Documentaries Counter Memorial Weekend Tentpoles: Specialty Preview

Magnolia Pictures

Memorial weekend launches the counterprogramming season for the specialties. Distributors hoping to skim off audiences looking for fare not dished out by the studio tentpoles will find a plethora of documentaries this weekend. Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media are opening Presenting Princess Shaw, which was a big crowdpleaser on the festival circuit. The film will open in theaters as well as various on-demand platforms. Oscar winner D.A. Pennebaker and nominee Chris Hegedus teamed again for their latest, Unlocking the Cage, which follows a prominent lawyer trying to win rights for cognitively complex animals, while the team behind Holy Hell will self-release their film, an inside account of a famous West Hollywood cult that imploded. Abramorama will take As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM into select locations. On the narrative side, veteran Greek filmmaker Athina Tsangari’s London Film Festival winner, Chevalier, will open via Strand Releasing, and Adopt Films will bow The Idol from Israel-born Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad.

Presenting Princess Shaw
Director-writer: Ido Haar
Subject: Princess Shaw (Samantha Montgomery)
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media

Magnolia Pictures/Participant Media
Magnolia/Participant Magnolia Pictures/Participant Media

Magnolia and Participant co-acquired documentary Presenting Princess Shaw out of the Toronto International Film Festival. The film centers on Samantha Montgomery, who cares for the elderly in one of New Orleans’s toughest neighborhoods. By night, she writes and sings her own songs as Princess Shaw on her confessional YouTube channel. Raw and vulnerable, her voice is a diamond in the rough. Across the globe, Ophir Kutiel creates video mashups of amateur YouTube performers. Known as Kutiman, he is a composer, a musician and a pioneering video artist embraced by the art world. Kutiman “transforms sampling into a multimedia art,” whether at his home on a kibbutz in Israel or at a live performance at the Guggenheim in New York. Two strangers, almost 7,000 miles apart, begin to build a song.

“We’ve had tremendous success with pop culture documentaries, and this is a shining example of the form,” commented Magnolia exec Matt Cowal. “It’s impossible to see this film and not fall for Princess Shaw, the incredibly talented and charming protagonist. People connect with it in a profoundly positive, emotional way.”

As seen in the film, social media is at the heart of Princess Shaw’s notoriety, and it has naturally played its part in raising the film’s profile. Magnolia has worked closely with Facebook and YouTube to promote the title to their staff and influencers as part of its “aggressive social media campaign.” “One of the great things about this doc is its potential crossover appeal to different audiences,” noted Cowal. “It plays through the roof to traditional doc audiences — we’ve had tremendous success at film festival and film club screenings across the country, with standing ovations and hour long lines to interact with Princess after the film.”

Magnolia and Participant expect that the feature will appeal to audiences who are not frequent documentary watchers. In addition to social media, both teams also have been promoting the feature through traditional methods. “Really, the film hasn’t found an audience that isn’t receptive to it – the challenge is getting people to take the plunge,” said Cowal. “We think that once they do, they will be on board with it. Both Magnolia and the team at Participant have been pounding the pavement and aggressively word-of-mouth screening the film, trying to expose it to as many people as possible.”

Magnolia said it has found the Memorial Day weekend to be “historically receptive” to counterprogramming to Hollywood tentpole fare. Cowal said the film’s message is also a perfect fit for the start of summer: “It’s not a downer. It’s a positive, celebratory film and great holiday weekend viewing.”

Presenting Princess Shaw open in New York and L.A. this weekend. Kutiman and director Ido Haar will take part in Q&As in New York, while Princess Shaw will appear in L.A. The film also debuts Friday on iTunes, Amazon and on-demand everywhere. It will expand to 10-15 additional major markets on June 3 and continue to roll out through June.

Director-writer: Athina Tsangari
Writer: Efthymis Filippou
Cast: Yorgos Kendros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis, Makis Papadimitriou, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Sakis Rouvas
Distributor: Strand Releasing

Strand Releasing Strand Releasing

Greek filmmaker Athina Tsangari initially had the idea of a group of men who come together to play a game of power around the beginning of 2013. The project then took off pretty quickly, with the feature being an allegory of sorts surrounding the political and financial crisis that swept Greece and the subsequent crisis it caused with the European Union.

