Weekend debuts are minimal as the film industry’s gravity heads north to the Toronto International Film Festival, though some roll outs hope to fill a narrow vacuum of new specialties in the marketplace ahead of the coming fall onslaught. Sundance premiere, Hal, about Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hal Ashby boasts an impressive roster of stars talking about the director behind classics such as Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There. Oscilloscope opens the doc exclusively in New York today before heading to L.A. next weekend. Music Box Films is rolling out French drama-mystery The Apparition, which it first viewed in the European Film Market coinciding with the Berlinale in February. And Uncork’d Entertainment is spearheading the stateside launch of South Africa’s Five Fingers for Marseilles, which it picked up out of Toronto last year, heading out Friday in a day and date release.

Also notable is that Ethan Hawke-directed music bio-drama Blaze opens in New York in three locations Friday, following a three-week initial run in Texas. Said Ethan Hawke following a Thursday evening post-sneak Q&A in NYC about what drew him to make the film about musician Blaze Foley, “There is something explosive about Ben Dickey’s performance intersecting with the music of Blaze Foley that is creating its own gravitational pull.” Blaze will head to L.A. next weekend.

Other weekend limited release debuts include Parade Deck’s Great Great Great, Film Movement’s I Am Not a Witch and School of Life from Distrib Films.

Hal
Director: Amy Scott
Subjects: Hal Ashby, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Allison Anders, Judd Apatow, Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, Beau Bridges, Lisa Cholodenko
Distributor: Oscilloscope

Oscilloscope

Filmmaker Amy Scott already was moving forward with her documentary project, a feature-profile on Oscar-winning filmmaker Hal Ashby, when producer Brian Morrow boarded along with his production company, Shark Pig. Scott had been working as an editor on a commercial for Shark Pig when she received word from the estate of Hal Ashby of their cooperation.

“I immediately recognized the potential and was supportive,” said Morrow. “I didn’t think there was a place for me because it was moving along, but then she asked me if I’d like to be involved as a producer along with my [business] partner, Jonathan Lynch.”

The doc centers on Ashby, who directed a remarkable string of acclaimed, widely admired classics throughout the 1970s including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There. Yet, he is often overlooked amid the crowd of luminaries from his generation. Scott’s portrait explores that curious oversight, using rare archival materials, interviews, personal letters and audio recordings to reveal a passionate, obsessive artist. Ashby, who died in 1988 at 61, was a Hollywood director who constantly clashed with Hollywood but also was a unique soul with an unprecedented insight into the human condition and an unmatched capacity for good. His films were an elusive blend of honesty, irreverence, humor and humanity.

“Amy received a key to a storage unit from the estate,” explained Morrow. “[When she went], I brought a camera ‘in case,’ and as we unlocked it, we saw it was full of the most amazing archival [items], including original scripts, handwritten notes, audio tapes, data tapes and raw dailies from various films. It was a great [foundation] for making the doc.”

Soon afterward, the filmmaking team set up a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, raising $60K. “We immediately had support in [unplanned] ways, and that sort of thing happened throughout the [project],” said Morrow. “John C. Reilly was in our pitch video for the campaign because he just wanted to see the project happen. That was very helpful.”

Principal photography, including the film’s large roster of celebrity interviews, began in early 2014. “There was a snowball effect,” said Lynch. “Jane Fonda came first and that was a stamp of approval, which made it easier for the next steps. People wanted to be a part of this.”

The project took a lengthy time to complete between a sizable edit process and director Scott starting a family. “We raised more funds for the edits and Amy would work at night,” said Morrow. “We also did some more shoots to fill in the gaps. We weren’t finished but thought we should at least submit to Sundance for the late deadline [last fall].” Morrow added that there was internal debate about submitting to Sundance since the project still had a way to go. Some feared word of a rejection from the fest would get out.

“Finally, [producer] Christine Beebe said we had to submit and then we got word it was accepted based on our rough cut,” Morrow said. “Then we went back to the edit, and the amount we completed in December 2017 was probably equal to the previous three years.”

Following the premiere, the filmmaking team began talking informally with the folks at Oscilloscope, who hosted a raucous party at the festival in January, announcing their pickup of the title last spring.

Oscilloscope is opening Hal at IFC Center in New York exclusively Friday, followed by the Nuart in L.A. next Friday. The film will then head to a national expansion in the following weeks.

The Apparition
Director-writer: Xavier Giannoli
Writer: Jacques Fieschi
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Galatéa Bellugi, Patrick d’Assumçao, Anatole Taubman, Elina Löwensohn, Claude Lévèque, Gérard Dessalles, Bruno Georis, Alicia Hava, Candice Bouchet
Distributor: Music Box Films

Music Box Films

Music Box Films first viewed French drama The Apparition at the European Film Market, coinciding with the Berlin International Film Festival. The feature opened in February at home in France and had a successful run there, selling 456K tickets.

