A few Specialty distributors are taking advantage of the young year’s dearth of new titles to roll out smaller features they hope will grab attention away from established awards contenders. Cohen Media Group is opening The Aspern Papers today starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson in a drama set in Venice. The company’s Charles Cohen came on board as a producer early in the process. Paladin is handling theatrical for John J. Budion’s coming of age drama Rockaway starring Keidrich Sellati, opening in New York. Also opening is comedic noir Jobe’z World, which shot mostly guerrilla-style over a week in Manhattan.

The Aspern Papers
Director-writer: Julien Landais
Writers: Jean Pavans, Hannah Bhuiya, Henry James (novel)
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Jon Kortajarena, Poppy Delevingne, Morgane Polanski, Alice Aufray, Barbara Meier, Lois Robbins
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Drama The Aspern Papers, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Vanessa Redgrave, is the feature debut of French-born filmmaker/actor Julien Landais. Filmed in Venice, Italy, the title, which Cohen Media Group opens stateside this weekend, is based on Henry James’s 1888 novella.

The Aspern Papers tells of an ambitious American editor obsessed with the late Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern. Determined to obtain the letters Aspern wrote to his lover and muse Juliana years earlier, the editor travels to Venice and meets the suspicious elderly woman along with her quiet niece in their grand but dilapidated palazzo. Assuming a false identity and initially concealing his true intentions, the editor ultimately charms the niece into helping him with his obsession. But when the niece presents him with a condition he can’t accept, the future of the papers and the mysteries they contain hang in the balance.

“James Ivory brought the project to us when it was in the script stage,” Cohen Media Group commented Wednesday. “The film is driven by two formidable actresses, Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson, who were both attached when we came onto the project.”

The New York-based distributor, headed by Charles Cohen who is an executive producer of the title, added that Rhys Meyers was “being pursued” when the company signed on. Deadline reported the actor came on board in summer 2017.

Cohen Media group said that the film, which gets a day and date release, will likely find its core audience from Merchant-Ivory fans as well as avid Henry James readers, along with the usual arthouse crowd.

Added the company: “It is a relatively quiet weekend given the recent rush of holiday and awards season films entering theaters.” Cohen Media Group will play The Aspern Papers in “the top ten markets” and expand the title based on performance.

Rockaway
Director-writer: John J. Budion
Cast: Keidrich Sellati, Maxwell Apple, Harrison Wittmeyer, Tanner Flood, Colin Critchley, James DiGiacomo
Distributors: Paladin (theatrical), Gravitas Ventures (digital)

Adventure-drama Rockaway is inspired by true events set in the summer of 1994 and is the directorial debut of veteran visual effects artist John J. Budion. Budion wrote the initial script in 2014 and by the end of 2015 showed it to talent manager Cory Thompson. Thompson, who is an associate producer of Rockaway, then passed it along to casting agents Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram.

The coming of age drama following two brothers, John and Anthony, who have high hopes of a Knicks Championship and a new, easier life. John relies on his older brother and his imagination for protection from their abusive father. They’ve always had just each other and their secrets, until they meet a group of boys who show them the love and companionship only achieved through the laughs, sweat and tears of sport and boyhood mischief. The type of friendship that makes you feel less alone, gets you through the tough years, and lasts forever.

“I always knew I wanted to do a feature film,” said Budion. “I have always been a fan of coming of age stories and [based] this on my brother and me growing up.” Financing for the project came by way of “a lot of friends,” said Budion, including executive producer Neal Barbiero.

Hopkins and Ingram lead casting, though Budion said he had ‘highlighted’ The Americans actor Keidrich Sellati. He said that others who were eventually cast in the project were frontrunners at the outset. “I had people in mind, but wanted to go through the casting process to open up my perspective on everything. I’m always open to those perspectives.”

Rockaway shot over 25 days in summer 2016. Prior to principal photography, Budion made sure that the young cast stayed in a hotel together to get to know one another.

“I wanted them to bond and get into trouble which is what we did at that age and I think it really helped,” said Budion. “I made sure we went linearly in the script beginning when they’re supposed to meet on day one. They are all still very close.”

Budion worked with Denis Hennelly on the edit in L.A. and then took it back to New York to add special effects. Gravitas Ventures began discussions with the filmmaking team late last summer as the film was doing a festival run, eventually signing on for digital. Paladin boarded for theatrical. Rockaway will open at Village East in New York Friday. The film became available on-demand Tuesday.

Jobe’z World
Director-writer: Michael M. Bilandic
Cast: Jason Grisell, Theodore Bouloukos, Owen Kline, Stephen Payne, Jeremy O. Harris, Lindsay Burdge, Theodore Bouloukos, Sean Price Williams, Keith Poulson, Jason Giampietro, Kate Lyn Sheil
Distributor: Factory 25

Filmmaker Michael Bilandic had been thinking about doing a comedic noir film in New York for awhile and the result is Jobe’z World, his third feature. He had imagined someone rollerblading around the streets of the city, but then decided a celebrity tragedy could be the project’s hook. “The story then wrote itself,” he said. “I wrote it very fast.”

Jobe, a mysterious middle-aged rollerblader, spends his days selling drugs to an eclectic mix of downtown weirdos. He’s completely starstruck when he gets the call to to make a special delivery to his favorite actor. What starts off as an exciting encounter with an A-list celebrity quickly devolves into a nightmarishly comedic train-wreck when the actor dies and Jobe is forced to flee into the night. Afraid and confused, he blades around the streets of Lower Manhattan. Dodging paparazzi, police, a cinephilic doomsday prepper, a disturbed comedian, heartbroken super-fans, and his raver roommate, he fights to clear his name – all while entertaining his mom who is visiting from out of town.

Bilandic sent out the script, eventually financing it in the “tens of thousands of dollars,” which nevertheless allowed him to do “as we wanted,” according to the filmmaker. The filmmaker tapped those close to him to work on the film, which stretched dollars.

“Most of the people I worked with I knew personally both [on screen] and the crew as well, which is why we were able to do it so quickly and cheaply,” said Bilandic who shot Jobe’z World in one week. “I met Jason Grisell through mutual friends. He had done Alex Ross Perry’s [Golden Exits] and was also in a rap video I had done.”

Bilandic said the shoot was done “very guerrilla” throughout Manhattan with only a couple of people serving as crew. The one “big budget” item needed was a space that could pass for a TriBeCa loft. The budget didn’t allow for an actual prime TriBeCa space, but the filmmaking team made due with a place found in New Jersey.

“The shoot was fun because the crew and cast are the same people I like to hang out with otherwise,” said Bilandic. “So it didn’t have the same sense of pressure that might [happen otherwise].”

The edit, however, did take a long time, with time spent on the project working around editor Zach Clark’s other projects. “There wasn’t budget to take a few months off for this,” said Bilandic. “So while production was fast, the edit was a much longer process.”

Factory 25 released Bilandic’s 2013 comedy Hellaware and came on board for Jobe’z World. The title opens at Cinema Village in New York Friday followed by other select cities. The title will be available digitally in the spring.