Chevalier is set on a luxury yacht in the middle of the Aegean Sea, where six men on a fishing trip decide to play a game. During this game, things will be compared and measured and blood will be tested. Friends will become rivals, but at the end of the voyage, when the game is over, the winner will wear the victorious signet ring: the “Chevalier.”

“The story was not originally meant to be on a boat, but then I thought it would be more fun and challenging to do it [that way],” Tsangari told Deadline at the SXSW Film Festival in March. “I pitched the idea to one of my [longtime] producers, Christos Konstantakopoulos. He liked the idea and [mentioned] his yacht. He said, ‘Here you go. You have the location for free.’ The marina in Athens is close to the city, so my actors could work in the theater in the evening and do their television shows in the morning. You can’t make money in the cinema in Greece. It’s a passion hobby we have.” Funding for Chevalier came via private financiers and through the film’s Greek distributor, Feelgood Entertainment.

Athens-based Haos Film, co-founded by Tsangari, produced the title, which had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival. Tsangari called the casting process “rigorous,” adding that the film could have been made more quickly had she been less stringent in finding her actors. “It was important to see that the cast would get along with each other in such a small space as this boat and feed off of each other,” said Tsangari. “Thirty to 40 percent of the script was altered. It’s an amalgam of what’s on the page and the actors’ personalities.”

The shoot on the yacht took place over 30 days, though there were interruptions due to the realities of filming a movie on water. “Most people think it was a set, but it wasn’t,” said Tsangari. “There was sea sickness and movement. Every time the weather would be bad, we had to stop.”

Following its debut in Locarno, Chevalier went on to festivals in Sarajevo, Toronto, Reyjavik, Rotterdam, Vancouver, New York, London, Thessaloniki, SXSW, Cleveland and Sarasota. Strand Releasing came on board as the title’s U.S. distributor ahead of SXSW. Chevalier will open Friday in NYC at IFC Center and Film Society at Lincoln Center and in Boston at Kendall Square Cinema with Q&A appearances by Tsangari in New York and Boston this weekend. The film will open in Los Angeles at Nuart Theatre on June 3 with Q&A appearances Friday and Saturday evenings. Strand will take the feature to Miami, the Bay Area and other markets throughout June.

Unlocking the Cage
Directors: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Distributor: First Run Features

First Run Features
First Run Features First Run Features

The latest film from renowned documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker looks at animal rights lawyer Steven Wise and his fight to change the way cognitively complex animals are recognized and protected by law.

According to an official description, “Wise and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project, argue on behalf of a series of unusual plaintiffs, chimpanzees who live in captive squalor or are subjects of experimentation, attempting to change the status of these intelligent beings from ‘things’ with no rights to ‘persons’ with legal protections. Unlocking the Cage raises provocative legal and philosophical questions, making the case for closing the gap between humans and its most intelligent animal neighbors.”

Hegedus and Pennebakbr were introduced to Wise and set out to investigate what could potentially be a major legal precedent. “He told us what he was about to do for a cognitively complex animal [who he believes] should have a legal right,” said Hegedus. “We didn’t know what that meant, but we were intrigued.” Hegedus and Pennebaker jumped into the project, filming the early stages of the legal proceedings. “Steve told me in a cab that when he first started going to court, people would literally bark at him,” said Hegedus. “That is different now, so people are changing. He was the first to teach animal law at Harvard.” The doc duo didn’t have funding in place when they started Unlocking the Cage, but they would, nevertheless, follow Wise with camera in hand. The pair were eager to not just show animals being abused but to emphasize their intelligence.

For the case, Wise found on a pair of chimps who happened to live in New York. “He researched which state and the best precedent and New York State was the best,” said Hegedus. “Captivity is hard on chimpanzees. He found [two in New York] in a cage in which one had died.” As the case was being built, financing for the project came together through private sources including Sundance Institute, BBC, Tribeca Institute, Animal Welfare Trust and others. Filming took place through 2015 before diving into an extensive edit.

