Mark Strong In Space With ‘Approaching The Unknown’; Charles Ferguson Rolls Out ‘Time To Choose’: Specialty Preview

Vertical Entertainment

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Popstar are among the latest studio offerings likely to dominate with other tentpoles this summer weekend, there are still Specialty distributors who are not shying away from opening films they hope will siphon off some crowds. Vertical Entertainment will open space adventure Approaching The Unknown with Mark Strong and Luke Wilson in a day and date rollout, while Abramorama will bow Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s latest film, Time To Choose, focusing on climate change. After its debut in Cannes, Well Go USA is heading out with Korean thriller The Wailing in the wake of a lucrative bow at home. Venice and Sundance title The Fits rolls out via Oscilloscope. New York audiences will have the chance to see doc The Witness, which revisits a notorious crime that rocked the city decades ago. And Matson Films is taking its spiritual doc Gurukulam to NYC before its expansion to Los Angeles next week.

Approaching The Unknown

Approaching the Unknown 2
Vertical Entertainment

Director-writer: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Cast: Mark Strong, Luke Wilson, Sanaa Lathan, Anders Danielsen Lie, Charles Baker
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Mark Elijah Rosenberg, who founded New York’s popular annual film series, Rooftop Films, has a feature of his own opening this weekend in theaters. Approaching The Unknown stars Mark Strong as Captain William D. Stanaforth who is on a one-way solo mission, taking humanity’s first steps toward colonizing Mars. Although the entire world is watching him, he is completely alone in a dark and distant sea of stars. Stanaforth rockets bravely through space facing insurmountable odds, but as the journey takes a toll on his life-sustaining systems, he is forced to make impossible choices that threaten his sanity, mission and very existence.

“I wanted to make a film about a man alone confronting personal demons and his own hubris while also having a grand experience,” said Rosenberg. “So simultaneously, it’s a big picture story while also being intimate. I didn’t think of this as a sci-fi story initially as much as someone confronting his flaws, dreams and hopes.”

Rosenberg added that the film is a character study rather than an action-based drama. He wrote the fist draft in winter, 2011 and then participated in labs at Sundance Institute and the San Francisco Film Society. The project received funds from two principal financiers in addition to grants from Sundance, Cinereach, Creative Capital and the Jerome Foundation.

“Any space exploration is going to take place in a [space craft], so there’s a subjective experience of what that would be like,” he added. “So, it was possible to explore this experience on a modest budget.” Rosenberg’s reps at CAA sent the script to Mark Strong who is also represented at the agency. After reading the script the two Skyped and met up in New York for a couple of weeks reading and rehearsing. “I wanted someone who was capable and known, but not necessarily someone a lot of people have seen in different things,” said Rosenberg. “He was excited about the script and concept. He’s a great actor and a tremendous human being. I couldn’t have had a better partner for my first film.”

Shooting took place in upstate New York in March, 2014. Rosenberg wanted the crew in a small town setting to enhance camaraderie. “I wanted the shoot outside of New York City where I live,” he said. “I wanted a camp feel and I think it created a great atmosphere for the crew. Everyone was very immersed in the project and focused on making a nuanced and interesting world.” Principal photography was followed by six months of working on special effects in addition to a couple of pick-up shot days at the end of 2014 for scenes that didn’t take place in space.

Vertical Entertainment is handling the title’s theatrical distribution, while Paramount Home Distribution is spearheading on-demand for the day and date release. Theatrically, Approaching The Unknown is opening in 11 theaters in 10 markets including Cinema Village and AMC 34th Street in New York and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles.

Time To Choose

Time To Choose
Director-writer: Charles Ferguson
Writer: Chad Beck
Subjects: Oscar Isaac (narration), Peter Angnefjall, Tasso Azevedo
Distributor: Abramorama

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Inside Job) turns to worldwide climate change with his latest film, Time To Choose, narrated by Oscar Isaac. Distributor Abramorama saw the feature shortly after its debut at the Telluride Film Festival last fall.

The feature gives insight into both what is wrong and what can be done to fix the global threat. Ferguson explores the comprehensive scope of the climate change crisis and examines the power of solutions already available. Through interviews with renowned entrepreneurs, innovators, thought leaders and individuals living on the front lines of climate change, Time To Choose takes an in-depth look at the people working to save the planet.

“We all thought the film was terrific and we wanted to work with Charles Ferguson,” said Abramorama head Richard Abramowitz. “We know the audience, we know where they are and how committed they are to the issues. We think we can motivate them and get them [out to theaters].”

