Kristen Stewart’s ‘Clouds Of Sils Maria’ Heads Big-Name Specialty Debuts

Kristen Stewart became the first American woman to win at France’s Cesar Awards when she took Best Supporting Actress for her role in Olivier AssayasClouds Of Sils Maria. Now the film, which also stars Juliette Binoche and Chloë Grace Moretz, begins its U.S. theatrical run Friday in a specialty frame filled with debuts featuring big names.

Writer Alex Garland‘s directorial debut Ex Machina with Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson opens in New York and L.A. from A24, the distributor of While We’re Young, which claimed 2015’s top specialty opening two weeks ago.

The Orchard is going haute couture with its documentary Dior And I exclusively in NYC, while Freestyle Releasing will bow The Sisterhood Of Night, bringing drama to female teen audiences.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is opening Ryan Gosling‘s directorial debut Lost River in three cities and Vertical Entertainment is opening Dial A Prayer day and date with its VOD release. Also opening this weekend in limited release are Broken Horses by Vinod Chopra Films and Reliance Entertainment; Magnolia’s Kill Me Three Times; and Big World Pictures’ Rebels Of The Neon God.

Clouds Of Sils Maria
Director-writer: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Brady Corbet
Distributor: IFC Films

This could become French director Olivier Assayas’ highest-grossing feature in the U.S., due at least in part to a cast starring Binoche, Stewart and Moretz. The film explores the interplay between art, acting and aging. Clouds Of Sils Maria centers on Maria Enders (Binoche), a renowned actress at the peak of her career who is cast opposite a young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Moretz) in a new production of the play that first made her famous. Maria is confronted with middle age in a youth-obsessed industry. Retreating into the mountains with her personal assistant (Stewart), Maria confronts her personal demons as her life begins to imitate her art during her preparation for the role.

“Olivier and Juliette started talking about this [project in 2008] at the New York Film Festival, where they were screening Summer Hours,” said IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, whose company became involved during script development. “They wanted to do an English-language movie. Charles Gillibert was a producer on On The Road, which starred Kristen Stewart, so he brought her in. I didn’t know for a while that she was in the film.”

To support the U.S. release, Stewart is making the late-night talk-show rounds.

IFC Films released On The Road and has been U.S. distributor for several Assayas films, including the 2009’s Summer Hours, which grossed over $1.65M domestically. While Clouds Of Sils Maria screened in Cannes, Toronto and at the NYFF, IFC held off on a theatrical bow until April.

“We wanted to avoid the year-end crush and we’re giving this a traditional release,” said Sehring.

Clouds Of Sils Maria will open at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York as well as The Landmark in Los Angeles on Friday. IFC will add about 20 additional locations the following week, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and suburban areas with an additional two dozen theaters set for April 24, with more expansions heading into May.

Ex Machina
Director-writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson
Distributor: A24

Garland is well-known for his work with Danny Boyle and his scripts for The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. This time, though, Garland opted for the director’s chair for cerebral thriller Ex Machina, which he also wrote.

Shot in a hotel in Valldalen, Norway, the film centers on Caleb Smith (Gleeson), a programmer at an internet research giant who wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test—charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava (Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated – and more deceptive – than either of the humans imagined.

“We saw it sometime before Toronto and we were in from Day One,” said A24 exec Heath Shapiro. “We launched [its theatrical run] out of SXSW, which we thought was a perfect match-up with the festival’s [confluence] of cinema and technology. It went over fantastic in Austin.”

Ex Machina bowed in the U.K. January 21 via Universal Pictures, which produced the film. It has cleared more than $6.22M abroad, and goes into its U.S. release with an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

“We’ve been screening it for audiences and critics and honestly it’s playing for everyone,” said Heath. “The [positive] audience sentiment is there across many different groups. It’s an incredibly great debut.”

Ex Machina will open in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles before platforming out next week and heading nationwide by week 3.

“It’s not dissimilar to how we’re releasing While We’re Young,” Shapiro said. “We’re positioning it for a younger audience and sci-fi has been a great genre of late. We’re pretty optimistic.”

Lost River
Director-writer: Ryan Gosling
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Matt Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Barbara Steele
Distributor: Warner Bros.