The Apparition follows Jacques (Vincent Lindon), a journalist at a large regional newspaper in France. His reputation as an impartial and talented investigator attracts the attention of the Vatican, which recruits him for a special task: taking part of a committee to investigate the veracity of a saintly apparition in a small French village – a true canonical investigation. Upon his arrival, he meets the young and sensitive Anna (Galatéa Bellugi), who claims to have witnessed the apparition of the Virgin Mary. A profound devout, she’s garnered an impressive following in the village and is torn between her faith and the many solicitations she receives. Confronted with opposing views from clergy members and skeptics in the group, Jacques gradually uncovers the hidden motivations and pressures at work and sees his belief system profoundly shaken.

“This is a religious-based mystery of sorts, and we believe we can [draw] secular and non-secular audiences alike,” said Music Box’s Kathleen Sachs. “For the non-secular audience, we’re selling it as a deliberation of fait.h. … It’s an art house Da Vinci Code.”

To reach the religious community, primarily Catholics, the company has tapped publicity firm Carmel, which it had worked with on 2016 release, The Innocents ($1.06M at the box office). Added Sachs: “They are targeting Catholic press and [groups] affiliated with the Church and the Church itself.”

More broadly, the company is also tapping fans of French film and fans of actor Vincent Lindon, the title’s lead.

Music Box is going wider with The Apparition than it typically does in order to take advantage of attention from the Catholic community. The feature will open at the Angelika Film Center in New York as well as the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles today in addition to locations in San Francisco, Bethesda, Chicago, Philadelphia and Irvine, CA.

Five Fingers for Marseilles
Director Michael Matthews
Writer: Sean Drummond
Cast: Vuyo Dabula, Hamilton Dhlamini, Zethu Dlomo, Kenneth Nkosi, Mduduzi Mabaso, Aubrey Poolo, Lizwi Vilakazi, Warren Masemola, Dean Fourie, Anthony Oseyemi, Brendon Daniels, Jerry Mofokeng
Distributor: Uncork’d Entertainment

Uncork’d Entertainment

Kenya-based producer Yaron Schwartzman attended a meet-and-greet with South African filmmakers organized by a local trade commission in 2011. There he heard a presentation by filmmaker Michael Matthews and writer Sean Drummond about their project, Five Fingers for Marseilles. He gave the script to his partner, Asger Hussain.

“Mike and Sean had some soft money and a tax credit from South Africa,” Schwartzman said. “But no private financing was in place, so we did come in at the ground floor.”

The drama-thriller centers on the residents of the colonial town of Marseilles who are under the thumb of police oppression, and only the young rebels known as the Five Fingers are willing to stand up to them. Their battle is just, until Tau (Vuyo DAbula) kills two policemen and flees the scene. The remaining rebels disband while the banished Tau resorts to a life of crime. Twenty years later, now known as feared outlaw The Lion of Marseilles, Tau is released from prison. He returns home, desiring only peace and to reconnect with those he left behind. The battle for South Africa’s freedom has been won, and former comrades-in-arms are in prominent positions as mayor, police chief and pastor. But it quickly becomes clear to Tau that Marseilles is caught in the grip of a vicious new threat — and he must reconstitute the Five Fingers to fight frontier justice.

Matthews and Drummond spearheaded casting along with Johannesburg-based casting director Moonyeen Lee. Said Schwartzman: “We had some serious discussions about bringing in American name actors in order to attract investors and help with sales, box office etc. but we became convinced that the best most authentic way to tell the story was with [local actors]. It was a risk at the time and certainly made selling it to investors here in the U.S. much more difficult but we are very happy with the decision and couldn’t imagine doing it any other way now.”

After three years of false starts from various investors, the filmmaking team was introduced to Jeff Hoffman of Above the Clouds, who came in with financing. “He read Five Fingers and loved it, and as simple as that after five years we were fully financed and ready to go,” noted Schwartzman. “It’s really amazing and gratifying to see how much the landscape has shifted in the years since. That a film like Black Panther would be shot using Xhosa as the principal language of Wakanda and so much of what seemed impossibly remote to American audiences is now recognized and appreciated.”

The shoot took place over 30 days near the border of Lesotho in the small South African town of Lady Gray. Noted producer Asger Hussain: “Doing a large-scale production in the mountains at 5,000 feet during winter with sleet and snow proved to be a very complex undertaking. But, we had the best local South African crew and a great local co-production team from Stage 5 Films.”

Five Fingers for Marseilles bowed in South Africa in April. The film is opening day-and-date stateside today via Uncork’d Entertainment, which picked up rights to the title out of last year’s Toronto Film Festival.