens this weekend at the specialty box office, which is pared down from last week’s onslaught of platform heavy-hitters including An Inconvenient Sequel, Detroit and a surprising box office showing from Menashe.
Also bowing this weekend is The Weinstein Company’s Wind River, directed by Sicario and Hell Or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen star in the pic, another Sundance-debuting pic, which is set for several New York and Los Angeles locations.
Gravitas Ventures is going day-and-date with Brave New Jersey, while John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey and Rory Culkin star in Columbus which is being self-released. Other limited-release titles this frame include comedy Chronically Metropolitan from Paladin, Arrow Films’ The Ghouls, Parade Deck Films’ Lycan, FilmRise’s It’s Not Yet Dark and Jab Harry Met Sejal from Yash Raj.
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Subjects: Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon, Gari McIntyre, Paula Dofat
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
The documentary is set at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and tells the true-life story of a group of women who learn to laugh, love and thrive — on stage and off — even when the world seems against them. Empowered by teachers, teammates, counselors, coaches and families, they chase their ultimate dreams — to win a step championship and to be accepted into college. The all-female school where the film takes place has set a goal to have every member of their senior class accepted to and graduate from college, many of whom will be the first in their family to do so.
Lipitz, a veteran Broadway producer, became involved with a group of New York schools that have a 100% graduation rate. She suggested that her mother take a look at possibly replicating the idea in Baltimore. “In 2009, I did shorts to fundraise around the school,” said Lipitz. “The girls watched me come in and out of the schools with cameras, and they saw me around.” At one point, then-11-year-old eighth grader Blessin Giraldo suggested Lipitz come film their Step class. The visit turned pivotal. “Every hair stood up,” she said. “It was such a powerful art form and they had such a wide range of girls. It was like a musical to me. And I knew they would be the first in their families to go to college.”
Lipitz decided to do a short film version of Step, to “learn about shooting and going through trial and error.” She also met with their families to show the kinds of work she had done in the past. Lipitz did a series of sit-down interviews with the girls in 10th grade, while in the 11th grade she captured them in a vérité style. At one point, a calamitous event occurred (it’s shown in the film), and Lipitz decided to focus the bulk of the film on the 12th grade.
“I showed a three-minute trailer to Scott Rudin,” she said. “I ended up filming over 400 hours of footage. Lipitz along with producers Steven Cantor and Geralyn Dreyfous raised the money for the movie. “We were also able to get grants from Bloomberg [and others],” she said.
“While still filming, I was interviewing editors, but also watching films that I liked. I loved [Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg]. I thought, ‘Whoever edited this did an amazing job.’ ” So she met with that docu’s editor Penelope Falk and the two found they were on the same page as far as vision. She began working on the edits in New York as Lipitz continued filming in Baltimore. “I’d drive back and forth and she’d tell me what she watched that day and I’d tell her what I shot,” said Lipitz. “That was very helpful, because it reminded me about the older footage.”
Lipitz anticipated the film would end around graduation. A chance encounter with Giraldo, however, inspired her ultimate ending. “My DP was doing exterior shots and we were inside watching the [new Step] members doing practice. There were 40 girls. And then Blessin came in. It was so powerful, she was their hero. I called in my DP and said, ‘This is the end of the movie, get in here right now!’ ”
Ahead of the Sundance premiere, Lipitz recalled that Rudin told her not to let anyone see the film so that they can “blow the windows off the door” there, adding: “He was such a huge mentor and help for me. Both he and Steven Cantor took me when nobody knew me. I’m grateful.”
Searchlight opens Step in 20 locations in seven cities today including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and San Francisco. The company said theaters are “comprised of a variety of art/specialty houses, great mainstream multiplexes and some of the very best African American locations in the country.” Step will expand over the next couple weeks and should be in about 300 locations by August 18.
Director-writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, James Jordan
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Wind River is the second feature directorial for Taylor Sheridan, the multihyphenate who received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Hell Or High Water this year. Wind River also debuted at Sundance ahead of going to Cannes in May, followed by festivals in Nantucket, Seattle and Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest in June. The thriller follows a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who teams with a local game tracker (Jeremy Renner) with deep community ties and a haunted past to investigate the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American Reservation in the hopes of solving her mysterious death.
“Festival reviews [along with] reviews coming in just now are amazing and it’s important for this type of movie,” said TWC COO/president David Glasser. “Taylor Sheridan is a commodity already and this cements his flag as director. We have had the joy of working with him on this and [upcoming] Yellowstone. He knows his audience and knows what he wants.”
