Legal-Pot Doc ‘Rolling Papers’ & Oscar Hopeful ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’ Hit Theaters: Specialty Preview

SXSW 2015 debut Rolling Papers is headed to theaters and on-demand this weekend, despite a shakeup at distributor Alchemy this week. The film follows the first-ever “marijuana editor” following the legalization of pot in Colorado. Colombia’s Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee, Embrace Of The Serpent launches a trio of theaters this week, with its two NYC locations, which opened the title Wednesday, already reporting healthy box office, according to distributor Oscilloscope. The film’s midweek start outgrossed at least two fellow nominees on their Friday launches. India’s Fox Star Studios is opening Neerja in more than 70 locations. The film is hedging evolving tastes among its primarily South Asian audiences. And Music Box Films is going full metal with documentary We Are Twisted F*cking Sister!, hoping to get the band’s legion of fans out to theaters.

the mermaidAdditionally, Sony Pictures announced today that it is releasing Chinese blockbuster The Mermaid in the U.S. on Friday. The film reunites Sony with director Stephen Chow after their partnership on the 2005 release Kung Fu Hustle via Sony Pictures Classics ($17.1 million gross). The Mermaid has grossed more than $348 million in China. Also of note is A24’s launch of The Witch — winner of the Directing Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for Robert Eggers. The company is launching The Witch in about 1,500 theaters, so it falls outside the “specialty” realm, but its pedigree is there, so it’s worth a mention.

Rolling Papers
Director: Mitch Dickman
Subject: Ricardo Baca
Distributor: Alchemy

rolling-papers-poster The legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado prompted producers Britta Erickson, Daniel Junge, Alison Greenberg and Davis Coombe to revisit an earlier project they had begun when the state had legalized the drug for medicinal use. “The genie was out of the bottle, but city councils were scrambling to put the genie back in the box,” said Erickson, who also is a principal at the Denver Film Society. “We did 100 hours of work on the [previous project], but the pendulum kept swinging on this. Daniel and Alison went on to [Oscar-winning short] Saving Face.” As the shakeout over marijuana’s status became more clear after Colorado made it legal under Amendment 64, the filmmaking group saw a new angle in which to take up the subject.

On January 1, 2014 as recreational marijuana became available in Colorado dispensaries, the Denver Post began covering the story in a unique way. The Cannabist is the first pot section of a major newspaper and Ricardo Baca, the world’s first marijuana editor sets out to report history in the making with a team of straight-laced staff writers and offbeat freelancers. Policy news, strain reviews, parenting advice and edible recipes are the new norm on a new beat: pot journalism. Legalization is an experiment for society and a risk for the dying industry of newspapers to hedge its bets on a new one. Mitch Dickman came on board to direct after the producers were impressed with his documentary Hanna Ranch.

Initially, Baca was not into the idea. The journalist was in the middle of an onslaught of media attention soon after his appointment at The Cannabist. “He was a bit taken aback by this [filmmaker group] that had won awards,” said Erickson. “They had just announced his appointment, and he was getting calls by The View. … He didn’t think he was worthy of that kind of interest, but I persuaded him that this position was in fact interesting.”

After getting him on board, the project shot for the bulk of 2014, both at home and in Uruguay, which had also legalized cannabis for personal use, forming a state-controlled dispensary system under its nationwide legislation. “We were able to come in with an 80-minute doc that is enlightening and entertaining,” said Erickson.

Rolling Papers premiered at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, where the perfect scenario seemingly occurred. “The SXSW premiere was a whirlwind. It was a zeitgeist moment,” said Erickson. “It was the right festival to have the premiere. I’m constantly knocking on wood this isn’t the last time something like that kind of magic happens.” Following its debut, Rolling Papers had immediate offers for acquisition, surprising the producers, CAA and Preferred Content, the title’s sellers. “[The sellers] said this would be a ‘slow burn,’ but I didn’t get to see the food we were serving at the party because I was standing in a stairwell with buyers and sellers,” said Erickson.

In the end, Alchemy picked up the title. Tuesday night, Deadline reported that the distributor was facing financial woes, calling its slate into question. But Rolling Papers‘ release is proceeding as scheduled, the distributor confirmed for this report. The film will open day-and-date in 17 cities theatrically also on iTunes and other platforms.

Embrace of the Serpent
Director-writer: Ciro Guerra
Writers: Theodor Koch-Grùnberg, Richard Evans Schultes, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenku Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna
Distributor: Oscilloscope

Embrace Of The SerpentOscilloscope’s Embrace of the Serpent is the last of this year’s group of Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees to hit theaters in the U.S. The New York-based distributor picked up the Colombian feature shortly after last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The aftermath of colonialism cast a shadow over the black-and-white feature, which centers on Kaiamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people, and the two scientists, who build a friendship with him over the course of 40 years. The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grùnberg and Richard Evanas Schultes) who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century in search of the sacred and difficult-to-find psychedelic yakruna plant.

“We thought it had a better shot than not to be the Colombian submission, [though] we didn’t look at it as an awards contender. We assessed it on its own merit,” said Oscilloscope exec Andrew Carlin. “It’s a bit of challenging filmmaking that we knew we wanted to be a part of our catalog. Still, with a nomination, when you get one, everything changes a bit. There’s always apprehension planning around a nomination before you actually get it.”

