Awards and fall releases are on the mind for industry insiders heading to the Telluride Film Festival this Labor Day weekend, while the final vestiges of specialty summer roll outs head to theaters. Focus Features is taking psychological-thriller The Little Stranger to 500 theaters Friday. The title by Oscar nominee Lenny Abrahamson and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling and Ruth Wilson headlines the weekend’s specialty narratives. The weekend also offers multiple documentaries that could not be more different from one another.
Filmmaker Jack Bryan speaks to a who’s-who in the political world including the late John McCain in a film that seeks to connect the dots between the Donald Trump campaign and collusion with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Active Measures. The feature, bowing via Super LTD, opens day and date. Laura Nix’s Inventing Tomorrow from Fishbowl Films and Eamonn Films spotlights teens competing in the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF). And Sundance Selects is bowing Pick of the Litter by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, following a litter of puppies from the moment they’re born and begin their quest to become guide dogs for the blind.
Also opening in 350 locations is Pantelion drama Ya Veremos. And Well Go USA is opening Hong Kong action-drama, Big Brother in select locations.
The Little Stranger
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writers: Lucinda Coxon, Sarah Waters (novel)
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Distributor: Focus Features
Focus Features boarded mystery-thriller The Little Stranger, picking up rights for most territories, ahead of the film’s production in the U.K. in 2017. Lucinda Coxon, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of Focus’ The Danish Girl, adapted the Little Stranger script from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters.
The Little Stranger tells the story of Dr. Faraday, the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. But it is now in decline and its inhabitants – mother, son and daughter – are haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own.
“This psychological thriller works with an adult audience which perfect for this time of year,” said Focus Features president of Distribution Lisa Bunnell. “It’s based on a popular novel and it is of course directed by the great Lenny Abrahamson. A gothic piece will be great for Labor Day weekend.”
Ahead of the title’s end of summer release, Focus has targeted book clubs to what it calls “strong response.” The company said it has partnered with some of the groups to work with theaters to promote ticket sales to its members. Focus is taking The Little Stranger fairly wide Friday, opening about 500 locations in all major cities. Added Bunnell: “It’s very well done. We’ll see if it expands from there.”
Director-writer: Jack Bryan
Writer: Marley Clements
Subjects: Hillary Clinton, Sen. John McCain, John Podesta, Jeremy Bash, Jeremy Bash, Pres. Toomás Hendrik Ilves, Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Steven Hall, Amb. Michael McFaul, Nina Burleigh, Craig Unger, Amb. James Woolsey, John Mattes, Richard Fontaine, Michael Isikoff, John Dean, Dr. Herb Lin, Clint Watts
Distributor: Super LTD
During the campaign leading up to the 2016 election, producer Marley Clements happened to be stuck in traffic in front of the Watergate complex as news broke about the email hacking of the DNC. At the moment, Clements said she thought, “What if Trump is working with the Russians – a sort of 21st century Democratic Committee break in? Given Trump’s statements about Putin and their recent international bullying it seemed to fit.”
Clements approached filmmaker Jack Bryan about the idea expecting that he’d dismiss it, but he did not. After more allegations surfaced, Clements began considering a film investigating in earnest.
Documentary Active Measures chronicles allegedly the most successful espionage operation in Russian history, the American presidential election of 2016. In the feature, filmmaker Jack Bryan claims to expose a 30-year history of covert political warfare devised by Vladmir Putin to disrupt, and ultimately control world events. In the process, the filmmakers follow a trail of money, real estate, mob connections, and on the record confessions to expose an insidious plot that leads directly back to The White House.
“After the election when Congressional hearings began, former FBI agent Clinton Watts’ testimony confirmed some of what we had observed, legitimizing the claims. Jack called me and said we should make a movie,” noted Clements. “I began researching right away, [producer Laura DuBois] joined shortly after and by the first week of May we were shooting our first interview. The story really drove itself, with each excellent piece of reporting that came out, we had another puzzle piece in place – the news cycle felt like a thousand wild horses going so fast no one knew which to focus on. Together, the three of us picked the horses with the most validity and I think we’ve been able to tame them in a way that anyone watching will be able to understand the story clearly.”
Laura DuBois began working with Jack Bryan in the fall of 2010 at an independent production company in Tribeca where Bryan was the head writer/director, working on various projects together. By April, 2017 they were close to getting a new narrative feature going when the call came in about Active Measures.
Financing began with $12K from their production company and additional funds came via family and friends. Said DuBois: “We needed to keep the lowest profile possible and be able to vet potential investors, so all the funds came from friends and family. We would raise $20K here and $10K there. Luckily, we never hit a slow down for lack of funds, or in general, but we were always close.”
The production included 29 interviews as the filmmaking team set out to investigate alleged collusion. Noted DuBois: “All 29 interviews were key. Each one played a specific role in covering their respective topics and there are so many facets of this story – it was important to get the most credible sources speaking about each topic. Credibility was one of our founding principles when making the film. The first interview was on May 10 and our final one was on September 9 in Warsaw, Poland when we sat with President Mikheil Saakashvili.”
Added Clements: “If there’s no collusion, how can you explain all this? Our bet is they can’t. That’s why we made it. We were able to find the links because we looked for them. One of the most disturbing thing about this conspiracy, down to Trump’s decades old Russian mob ties, is that it was all reported in real time. All you have to do is start digging and you will be shocked by what you find. We then tracked down the most knowledgeable people on these topics and simply asked what happened. What we came away with is, I believe, a pretty iron clad case for collusion.”