Oscar-nominated actor Gosling’s segue into the writer/director role began when he arrived in Detroit to shoot political drama The Ides Of March. At SXSW Film Festival, Gosling described the city as a “pinup girl” for the American dream when he was growing up in Canada. When he arrived, he saw historical buildings in decay and some about to be torn down.

“I saw families living in neighborhoods where they were the only [household] for blocks,” he told panel moderator Guillermo del Toro. “I started thinking of a family [living] like that and started shooting on a cell phone and [later] with the Red camera.”

The result, Lost River, is a dark fairytale about the “love, family and the fight for survival in the face of danger,” according to the film’s boilerplate. Set in the virtually abandoned town of Lost River, it’s the story of Billy, a single mother of two, who is led into a macabre underworld in her quest to save her childhood home and hold her family together. Her teenage son, Bones, discovers a mystery about the town’s origins that triggers his curiosity and sets into motion an unexpected journey.

Inspired by his time in Detroit, Gosling began writing the script. The story does not mirror Detroit’s plight, but rather is a fairy tale where a community experiences a devolution. Del Toro at SXSW said that if Gosling wasn’t going to direct it, “Then I would…” Gosling showed an earlier draft of Lost River to the Mexican director.

For the male lead, Gosling found De Caestecker through an unconventional method.

“With Iain, we used this website called ‘Cast It Talent,’ which is amazing because you don’t have to have an agent to audition.” Gosling asked each person vying for the role to read Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which is featured in The Outsiders. He said he was looking for someone who would not add too much flavor, which usually would be a tendency at an audition.

Lost River debuted in Cannes last year and was held off the fall festival circuit. It had its U.S. premiere at SXSW last March.

“You do a lot to acting as a director,” Gosling said. “[There’s] more acting as a director [and] you’re always acting confident, even if everything is going south…There’s always a problem.”

There was speculation at Cannes that Warner Bros. would sell the film to a Specialty distributor, but ultimately, it kept control. Lost River will open at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas in L.A., the Angelika in New York and Alamo Drafthouse in Austin in addition to simultaneous on-demand platforms.

Dior And I
Director: Frédéric Tcheng
Subject: Raf Simons, Christian Dior
Distributor: The Orchard

Tcheng returns again to fashion after previous work on docs Valentino: The Last Emperor (as editor and producer, 2008) and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel (as co-director, 2011). Unlike those films about icons of couture, Dior And I spotlights a much more reticent personality who initially did not want to take part in the documentary.

Dior And I goes inside the legendary fashion house, giving a play-by-play look at the creation of Raf Simons’ first haute-couture collection as the label’s artistic director. Not only is Simons new to the house, but he must complete the collection in only eight weeks. The film, which debuted at Tribeca last year, and later won a doc prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, goes behind the scenes to show the everyday pressure-filled collaboration with the fashion house’s legion of seamstresses, who painstakingly realize Simons’ vision.

“I met Raf through the lens of my camera on the first day of shooting,” said Tcheng, who had flown to Paris just days before Simons, a Belgian designer, arrived at Dior’s Paris headquarters. “I had already been talking to [the heads] of Christian Dior for four months before Raf was appointed about the idea of making a film [capturing] the arrival of the new designer and the creation of the first line.”

Simons, however, was hardly eager to have a film crew follow him in that high-tension situation. Tcheng sent Simons letters detailing his intent, and the correspondence paid off. Simons agreed to do a one-week trial run.

“During that first week, we talked a lot about his relationship with publicity and the star system,” said Tcheng. “It’s not something he’s comfortable with. He doesn’t want to engage in celebrity culture, and I think he’s suspicious of how it might change his life.”

Shot in 2012, the film focuses on creating the new line itself, though the personalities involved, including Simons,’ are very much in the mix. The film also leans heavily on the Christian Dior staff, who bear an emotional and physical toll of creating the collection under a tight time restraint.

Because the bulk of the shoot took place over eight weeks, Tcheng was concerned whether he’d capture enough footage for a feature-length film.

“It was a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Tcheng said. “Obviously it made for a much more dynamic story – almost like a thriller. At the same time, I was completely stressed out. I was afraid whether I’d be able to gather enough material to sustain 90 minutes. I thought the story was promising enough from the outset, and then when I met the characters, I knew they would ultimately be the drivers this film.”

