Save for a few titles, high-profile awards-focused specialties have taken a back seat to last year’s group. A slate of new limited releases this weekend through the rest of 2018, however, might turn the tide. Amazon Studios is opening Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama-romance Cold War today. The Polish filmmaker won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film debuted in May. Focus Features is bowing On the Basis of Sex about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Christmas. Starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, the bio-drama follows the box office sensation, RBG, which is on the Oscar Feature Documentary shortlist. Nicole Kidman stars in Annapurna’s Destroyer from Karyn Kusama, which also begins its theatrical run Christmas, as will Sony Pictures Classics’ Stan & Ollie starring John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan as the legendary comedy duo popularly known as Laurel and Hardy. And Wellspring is opening Korean drama Swing Kids this weekend in more than a dozen locations.

Cold War
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
Distributor: Amazon Studios

Amazon Studios

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where his Cold War debuted. The film also had a good sweep at the recent European Film Awards where it won the director and screenwriter categories as well as Best European Film. Cold War is also shortlisted in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category.

“I do think these year-end awards, as well as getting Best Director in Cannes, are helpful,” said Bob Berney, Amazon Studios’ head of Marketing and Distribution. “Combining those with the ‘10 Best’ lists coming out right and will help as [Cold War] expands generally in January.”

Amazon Studios brands Cold War as an “impossible love story in impossible times.” The feature revolves around two people of different backgrounds and temperaments who are fatefully mismatched and yet condemned to each other. The story unfolds against the backdrop of the Cold War in the 1950s in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris.

Heading into the weekend, Amazon Studios has focused on “the auteur director aspect” of the film along with its early awards and festival momentum, according to Berney. The film also has tapped high-profile names hosting word-of-mouth screenings to drive interest.

“Other directors and actors have admired Pawel,” said Berney. “Jane Campion, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore [and others] have hosted tastemaker screenings of Cold War. The reputation of [Pawlikowski’s 2013 feature] Ida also holds over, and that has helped people to recognize him as a master.”

Amazon Studios opens the feature today in three theaters Friday — the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Forum in New York as well as the Laemmle Royal in L.A. — but the company is expecting it to have a long theatrical life going into 2019.

“The movie is a grand romance, and people are responding to that,” said Berney. “It made sense to open this at the end of the year because it goes right into [the latter part] of awards season.” Berney added that the film has had a good showing in the UK, where it bowed in late-summer.

“The film had an amazing amount of repeat business in the U.K.,” he said. “[Having a movie] like this has always been why I wanted to be in the distribution business.”

Stateside, Cold War will expand in the New York area January 4, followed by an L.A.-location jump on January 11. Added Berney: “We’ll then go to the top six markets on January 18. We’ll let word of mouth [drive the rollout]. The reviews are really great, and when people come out of the movie, they really talk about it.”

On the Basis of Sex
Director: Mimi Leder
Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny
Distributor: Focus Features

Focus Features

“As I’ve said, I’ll continue on the court as long as I can do it [100%],” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Sunday night at the Film Society of Lincoln Center during an onstage Q&A following a pre-release screening of director Mimi Leder’s bio-drama, On the Basis of Sex, which opens Christmas Day. Ginsburg made the comments before it was revealed Friday that she underwent surgery in New York to remove two cancerous nodules from her left lung. “My colleague John Paul Stevens served until he was 90 and has since gone on to write three books, [with a] fourth on the way.”

Taking place when Ginsburg was a new mother and an attorney struggling in a field dominated by men, On the Basis of Sex centers on the early days of her fight for equal rights for women. When Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) takes on a groundbreaking case with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), she knows it could forever change the way the courts and the United States view gender discrimination. The film also chronicles the storybook-like romance between the couple, a partnership that succeeded both personally and professionally.

Released via Focus Features and produced by Participant, On the Basis of Sex arrives about 11 months after the documentary RBG debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Ginsburg proved to be a box office star. That film, released by Magnolia Pictures and Participant, grossed $14M in theaters and is on the Oscar shortlist for documentary.

Focus and Participant has taken a page from RBG’s successes, working with various groups including the law community, specifically those that work on workplace equality, which was a critical component in giving the doc about the Justice terrific word-of-mouth in the lead up to the release through its early theatrical run.

“We [collaborated with Participant to engage] the community on the ‘All Rise” Campaign, by bringing together a coalition of fashion labels [which created specific products] that give [proceeds] from their sales to the ACLU, [which Ruth Bader Ginsburg founded for] issues dealing with women’s rights,” said Focus Features’ president of Distribution, Lisa Bunnell. “These issues are as relevant today as when [Ginsburg] arrived the bench. We all need RBG.”

Similarly to the documentary, Participant and Focus has worked with law groups, women’s organizations, universities and others on group sales over the past several months. Focus Features will open On the Basis of Sex on Christmas Day in 33 theaters and will go wide to 1,200-1,500 theaters on January 11.

Destroyer
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Jade Pettyjohn, Scoot McNairy
Distributor: Annapurna Pictures

Annapurna Pictures

Veteran producer Fred Berger met director Karyn Kusama after a version of the Destroyer script had been completed. Six months later, the project was in production.

“I was introduced to her by her agent,” explained Berger. “Phil [Hay] is her husband and wrote the script with Matt Manfried. I was joining a family unit. … This was a lucky strike of lightning.”

Destroyer follows the moral and existential odyssey of LAPD detective Erin Bell who, as a young cop, was placed undercover with a gang in the California desert with tragic results. When the leader of that gang re-emerges many years later, she must work her way back through the remaining members and into her own history with them to finally reckon with the demons that destroyed her past.

