Following a couple of somewhat lighter weeks in the Specialty space, this weekend is really ramped up with star-lead limited release awards contenders vying for box office recognition. Focus Features rolls out Mary Queen of Scots, starring Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as the 15th century rival monarchs of Scotland and England, respectively. The title opens three weeks after The Favourite, another big screen look at a female British monarch (and members of her rivalrous court) from centuries past. That film had the year’s best per theater average opener at $105K in November. LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate are rolling out Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back starring his son Lucas Hedges as well as Oscar-winner Julia Roberts as a mother who confronts her son’s addiction.

Natalie Portman stars as a pop sensation who rose to stardom from tragedy in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, opening in select locations via Neon. Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth teamed on a story that is all too real today in Nona, a story about a woman who comes to America from Honduras, launching in New York and L.A. Friday. And on the non-fiction side, Magnolia Pictures is opening Alexis Bloom’s Divide And Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, spotlighting the former head of Fox News.

Mary Queen of Scots
Director Josie Rourke
Writers: Beau Willimon, John Guy (book)
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Dvid Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester
Distributor: Focus Features

Stories about royals from centuries ago hailing from the British Isles will get another big spotlight this weekend with the roll out of Focus Features’ Mary Queen of Scots. The company became involved with Working Title, directed by Josie Rourke, early on.

“We have two Oscar-nominated actresses together who drive the film and they’re terrific,” touted Lisa Bunnell, Focus Features’ president of Distribution. “It’s beautiful to look at in so many ways… We feel it is a holiday film and we have it in the best time period.”

Mary Queen of Scots is a retelling of the turbulent life of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Queen of France at 16, Mary is widowed at 18. She defies pressure to remarry and instead returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. By birth, Mary has a rival claim to the throne, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who rules as England’s Queen. Contrary to earlier accounts, — and based on research by John Guy, whose book, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, the script is based on — Mary is seen as a capable politician and leader who wanted an alliance with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary fights to govern her unruly kingdom at a time when female monarchs are reviled as monstrous. To secure their thrones, the two Queens make very different choices about marriage and children. Mary’s reputation is under continual attack from her enemies, who construct lies about her sexual conduct. Betrayal, rebellion and conspiracies within each court imperil both Queens, driving them apart as each woman experiences the bitter cost of power.

The company is expecting an initial art house crowd as well as younger females to drive the film in its launch starting Friday. Focus said that when it first became involved with the project, they could not have anticipated societal forces that would make the story of the two monarchs more relevant.

“When we first started with Working Title, we were in a different place as a country,” said Bunnell. “But now with #MeToo and this story of two strong women in conflict, we’ve been messaging [these themes] in our social media campaign.” Bunnell also noted Josie Rourke is a first time director who has a strong theater pedigree on both the West End and Broadway.

“She is a master of the stage. She wanted to make this movie, but the timing was everything,” said Bunnell, who added about Ronan and Robbie: “When you have actresses like Margot and Saoirse, you expect attention for awards and obviously we think they’d be in consideration.” Bunnell also gave kudos to below the line work on the project, particularly costuming.

“This is an event movie. For women, we face a lot of the same parallel issues they faced in the 1500s. [This story] is very pertinent today.”

Mary Queen of Scots will open in four theaters Friday, including the Paris and Angelika in New York as well as the Arclight and Landmark in Los Angeles. Next week, Focus will expand the title to the top 10 markets and by December 21 the company expects the feature to be in between 500 and 800 locations.

Ben Is Back
Director-writer: Peter Hedges
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper
Distributor: LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate

Roadside joined in the acquisition of Peter Hedges drama Ben Is Back starring Julia Roberts and his son, Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges, through LD Entertainment, which the L.A.-based distributor has collaborated with on nine previous releases. The pick up by the companies, along with fellow frequent collaborator, Lionsgate, was announced back in July for release this weekend.

“When I read this script, I had a feeling that ‘I have to do this,’” said Lucas Hedges sitting next to his father on stage at last weekend’s Contenders event hosted by Deadline at New York’s DGA theater. “It occurred to me that having my dad could be my greatest strength.” He added to laughs: “It’s rare that you have the unconditional love of a director.”

In the film, Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly returns to his family’s suburban home on Christmas Eve. Ben’s mom Holly (Roberts) is relieved and welcoming but wary of her son’s drug addiction. Over a turbulent 24 hours, new truths are revealed, and a mother’s undying love gets put to the test as Holly does everything in her power to keep Ben clean.