Other titles in the Foreign Language category altered at least somewhat after receiving their nominations, though Oscilloscope had been planning for a February launch of Embrace of the Serpent “for months,” according to Carlin. The company has expected it to be a challenge as it rolls out, though, and hopes the awards exposure will get some additional crowds out to take a chance.

“It’s the kind of film that asks people to step outside their comfort zone,” said Carlin. “But if people take a chance, they’ll find it to be a really rewarding experience. All of our marketing materials reflect that [sentiment]. The trailer, one-sheet, etc. don’t hide the fact it’s about native people in Colombia in the early part of the 20th century. But we also emphasize in the trailer what an epic experience the film is.”

Oscilloscope opened Embrace of the Serpent on Wednesday at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza in New York. The title bow today at the Nuart in Los Angeles. The company noted Thursday afternoon that the film had an “immediate impact” following its positive New York Times review resulted in sold-out shows in NYC. O-scope also said its opening night on two screens outgrossed fellow nominees Mustang and Son of Saul, which were Friday launches.

Added Carlin: “While it’s still too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, it’s a wonderful and promising start to a film that we think has the potential to build major momentum over the next several weeks.”

Director: Ram Madhvani
Writers: Saiwyn Qadras, Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Shekhar Ravjiani
Distributor: Fox Star Studios

neerja-movie-posterIndia-based Fox Star Studios became involved with Neerja at the inception stage and is an example of an emerging genre of film finding success outside the Bollywood paradigm. The feature is a biopic based on a true incident involving the 1986 hijacking of a Pan American Airways flight from Bombay to New York and how a 23-year-old flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, managed to deal with the hijackers and save more than 350 passengers though she lost her life in the process.

“It’s a truly inspiring and courageous story which needed to be told on the big screen to the audiences in India and around the world,” said Rohit Sharma, head of international sales and distribution at Fox Star Studios India. “It’s a very relevant story in today’s world. As a film studio, we are looking at exploring different genres as the Indian cinema audience is evolving — especially the youth who are the regular audience for movies.”

Sharma noted that over the past three years, biopics based on Indian sportsmen, thrillers with female leads and family dramas without songs are “also doing well” in the Indian box office.

“Youth in India are exposed to content from across the world on digital platforms and TV channels and desire to see new breakthrough content, and the success of different genre films over the last few years has encouraged film companies to explore unique stories and concepts,” said Sharma. “Our primary audience is Indians across the world. The emotional and thriller content of the film could also appeal to the audiences which like world cinema. We are currently releasing the film across 30 countries worldwide on February 19 targeting the Indian diaspora.” Sharma added that in the film’s “second phase,” in the next six months, the company will target a “world audience.”

In addition to India and in North America, the title will bow in the UK, Australia, Middle East, Southeast Asia and African markets. In the U.S. and Canada, Fox Star will open Neerja in 70-plus theaters and will expand the title in the coming weeks based on response.

We Are Twisted F*cking Sister!
Director-writer: Andrew Horn
Subjects: Jay Jay French, Phil Carson, Garry Bushell, Sally Avellino, Donna Boccuzzi, Mike Corcione, Fingers Fingrz, Jason Flom, Joe Gerber
Distributor: Music Box Films

We_Are_Twisted_Fucking_Sister!_posterMusic Box Films saw the documentary We Are Twisted F*cking Sister! in December 2014 after director Andrew Horn brought it to the company’s head, Ed Arentz. “Andrew directed [2004’s The Nomi Song] on Klaus Nomi, who got a gig to open for Twisted Sister in the New York suburbs,” said Arentz. “The Twisted fans hated him, but Andrew interviewed [Twisted Sister] member Jay Jay French, and that’s what got him interested.

We Are Twisted F*cking Sister! spotlights the band primarily before “We’re Not Going To Take It” became an ’80s hair anthem. Early on, some considered Twisted Sister a joke, while others called them the greatest bar band in the world. While punk and new wave took over NYC, Twisted Sister was battling its way to the top of a working-class, suburban, cover-band bar scene surrounding New York, yet existing in a parallel world. At its peak were monster clubs, packing in audiences of up to 5,000 a night — both a great living and a dead end, offering little future outside the suburban enclave. That Twisted Sister would break out into multiplatinum stardom is well known, but their story is no fable of fame and success, and no litany of celebrity tributes and fanboy adulation.

“[Andrew Horn’s] ex-wife is a friend of mine, and she suggested I take a look at the film,” said Arentz. “I quite liked it, even though I didn’t have an interest in Twisted Sister’s music at the time. This is not about their ’80s heyday — or ‘hair-day,’ you can say. They were a supergroup in the suburbs and were a part of that ‘Disco Sucks’ movement. The doc is about what it takes to be a working band in this era before VHS and all the tech that came after. It’s a capsule of the ’70s.”

To promote the film’s day-and-date release this weekend in a half dozen locations as well as on iTunes and other platforms, the company recruited a publicist more attuned to the rock and heavy metal world than art house film. The feature has had coverage in Rolling Stone in addition to a host of radio interviews targeting the Twisted Sister diaspora. “They have a big fan base, but they’re scattered,” said Arentz. “We are doing a lot of things including social media from the band’s website that are going to make heavy metal audiences aware of this documentary.”

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