Neon label Super LTD, which focuses on films that “seize on the cultural and political moment,” picked up the title following its Hot Docs premiere last spring. Active Measures will open theatrically in New York and L.A. Friday in addition to digital platforms day and date.
Director: Laura Nix
Distributors: Fishbowl Films, Eamonn Films
Producer Melanie Miller heard a story on NPR about young scientists, including 14 year-old Taylor Wilson, who became the youngest person to produce nuclear fusion. He spoke about his experience at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Noted Miller: “I was not only fascinated with his story but also by the fact that I had never heard of the fair, which would be returning to the LA Convention Center with nearly 1,800 students from around the world competing for millions in prizes. I called Diane [Becker], my producing partner at Fishbowl Films, the moment the story ended and said, “I just heard a story on the radio and I’ve got a documentary idea.”
Inventing Tomorrow centers on six teenaged scientists working on original scientific research tackling some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. They attempt to create ‘cutting-edge’ solutions to confront the world’s environmental threats – found right in their own backyards – while navigating the doubts and insecurities that mark adolescence. The doc follows these inspiring teens as they prepare their projects for the largest convening of high school scientists in the world, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Fellow producer Diane Becker worked with filmmaker Laura Nix on her previous project, The Yes Men Are Revolting. Early in the development process, both Miller and Becker met with Nix who pitched a version of the film they liked.
“She wanted to subvert the competition genre and while we all love Spellbound, she felt that film had already been made,” shared Becker. “So the challenge was, how do we tell this story in a different way that uses some of these narrative hooks that the audience is familiar with but brings them a fresh perspective on that? Rooting the story in our characters’ lives and research was key to that.”
The team scouted and filmed the 2016 ISEF in Phoenix, AZ, where 1,800 students competed. Added Becker: “Laura felt that if we focused on kids that were inspired by science that was personal to them, we would be able to tell a deeper and more emotional story, so we decided to focus on environmental science. Following these kids around the world solving issues that are affecting the places they live set us on an expansive and visual adventure.”
Miller pitched the idea at the 2015 IFP Week in New York. Production company Motto Pictures came on board as executive producers with Fishbowl Films, and the project was invited to participate at the 2016 Catalyst Lab at the Sundance Institute. Additional funding came from various sources including the Redford Center, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Kendeda Fund. Miller and Becker presented the project to a room full of potential investors and philanthropic donors.
Noted Miller: “Out of Catalyst we secured enough funding to begin pre-production that would provide our team the ability to begin casting as Intel ISEF would take place in Los Angeles again, in May 2017. With a responsible equity cap, a large portion of our budget came from philanthropic donors and organizational grants as we continued raising [funds] throughout the entire production and post production process.”
In the lead-up to ISEF 2017, the filmmaking team worked with the Society for Science & the Public to identify potential students to follow.
“Casting the students was the most challenging aspect as we needed to connect with science fairs around the globe,” commented Becker. “We began filming in January 2017 and set Laura on a non-stop tour around the world and in the U.S. We filmed in China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and the United States. The U.S. students sometimes don’t know if they are going to ISEF until a few weeks before the competition so we were filming straight up until the first day when they started landing in Los Angeles which was May 12, 2017.”
After the fair, follow-ups took place in August. Miller connected with Rob Lynch of Eamonn Films with whom she had worked with previously as an exec at Gravitas Ventures. The connection became a good fit for Inventing Tomorrow: “It’s safe to say that we’ve worked on over a 100 theatrical releases together and once our team determined that we would carve out our theatrical rights,” offered Miller. Rob was my first call.”
Inventing Tomorrow opens exclusively at IFC Center in New York Friday, followed by the Arclight Hollywood September 7. The doc will then open select Bay Area locations followed by other cities in October. Digital will follow in late 2018 or early 2019.
Pick of the Litter
Directors: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy
Writer: Dana Nachman
Distributor: Sundance Selects
IFC Films acquisitions exec Arianna Bocco first saw documentary Pick of the Litter at a distributor screening a week prior to its Slamdance Film Festival debut. Others at IFC Films caught the film, which opens under its Sundance Selects label this weekend, at the festival in January.
Pick of the Litter follows a litter of puppies from the moment they’re born and begin their quest to become guide dogs for the blind. Cameras follow these pups through an intense two-year odyssey as they train to become dogs whose ultimate responsibility is to protect their blind partners from harm. Along the way, these remarkable animals rely on a community of dedicated individuals who train them to do amazing, life-changing things in the service of their human. The stakes are high and not every dog can make the cut. Only the best of the best — the pick of the litter.
“I don’t know how anyone could not fall in love with this movie,” said Bocco. “It’s a very different kind of documentary and I’m hoping there’s momentum. I believe it’s something that will please everyone and it’s a genuine family film. It’s not controversial.”
Bocco said the company has done grassroots work with groups that focus on animals and dogs in particular leading up to its weekend release. Sundance Selects also hosted an outdoor screening in New York’s Ft. Green neighborhood, which had a sizable response. “Hundreds of people came with their dogs,” said Bocco. “There were moments of silence, then you’d hear the dogs howling. It was a rare experience.”
Sundance Selects is opening Pick of the Litter on Friday at IFC Center as well as the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles Friday in a day and date release. Added Bocco: “I do think we can tap a family audience in digital platforms, but there is also definite theatrical potential for this.”