Tcheng took his time editing the film, however, letting the footage gestate and what he describes as “mature.”

The Orchard will open Dior And I at Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York Friday, followed by the Nuart Friday, April 17. It will slowly open in all major markets through mid-May.

The Sisterhood Of Night
Director: Caryn Waechter
Writers: Marilyn Fu, Steven Millhauser (short story)
Cast: Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Willa Cuthrell, Olivia DeJone, Kal Penn, Laura Fraser, Gary Wilmes
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing

The Sisterhood Of Night producers Lydia Dean Pilcher and Elizabeth Cuthrell say that the film industry has boxed the female teen audience into the usual romantic-comedy or fantasy routine and has missed the boat in appealing to that demographic with other genres.

Their new film seeks to fill that gap. It is based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser. Set against the backdrop of a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials, the story opens when Emily Parris exposes a secret society of teenage girls. Accusing the girls of committing sexually deviant acts, Emily’s allegations throw their small town into the national spotlight. The mystery deepens when each of the accused takes a vow of silence. What follows is a chronicle of three girls’ provocative alternative to the loneliness of adolescence, revealing the contradictory experience of teen life, which has been forever marked by the Internet age.

Pilcher and Cuthrell produced Jesus’ Son (1999) together and reunited for The Sisterhood Of Night. The project, by a first-time feature filmmaker, had been nurtured by Tribeca All Access, which supports films by underrepresented communities.

“That was about six years ago,” said Cuthrell. “[In 2011] we did a Kickstarter campaign that raised $140K in 30 days, which was the second-highest amount raised at the time.”

Investors initially passed on the project, but the Kickstarter success helped attract additional funds.

Writer Marilyn Fu had already attached Caryn Waechter as director before Pilcher and Cuthrell joined. Shooting took place in 2012 over 30 days in Kingston, NY.

“[The town] has a feeling of history and yet is small,” said Pilcher. “It has woods nearby. The shoot went well, but we had to be very efficient with our time because of the number of young people on the set, which meant there were hour restrictions.”

As a drama with four female leads, Sisterhood had difficulty finding a home. The film didn’t check off the usual boxes for female teen audiences.

“Distributors told us they don’t know the market, but in terms of dramatic films, what sells is depicting the realities of their lives,” said Pilcher. “We found that distributors have been creating female-[oriented films] that are romantic comedy or movies like Twilight and Hunger Games, and they think there’s [no room] for drama.”

Sisterhood eventually did find a distributor. Freestyle Releasing will open the film in 10 cities this weekend with Netflix set for June. The filmmaking team and distributor have been working social media ahead of the film’s opening in addition to taking part in an anti-cyber-bullying campaign.

Dial A Prayer
Director-writer: Maggie Kiley
Cast: Brittany Snow, William H. Macy, Glenne Headly, Kate Flannery, Tom Lipinski, Stephanie Koenig, Nicole Forester
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Kiley’s Dial A Prayer hopes to tap the faith-based audience and beyond when it opens this weekend. The feature follows troubled young woman, Cora (Snow), who begrudgingly answers phones at a prayer call center under the watchful direction of its religious leader, Bill (Macy). Her prayers, however, start making a difference and one caller shows up convinced he’s been saved by her voice. With the discovery of her newfound gift, Cora struggles to reconcile her troubled past and grapples with the faith that others have started to show her.

Kiley and producer Jason Potash of Storyboard Entertainment began discussing the concept for Dial A Prayer after finishing their 2009 short Some Boys Don’t Leave, but sidelined the project after the short began getting attention. That later resulted in a feature version, Brightest Star (2013).

“We had been talking about Dial A Prayer for five years, and after Brightest Star, we returned to Dial A Prayer,” said Potash. “We financed Maggie’s first film and financed this [project] with Preferred Content and XYZ Films.”

Snow boarded the film in 2013, and the project shot in Detroit over 20 days. Preferred and XYZ connected the title with Vertical Entertainment, which has been a good fit, Potash said.

“They understand the audience and the type of film we’re going for,” he said. “It’s a faith film with ‘faith’ being an inspiration. The story is about believing in yourself and will resonate with [many people].”

Vertical Entertainment will open Dial A Prayer in 10 theaters in 10 markets in addition to day and date video on demand this Friday.

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