Abramowitz noted that one of the title’s executive producers, Tom Dinwoodie has a solar energy background with extensive reach with people working in that industry. He has also connected Abramorama to allied groups such as the Sierra Club and others who will get the word out about the film. “They’ve been activating their membership,” said Abramowitz. “Just on Facebook, there has been a million views of the film’s trailer.”

Time To Choose will open in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. this weekend. Abramowitz noted that the title will also hit some cities earlier than might be expected including Sedona, AZ, Boulder, CO, Bellingham, WA and others in order to tap their local activist communities.

“They have art house audiences, but they also have an activist community that we’ll want,” said Abramowitz. “We’ll also have one night engagements in smaller towns where the population might not justify a full run, but there will be a full theater and local press.” Next week, the film will head to the Bay Area, Seattle, Minneapolis and others in the top 20 markets.

Well Go USA

The Wailing
Director-writer: Hong-Jin Na
Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Chun Woo-hee, Kwak Do-won
Distributor: Well Go USA

Well Go USA CEO Doris Pfardrescher had been speaking with Fox International about Korean thriller The Wailing, which FIP/Ivanhoe Pictures produced. The feature screened at the recent Cannes Film Festival, and the company picked up U.S. rights for the title ahead of its debut there last month. “When we saw it, we were completely blown away,” said Well Go’s SVP of Acquisitions and Theatrical Releasing Dylan Marchetti. “It was not what we expected — and I mean in a good way. Hong-Jin Na is a master of the thriller.” Initially, the company had planned to go with its usual template targeting diaspora audiences who are the natural ticket buyers to see a film from their native country. After seeing the film, however, the company quickly altered its strategy.

Set in a close-knit mountain village in South Korea, The Wailing follows the appearance of a foreigner’s mysterious appearance in the quiet village, causing suspicion among the locals. The suspicion quickly turns to hysteria as the townspeople begin killing each other in brutal outbursts for seemingly no reason. As the investigating officer watches his daughter fall under the same savage spell, he agrees to consult a shaman for answers – unknowingly escalating the situation into something far more dangerous.

“We do films for the diaspora audience, but for this, we’re doing something different,” said Marchetti. “For Korean films, we’ll target particular theaters with Korean concentrations, but once we saw this, we did a quick pivot. We still want [to target] the Korean audience, but we also think this plays to the art house crowd.” While in Cannes, Well Go USA added well over a dozen art houses for the film’s U.S. roll out in anticipation of healthy cross-over. In all, the film will open in about 35 theaters this weekend including IFC Center, the Film Society and Empire 25 in New York.

“We’ll add in markets that don’t have a large Korean audiences next week, rolling out throughout June and July,” added Marchetti. “The bookers have been great about this because we didn’t have a lot of time… Indie chains are making room for us in a crowded season. I don’t think if we just put this on VOD it would have commanded this attention.” Well Go USA will add on-demand platforms in a couple months.

The Wailing opened in South Korea just after Cannes, grossing $40 million so far, according to Well Go.

The Witness

The Witness
Director-writer: James D. Solomon
Writers: William Genovese, Russell Greene, Gabriel Rhodes
Subjects: William Genovese, Shannon Beeby, Kitty Genovese
Distributor: FilmRise

Documentary The Witness was filmed over 11 years. FilmRise picked up the title after seeing the film at its New York Film Festival premiere last year.

The film recalls the stabbing death of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in Kew Gardens, Queens in 1964. The New York Times claimed the murder had 38 witnesses, but did nothing. More than 50 years later, her younger brother Bill Genovese uncovers a lie that transformed his life, condemned a city, and defined an era. The murder of Kitty Genovese transfixed New York and the world; it came to symbolize the apathy and indifference of urban life, and for many, a greater social breakdown. A deeply personal take on a very public story, The Witness follows Bill Genovese as he learns about his sister’s life and tracks down the neighbors who, according to the press, did nothing as the terror-filled screams of rape and murder took place outside their windows.

“This is an iconic story and was a no brainer for us to work on,” said FilmRise VP Bob Jason. “Empathy for Bill Genovese is amazing in this film. He was able to get responses from witnesses that [others were not able to do].”

New York will likely be the prime market for The Witness, though the company believes the popularity of true-crime stories will propel the film as it heads out to additional markets. They see the baby boomer generation as a particular focus, though a recent screening of the film at the Stranger Than Fiction series at IFC Center in New York brought out a cross-section of people.