TWC said its polling shows males under 35 and females over 35 “love the movie.” The company is opening the pic today at Union Square and Lincoln Square in New York and the Arclight Hollywood and Landmark in Los Angeles. “It has a split audience, so we’ll roll it out and let it breathe,” said Glasser. “We’re very excited about it.”
After its first weekend, Wind River will head to 20 markets and expand further based
Brave New Jersey
Director-writer: Jody Lambert
Writers: Tony Hale, Heather Burns, Anna Camp
Cast: Sam Jaeger, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Mel Rodriguez, Grace Kaufman
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
The comedy Brave New Jersey is Gravitas Ventures’ seventh release this summer. The company was drawn by issues related to truthfulness in news, a hot-button issue on both the left and right in the current political climate. “We were excited by the timeliness of this story, which is essentially the original ‘fake news’ event gone wrong in America,” said Laura Florence, VP Sales & Marketing at Gravitas Ventures.
Set in a small New Jersey town on the night of Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 “War Of
The Worlds” radio broadcast — the hoax that terrified millions into believing Martians were invading — citizens face what they think is their last night on Earth. The overworked town’s mayor (Tony Hale) will take a chance on love. The neglected housewife (Heather Burns) will break free from her big-cheese husband (Sam Jaeger). The demure schoolteacher (Anna Camp) will become a warrior. The aimless reverend (Dan Bakkedahl) will rediscover his faith. The scared sheriff (Mel Rodriguez) will find his courage. And the reclusive war veteran (Raymond J. Barry) will become a hero as he convinces the town to fight the aliens.
“We are targeting the fan bases of the large breadth of cast such as Tony Hale’s Veep audience and Anna Camp’s Pitch Perfect fans as well as Sam Jaeger’s avid following from Parenthood,” Florence said. “Each cast member hits such a different and diverse demographic that it enabled us to reach a broader audience in the summer blockbuster season.”
Brave New Jersey will open theatrically in 14 markets today including New York and Los Angeles. with other cities planned for later in the month.
Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Self-distributed through Superlative Films
Sundance 2017 title Columbus is the directorial debut of Kogonada, who earlier received kudos for his visual work and film criticism commissioned by the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound. Producer Danielle Renfrew Behrens became involved with the drama after producer acquaintances approached her with the potential project after she launched her film financing company, Superlative Films.
“I was not familiar with Kogonada’s short-form work,” said Behrens. “[Producer Chris Weitz] had reached out to him via Twitter saying that if he’d like to do long form to let him know. Lo and behold, Kogonada responded to him.”
Columbus centers on a renowned architecture scholar who falls suddenly ill during a
speaking tour. His son Jin (John Cho) finds himself stranded in Columbus, a small Midwestern city in Indiana celebrated for its many significant modernist buildings. Jin strikes up a friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young architecture enthusiast who works at the local library. As their intimacy develops, Jin and Casey explore the town and their conflicted emotions: Jin’s estranged relationship with his father, and Casey’s reluctance to leave Columbus and her mother.
“I was being very careful with what I’d jump into,” said Behrens. “But five minutes after sitting down with Kogonada, I knew it was something I wanted to do. This is the reason I’m in this business. You’re so compelled to facilitate a vision. In this industry when dealing with so much bravado and egos, it’s refreshing to be working with someone who is confident, but also a kind and generous soul. He also had a very specific vision and knew exactly what he wanted, so it was a dream project to work on.”
Chris and Paul Weitz’s company Depth of Field had worked with Cho on past projects. He joined as the male lead, while Kogonada met with Richardson, who also came on board. Columbus shot over 18 days in Columbus. “It was intense, but we were able to do this and shockingly not go over time,” said Behrens. “Kogonada is a decisive filmmaker. It was actually the least stressful production I’ve worked on. He knew exactly where he wanted the camera each day he arrived on set.”
The film debuted at Sundance and was well-received by critics, according to Behrens, but distributors had a hard time figuring out how they’d market the film. “That lead us to the Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship,” said Behrens about the self-distribution model spearheaded by Sundance Institute. “I was concerned about someone being a champion of this film and Kogonada. Also as a financier, it was about how best to get this film out in the world, get the most attention, and to get the best financial upside. Taking a modest deal and not having control of how the film is positioned didn’t seem right.”
She added: “It was frightening and exciting. I think everyone is desperate right now for a path forward. I’ve learned a ton through this process and it will inform me in my future decisions with my company.”
Columbus opens today at the Nuart in Los Angeles and IFC Center in New York. It will head to several additional markets with 15 cities set for the coming weeks. Added Behrens: “Also outside the box is that we’re concentrating resources and attention in Indiana. We will be on two screens in Columbus in two weeks. It may be our strongest revenue stream.”
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