“Because [filming] went on for such a long time, we decided to do a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter,” said Hegedus, adding that this was the first for the two prolific documentary filmmakers. “We raised $75K. … In January 2015, HBO came on board and allowed us to film the final court case and finish the editing process.”

First Run Features came on board as the film’s theatrical distributor following its Sundance Premiere. Added Hegedus: “[HBO’s] Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein thought it would be good to do a theatrical run before premiering on [the network].” Unlocking the Cage opened Wednesday at Film Forum in New York ahead of its expansion in June to Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and other cities. Pennebaker and Hegedus will take part in Q&As following select screenings this weekend.

The Idol
Director-writer: Hany Abu-Assad
Writer: Sameh Zoabi
Cast: Tawfeek Barhom, Ahmed Al Rokh, Hiba Attalah, Eyad Hourani, Nadine Labaki
Distributor: Adopt Films

The Idol posterFollowing his Oscar nominations for Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013), Israel-born filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad returns to the director’s seat with Palestinian story The Idol, a fictionalized version centered on Mohammed Assef, a wedding singer from Gaza who went on to win Arab Idol in 2013.

The Idol follows the hopes and dreams of the 22-year-old refugee, who dreams of the world hearing his voice and singing in the Cairo Opera House. Somehow he manages to escape out of Gaza and make it to the Cairo auditions of Arab Idol, the most popular talent show in the region. He gets to the latter stages of the competition, where he must confront his own fears to take control of his destiny and bring hope and happiness to an entire region.

“It’s always been a desire at Adopt to attach ourselves with remarkably talented filmmakers and nurture a relationship with them,” said Adopt Films co-founder Jeff Lipsky. “We distributed Hany’s Omar two years ago and had phenomenal success both critically and at the box office. When we saw The Idol [in Toronto], we leapt at the opportunity to work on his new film. This one is very different from [his previous work].” Omar grossed more than $640K in the U.S. while Paradise Now, released by Warner Independent, cumed over $1.45M domestically.

“Palestinian and Israeli strife takes a proper backdrop to the story, and it’s a universal story,” said Lipsky.  “It [contains] the same dreams as American Idol. I don’t know that this is unprecedented, but Hany was able to film part of the narrative in Gaza. That is perhaps the most political side of the movie, and perhaps, in a very small way, it shows there’s hope.”

Adopt has been screening the film to spread word-of-mouth ahead of  its release in theaters. Unlike Hany Abu-Assad’s previous titles, The Idol has found appeal from the very young through mature audiences. The film recently played a children’s film festival, according to Lipsky, winning fans. Added Lipsky: “Getting attention for Hany is easier every time he gets an Oscar nomination.”

The Idol opens Friday in 18 theaters in 11 markets, expanding quickly from there, according to Lipsky. “Word-of-mouth is much more immediate than it used to be. We’re chasing the person in Waco, TX, who [may have read about the film] in the New York or Los Angeles Times. Though it may not actually get to Waco, but you never know.”

As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM
Director-writer: Kevin Kerslake
Subjects: Adam Goldstein (DJ AM), Mark Ronson, Diplo, Jon Favreau, DJ Jazzy Jeff, A-Trak, Mix Master Mike, Vice, Z-Trip, Steve Aoki Paul, Oakenfold, LMFAO’s Redfoo, and Dr. Drew Pinsky, Travis Barker
Distributor: Abramorama

Abramorama Abramorama

As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM came to Abramorama through the distrubutor’s prior relationship with filmmaker, Kevin Kerslake, who has directed a number of music-related work for acts ranging from Nirvana to Depeche Mode to Bob Marley.

Authorized by the estate of DJ AM, Kerslake’s film is a comprehensive and compassionate look at one of the world’s first truly superstar DJs. DJ AM experienced meteoric success through both raw talent and sheer determination, overcoming what for others might have been staggering adversity before tragically succumbing to the demons that dogged his life and career.