Ben Is Back is the second feature this season in which he stars opposite a marquee-named Oscar-winning actress, following Focus Features’ Boy Erased with Nicole Kidman (along with Russell Crowe). Directed by and also featuring Joel Edgerton, that film has cumed over $5.8M in the box office so far.

“We loved the project and have been a fan of Peter Hedges since Pieces of April, which was his entry to the indie scene,” said Roadside co-president Howard Cohen. “We felt it had exciting performances by both Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. Plus, we haven’t seen a serious performance by Julia in a few years.”

The companies took the film to the Toronto Film Festival and a number of regional festivals in the lead-up to the title’s release Friday, in addition to word of mouth screenings. Roberts and Lucas Hedges appeared on The Colbert Report, and Roberts also appeared on Ellen and will be seen on GMA.

“We’re going for the core art house audiences first and then we’ll go to more mainstream audiences after the New Year,” said Cohen. “We’re excited because the film deals with serious subject matter, but it is also has the bones of a suspenseful drama.”

Ben Is Back opens in four New York and L.A. theaters Friday. Next weekend, it will head to about 30 locations in seven markets before jumping to 25 cities by Christmas. Cohen said the feature will go wide in January.

Vox Lux
Director-writer: Brady Corbet
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy
Distributor: Neon

Vox Lux is the second feature directorial for actor Brady Corbet, who recruited an A-list cast for his music drama out in theaters Friday via Neon. Producer Andrew Lauren caught Corbet’s first film, Childhood Of a Leader, and was intrigued about what he may have next. After learning about Vox Lux, he and fellow producer DJ Gugenheim had their interest piqued.

“When we learned of Natalie Portman’s involvement and with Brady as director, it really excited us,” said Gugenheim. “We were sent the script and set up a meeting. We saw his vision and from there we finalized some of the casting and financing.”

Andrew Lauren Productions as well as fellow production company, Bold Productions kicked in financing with additional resources coming from international sales.

Vox Lux is such a unique project, and what a great one for us to have started our collaborations with Brady,” noted Lauren.  “We truly believe he is one of the exceptional auteurs of our time, so much so that we will be backing his next project, The Brutalist.”

Vox Lux begins in 1999 when teenage sisters Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and Eleanor (Stacy Martin) survive a seismic, violent tragedy. The sisters compose and perform a song about their experience, making something lovely and cathartic out of catastrophe, while also catapulting Celeste to stardom. By 2017, the now 31-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman) is mother to a teenage daughter of her own and struggling to navigate a career fraught with scandals when another act of terrifying violence demands her attention.

The project shot over 22 days last February and March in New York, with winter kept mostly at bay with mostly interior shots. “It was a very tight schedule,” said Gugenheim. “But Brady had a really good idea of how to make the schedule work. The challenge was getting both Natalie and Jude [Law’s] schedules to work.”

Neon had been tracking the project closely, according to Gugenheim. The company first approached the filmmaking team in Cannes, but they decided to hold back until all had a chance to see the film at its debuts in Venice and Toronto.

“They really understood the material and understood how the film is unique,” said Gugenheim. “Their approach was that it did not fit into a box.”

Vox Lux opens in six locations in three markets this weekend including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It will head out nationwide on December 14.

Divide And Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Director: Alexis Bloom
Appearances: Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Babette Bombshell
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Documentary Divide And Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes arose from a conversation the veteran doc producer had with Alex Gibney. She had produced the Oscar-winner’s 2013 doc We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.

“Alex Gibney was the godfather of this project in a way,” said Bloom. “He came on right at the beginning. A few years back we were talking about making a film about Rupert Murdoch and out of this came this Roger Ailes project… I always found him to be a fascinating character. Paradoxically though he was the head of a news [organization] he was also famously tough to report on. After he was kicked out of Fox, it seemed there was a chance to do this.”

The feature fuses the personal, the political and the surreal as it charts the rise and fall of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. Variously called a bulldog, a kingmaker, and the Ernest Hemingway of campaign advisors, Ailes was a key media consultant to Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, powerfully shaping American political history over the last fifty years. After creating a ratings powerhouse, with more viewers than all its direct competitors combined, in 2016 Ailes was forced out of Fox amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment. He died in May 2017 at the age of 77.