“Young and [older] people came out to see the film this past Tuesday night. The whole theater was full,” added Jason. Added the company’s president Jack Fisher: “This is one of the most dramatic and suspenseful films I’ve seen in a long time. This is about the love of a sibling to find out about his sister’s murder and to find justice for her. It contains one of the most beautiful and emotional scenes I’ve seen in my life.”

The Witness will open in New York this weekend before heading out to additional cities in the coming weeks. The Witness is currently booked in 20 markets.

The Fits

The Fits

Director-writer: Anna Rose Holmer
Writers: Saela Davis, Lisa Kjerulff
Cast: Royalty Hightower, Q-Kidz Dance Team
Distributor: Oscilloscope

Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer reached out to Lisa Kjerulff about co-producing her new project, The Fits. The two applied for the Venice Biennale Cinema College program after submitting their bios and a treatment for the feature. They were one of 12 producer/director teams to travel to Venice to compete for a funding prize. The duo had also brought on Saela Davis as another co-writer and after submitting a first draft in mid-November, 2014, The Fits was one of three projects selected by the festival for funding. Venice awarded €150,000 to to the trio. “The prize requires that it premiere in Venice the next year and there can’t be any other grants or investors,” said Kjerulff.

The film centers on Toni who trains as a boxer with her brother at a community center in Cincinnati’s West End, but becomes fascinated by the dance team that also practices there. Enamored by their strength and confidence, Toni eventually joins the group, eagerly absorbing routines, mastering drills, and even piercing her own ears to fit in. As she discovers the joys of dance and of female camaraderie, she grapples with her individual identity amid her newly defined social sphere. Shortly after Toni joins the team, the captain faints during practice. By the end of the week, most of the girls on the team suffer from episodes of fainting, swooning, moaning, and shaking in a seemingly uncontrollable catharsis. Soon, however, the girls on the team embrace these mysterious spasms, transforming them into a rite of passage. Toni fears “the fits” but is equally afraid of losing her place just as she’s found her footing.

The Fits shot over 20 days in March, 2015 with first-time actors from Cincinnati. Half the crew came from New York where the primary filmmaking team lives, while the rest were from Cincinnati. “We cast an entire dance team,” said Kjerulff. We had 45 teen girls and five boys. We purposefully filmed around spring break. It was a handful because they’re all teenagers.” Kjerulff added that the cast and crew were especially motivated knowing that the film would be seen via its Venice premiere. “That got everyone motivated,” she said. “About 97% of the film was shot in one building.”

Following its Venice bow, Sundance Institute and Cinereach also gave grants. Oscilloscope saw the film in December ahead of its Sundance Film Festival premiere and picked up the title. The Fits will open Friday exclusively at Metrograph in New York. It will head to Los Angeles and Cincinnati June 10 before expanding to locations nationwide over the following weeks.


Matson Films

Directors: Neil Dalal, Jillian Elizabeth
Subject: Dayananda Saraswati
Distributor: Matson Films

Matson Films’ Richard Matson saw doc Gurukulam on the advice of a colleague last September. The feature follows a group of students and their teacher as they confront fundamental questions about the nature of reality and self-identity at a remote forest ashram in southern India. Daily chores, meditation, ritual, and rigorous study are woven together connecting the natural and spiritual worlds in moments of revelation and comic contradiction. The feature features Swami Dayananda whose teachings explore what an official description calls, “a contemplative rhythm of life as old as the Bhagavad Gita and as new as present-day India.”

“I’m a sucker for sensory films like Leviathan and Sweet Grass,” said Matson. “I love the atmospheric creation of a space in vérité documentary. We have had a lot of success with films in the ‘conscious cinema’ space, so because of our work on those films, we have a built-in community we can access.” Matson sited his company’s ties with zen centers, metaphysical groups and yoga centers as examples of organizations Matson Films is working with to promote Gurukalam.

“We create value for these groups,” he said. “If they’ll send an email blast and include [the film] in their social media etc., they can host [post-screening] Q&As and also have information about their groups at screenings.”

Matson Films will open Gurukulam at New York’s Village East Friday before heading to Los Angeles soon afterward. Matson said the feature is currently booked in 70 theaters around the country and will likely be in 100 – 115 locations over its theatrical release. There is currently a theatrical on-demand campaign via TUGG. Added Richard Matson: “Part of the reason for the slow rollout is to give our grass roots team time to go to each location.” The Orchard will handle the title’s VOD release starting in September.

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