“Music films are a perfect fit for Abramorama,” said the company’s Evan Saxon. “We know the music space. … We know how to engineer these films.” Saxon noted the company’s past work on Twenty spotlighting Pearl Jam and Heart Like a Hand Grenade with Green Day as two examples. “We target who the audience is, look at where the artist has played, and where the fans are [concentrated],” added Saxon. “For AM, [that concentration is in] L.A., Las Vegas and Seattle. It’s important to find the right markets instead of just doing random places. We don’t want it in theaters where we think it might not sell well.”

Saxon said part of that social media will help drive interest via some of the big-name DJs the late Adam Goldstein influenced and are featured in the doc. Additionally, the film will travel to a number of cities as part of a series of ‘event engagements,’ which will be followed by parties at clubs. “We’re utilizing the biggest DJs in the world, many of whom AM paved the road for,” said Saxon. “They’re gladly paying homage to Adam. Additionally, we have strong ties with the recovery community. Also, he was one of the biggest and earliest sneaker collectors, so we’re targeting that crowd. An artist doesn’t live in a solitary existence and Adam certainly did not.”

As I Am: The Life And Times of DJ AM will begin a weeklong run at the Village East in New York on Friday, with Kerslake in attendance for audience Q&As. There is a planned “premiere” at the Palm in Las Vegas on June 3 in addition to a weeklong run at the ArcLight Hollywood beginning the same day. “On June 13, we’ll begin going to 40 different cities in for a “tour in a way,’” noted Saxon. “The majority will be one-night events.

Holy Hell
Subjects: Will Allen, Dimitrius Pulido, Phillipe Coquet, Amy Allen, Cristala Allen, Gina Allen, Jennifer Baca, Alessandra Burenin, David Christopher
Distributor: WRA Productions LLC (Self-distributed)

WRA Productions LLC
WRA Productions LLC WRA Productions LLC

After initially having a distributor, the folks with docu Holy Hell decided to go DIY for the film’s release this weekend. The feature is an inside look at a West Hollywood cult formed by a charismatic teacher in the 1980s that eventually imploded. “I knew I’d make it myself,” said Allen, who was a member of the group. “I did my [initial] work on my own dime, which was about $30K. From that I made a 45-minute cut with interviews.”

Using that cut, Allen received $150K from a private investor in late 2013. With resources in hand, he began hiring a DP, editors, etc. and dove into the project in earnest. “The real interviews began,” said Allen. “Out of my 17 original interviews, I did about [a dozen for the film].” Allen filmed what he needed, but again was looking to raise more money. In June 2015, he met veteran producer Alexandra Johnes by a fluke. Their accidental run-in lead to a longer professional relationship.

“I went to a documentary group meeting in Santa Monica and pulled up and someone hit my car with their car door,” said Allen. “It was Alexandra.” Inside the meeting, the two were more formally introduced by a mutual friend. Johnes actually had heard of Allen’s project and had tried to reach out to the filmmaker. “She had emailed me the previous year, but I hadn’t gotten back to her,” said Allen. “We got along really well. A month later, I showed her what I was doing and she offered to be my EP. She really helped get the movie going.”

Additional money came from the same investor to the tune of $100K in addition to $50K from a new private source. “I started to run out of money again in early fall 2015, but fortunately just after the Sundance acceptance, one of our existing executive producers came in as an additional investor,” said Allen. “Shortly thereafter, Alexandra secured a $150K grant from a very generous anonymous donor and also brought in another investor and production partner, Whitewater Films.”

The film was slated to be released through a distributor, but plans changed. Johnes and sales agent Andrew Herwitz had reached out to others, but then it was decided to do a self-release. “We ultimately determined that for the existing domestic windows available, a self-release was the best route for the film,” said Allen. “We did however bring on distributor Richard Matson of Matson Films to do some additional grassroots marketing and outreach, given his success and experience with [documentary] Awake…” Deals have been closed with CNN Films and Netflix, according to Johnes and Allen. Herwitz is selling the title internationally.

Holy Hell begins its limited release in select locations including Village East in new York, Laemmle Santa Monica and Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. It will head to additional locations in early June.

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