Bloom said that she had floated the idea of spotlighting Ailes to various companies, but most were hesitant to take on the project and deal with the potential blowback. “People were interested in doing it, but then out of fear of disturbing the waters, they would pass,” said Bloom. “But A&E and Molly Thompson came on board and were all for it. And I was lucky to hire my own team.”

The project officially began in March 2017 and completed in September of this year.

Among her collaborators on Divide And Conquer were Will Cohen from Frontline, cinematographer Charlotte Kaufman and Gabrielle Alcalde who Bloom said performed the crucial chore of gathering material for the project since they were not able to license anything from Fox.

“Gabrielle had to find material from all sorts of weird and wacky places,” said Bloom. “She went to crazy computer services or met people who had worked there. We live in a world of big data and the biggest challenge is finding what is relevant. You have to be mono-maniacal.”

Combing through the material, Bloom and the producers focused on information that originated from “people in the room.” The filmmaking team had internal parameters for what could be used though there was one exception.

“Our rule was that it had to be people who knew him well, not just someone who had lunch with him or had opinions,” said Bloom. “The only exception was with the crisis communications people [who came in at the lead-up to his departure from Fox], since they only knew him a short time.”

Magnolia Pictures boarded for distribution just prior to the Toronto Film Festival where it debuted in September. Divide And Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes is opening day and date in theaters and on-demand/iTunes Friday. Theatrically it will be in 15 theaters in ten markets.

Nona
Director-writer: Michael Polish
Cast: Kate Bosworth, Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Giancarlo Ruiz, Jasper Polish, Diana Cabuto
Distributor: North of Two

Spouses Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth collaborated on drama Nona, which opens this weekend in limited release. The project was initially inspired from a radio program Polish heard while driving in Los Angeles.

“He heard a story about a sex house that was busted not far from where we live in L.A.,” said Bosworth, who produced and stars in Nona. “When he arrived home, he told me about it and said he felt like there was a story to be told.”

Bosworth said Polish wanted to capture overarching themes of immigration and sex trafficking through the story of one individual. “He was adamant he wanted to connect humanity to the statistics,” said Bosworth. “He started writing the screenplay that day, and also did a ton of research. There are millions of people globally affected by global trafficking, but many people are not [aware] of how this happens.”

Nona centers on the title character, a young woman from a shantytown in Honduras who meets Hecho, a handsome traveler who claims to be nursing a broken heart. Intrigued by his carefree wanderlust, she takes him up on his offer to head toward the United States, where she can finally reunite with her mother. But when Hecho’s sure intentions slowly become clear, her journey turns perilous.

Polish had a draft written quickly, according to Bosworth. Both agreed that credibility was a key component for dealing with sensitive subject matter.

“If you know my husband, he’s a real original,” said Bosworth. “He’ll do anything to find the authenticity of subject matter. He told me he wanted the film to be in Spanish. His mother is Mexican and he felt a lot of his mother’s influence when [doing this project]. He’s first generation [on his mother’s side] and has been given the opportunities he’s had because of his mother. He also wanted the [role of Nona] to be an unknown and we found Sulem Calderon.”

Calderon came to their attention through cast member Jesy McKinney who had been speaking to Latina women at his church. After meeting with a number of them, Calderon was offered the part. “It became clear that Sulem was our Nona,” said Bosworth. “And she wholeheartedly jumped in.”

Bosworth financed the project and was involved as producer on all decisions. Polish traveled down to Honduras with a small crew and a former Navy Seal who provided protection. “I couldn’t travel with him, it was too dangerous,” said Bosworth. “I was in L.A. coordinating [the project]. For us, this isn’t just a movie, it’s a mission. I’m very aligned with the cause. We donate time and money and we also create art.” Nona was produced through their production company, Make Pictures.

Shooting took place over three weeks in Central America and Mexico before crossing over to the U.S. where production continued in Los Angeles. “It’s colliding with a critical moment in history,” said Bosworth, referring to the well-publicized “caravans” that took a spotlight during the recent U.S. midterm elections. “We are working with CAST (the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) which is the most amazing organization fighting on this issue. They empower survivors and stay with them longterm. Many survivors end up working with CAST. I’ve been with them traveling to Washington to lobby. When you see what’s happening first hand, you can’t help but be involved.”

Following stops on the festival circuit, Nona is opening in New York at Village East and in L.A. at the Laemmle Noho Friday. Added Bosworth: “And then we’ll spread out and do video and on-demand from there. We’re thrilled to make something that might make a difference and somehow move the dial.”