Nicole Kidman came on board in the starring role as Bell. “We cast Nicole after finishing Big Little Lies and other projects,” said Berger. “She was at the top of her game and was looking to push boundaries. She’s tremendously creative, and we’re [excited] to have her. But with the movie-star benefits come some movie star constraints — which meant her schedule was tight.”

Financing came together with a mix of soft money, equity pieces and foreign sales. “30 West took the leap of faith with financing,” he said. “It would have been impossible to have it in place so quickly if we hadn’t found Dan Steinman and Micah Green.”

Destroyer began its shoot last December, going through early February in Los Angeles. “My son was born the first day of shooting,” said Berger. “It was such a blast, and I was able to see my family. I’ve shot three times in L.A. [including] La La Land. We had the same location manager and some crew. You can always find newcorners in L.A.”

Berger said that life imitated art at one point during the shoot. A shooter was on the loose near one location, which resulted in a schedule blip. “We had to jump in her bulletproof car once when a gunman was on the loose the last day of shooting,” said Berger. “Other than that, Nicole was so transformed that nobody noticed her.”

Berger gave kudos to director Kusama for staying on the relatively tight schedule. The filmmaker came to the shoot having done extensive preparation. “L.A. is an expensive place to work, but she came prepared along with the crew. It’s a testament to her, and as a producer, it made my job a lot easier.”

Annapurna came on board via their relationship with 30 West. The company is opening the title in select locations this weekend.

Added Berger: “We weren’t looking for the biggest number, but instead — the best partner. This is a noir thriller and also a character odyssey of a mother and daughter. They understand what Karyn and Nicole are doing and everything from the material to their festival strategy [reflected that].”

Stan & Ollie
Director: John S. Baird
Writer: Jeff Pope
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Classics picked up bio-dramedy Stan & Ollie before its completion. The film debuted at the London Film Festival in October, followed by AFI Fest in November.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope had watched a staple of the pair on Saturday mornings via the BBC. Fifteen years ago, he was given a DVD box set. After watching Way Out West, he started to investigate the story behind Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. His research led him to a little-known slice of Laurel & Hardy history — their theater tour of the U.K. during the early 1950s as documented by AJ Marriot’s book, Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours. From those roots, the feature project percolated. The filmmakers decided to call the film, Stan & Ollie, not Laurel & Hardy as the production centers on the men themselves.

Laurel & Hardy, one of the world’s great comedy teams, set out on a variety hall tour of Britain in 1953. Diminished by age and with their golden era as the kings of Hollywood comedy now behind them, they face an uncertain future. As the charm and beauty of their performances shines through, the reconnect with their adoring fans. The tour becomes a hit, but Stan & Ollie can’t quite shake the specter of Laurel and Hardy’s past. The long-buried ghosts, coupled with Oliver’s failing health, start to threaten their precious partnership. They are aware that they might be approaching their swan song, trying to rediscover just how much they mean to each other.

“We were impressed by the actors, screenplay and direction,” said SPC co-president Michael Barker. “We wanted to qualify Stan & Ollie this year because of that, so we decided to open it December 28.”

Barker noted that the film is coinciding with a number of retrospectives of Laurel and Hardy movies around the country including specials taking place on TCM. Added Barker, “We think it’s the perfect movie to open between Christmas and New Year’s.”

SPC open Stan & Ollie today in select New York and Los Angeles locations. The title will then head out around the country going into 2019.

Swing Kids
Director-writer: King Young-Chul
Cast: Doh Kyung-Soo, Jared Grimes, Park Hye-Su, Oh Jung-Se, Kim Min-Ho
Distributor: Well Go USA

Well Go USA

Well Go USA is opening Korean musical war drama Swing Kids day-and-date with its home country. Not surprisingly, the company is targeting the Korean-American audience in its initial frame to drum up word-of-mouth, which it hopes will find attention from non-Koreans.

Swing Kids is a hard one to describe in a few sentences. It’s not really a musical, not really a drama, not really a war movie, though it’s definitely all of these things,” noted Well Go USA’s Dylan Marchetti. “It’s the kind of film people talk about after, and that bodes well for expanding our audience.”

Set during the Korean War, the feature centers on soldiers at a POW camp who plan a tap show to distract both themselves and the prisoners from the hardships of war. Led by a former Broadway dancer and a rebellious North Korean soldier, the band of prisoners finds a new sense of freedom in dancing.

Swing Kids is a crowd-pleaser and a lot of fun, but also packs a punch,” Marchetti said about what attracted Well go to the film. “It takes a lot of what is truly great about commercial Korean cinema and pushes the envelope, and after seeing an early cut of the film, we were sold.” He added that the film’s “pedigree” including its director, producers and cast were selling points.

Marchetti said the company is confident Swing Kids can hold its own amidst the high-profile Christmas/New Year’s rollouts.

“It’s one of the busiest Christmas blockbuster seasons I can remember, and the theaters our Korean films do well in aren’t small venues,” said Marchetti. “They’re core urban chain locations that play studio films and play them well. So when we ask exhibitors for a screen on December 21, we have to be good partners and be certain that we have the goods. Let’s just say we were comfortable asking on this one.”

Well Go USA is opening Swing Kids on December 21 in what Marchetti described as “15 key theaters” in their 10 best markets for Korean film. The title will expand on January 4 to another 15-25 theaters with further rollouts after that. Added Marchetti: “We expect this to be a word-of-mouth hit that gains strength as it plays, and we had great success last year with this same release strategy on Along With the Gods.

Well Go USA released Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds in 17 locations December 22 of last year, grossing over $185K for the weekend ($10,914 average). It went on to cume $1.9M in theaters. The company also released the follow-up, Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days this past August, taking in $1.2M.