Now 90, Dr. Ruth Westheimer had resisted past overtures to do a documentary, but she was won over by filmmaker Ryan White. Ask Dr. Ruth, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, opens in theaters this weekend via Magnolia Pictures after screening at Tribeca Film Festival this week. The theatrical run comes ahead of its Hulu bow in June. 1091 Media, formerly The Orchard, is opening fellow Tribeca doc, Meeting Gorbachev by Werner Herzog and André Singer. Venice, Toronto, Telluride & NYFF title, Non-Fiction, by Olivier Assayas and starring Juliette Binoche opens in select locations on the coasts Friday, while Good Deed Entertainment has Tell It to the Bees with Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger in select cities around the country. Also on tap is Patrick Creadon doc Hesburgh, a self-release, in 30-plus markets this weekend.
Also opening in limited release is Briarcliff Entertainment’s El Chicano by Ben Hernandez Bray with a somewhat wide roll out. Well Go USA has Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, while Abramorama has drama, Bolden. Screen Media is opening Clara day and date. Gravitas Ventures is bowing doc The River and the Wall, while Freestyle Digital Releasing is opening Marcia Kimpton’s Bardo Blues.
Ask Dr. Ruth
Director: Ryan White
Subject: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures/Hulu
Two years ago, a friend asked documentary filmmaker Ryan White if he’d like to meet Dr. Ruth Westheimer at a dinner. The two hit it off quickly. “She jumped out of her chair as soon as I came in,” said White. “She was [in her late 80s] then, but still publishing books and teaching a class.”
Westheimer had long shied away from documentaries, though a producer/colleague was beginning to make headway, according to White. “She’s surprisingly private about herself, especially when it comes to her painful past. We started talking every day and talked about what doing a documentary would mean in her daily life over a year.”
Ask Dr. Ruth chronicles the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist. With her diminutive frame, thick German accent, and uninhibited approach to sex therapy and education, Dr. Ruth transformed the conversation around sexuality. As she approaches her 90th birthday and shows no signs of slowing down, Dr. Ruth revisits her painful past and unlikely path to a career at the forefront of the sexual revolution.
“I didn’t know [at the beginning] she was a Holocaust survivor and had studied at the Sorbonne,” said White. “It’s like a Forrest Gump-style story in that she’s intersected so much of [WWII and post-war] history.” White said they “eased into” the filmmaking process, building trust. Westheimer invited the filmmaking team to travel with her to Switzerland where she was raised in an orphanage and then onto Israel in the summer of 2017.
“She met with her first boyfriend who is still alive in Israel,” said White. “We joined her for that, so the first shoot was very important. It helped define the entire film.”
The filmmakers began with some initial financing and then created a sizzle reel from the trip and shopped it around to buyers. Hulu came on as partner and provided funds to finish the project. The bulk of the rest of the documentary shot in New York and in places Westheimer traveled to promoting her book, leading up to her 90th birthday.
The feature debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and just played the Tribeca Film Festival this past week where Westheimer and White took part in a talk.
Hulu allowed a theatrical window and Magnolia Pictures, which White worked with on his 2016 doc, Serena, came on to handle the big screen release. “It was important to us with this film since her audience will go to movie theaters, especially older people who don’t have streaming platforms,” said White. “It’s a good film for people to see together.”
Theatrically, Ask Dr. Ruth opens in 105 theaters this weekend. It will launch on Hulu June 1.
Director-writer: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne
Distributor: Sundance Selects
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ comedy-romance Non-Fiction is the second U.S. release in the past month for French actor Juliette Binoche who also stars in A24’s High Life with Robert Pattinson. Claire Denis directed the latter, which opened last month stateside. The two films are quite different, however, with Non-Fiction being in French and has at its center, a seductive tale of sex, lies and literature.
Set amidst the bohemian intelligentsia of the Parisian publishing world, Non-Fiction traces the romantic and emotional fallout that results when a controversial writer (Vincent Macaigne) begins blurring the line between fact and fiction, using his real-life love affairs—including a passionate fling with an actress (Binoche) who happens to be married to his editor (Canet)—as fodder for his explosive new novel.
Non-Fiction is opening via IFC Films’ Sundance Selects label this weekend. The company has released a number of Assayas’ films, including his previous feature, Personal Shopper, with Kristen Stewart ($1.3M domestic) as well as 2015 release Clouds of Sils Maria, with both Stewart and Binoche ($1.85M).
“We feel like we’re Olivier’s home in the U.S.,” said IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco. “[For Non-Fiction] we read the script and bought it off the promo in Cannes. We obviously know his style and filmmaking. Non-Fiction is very warm, but modern as well as funny.”
IFC Films is going more for its traditional core, targeting the cineaste/art house crowd for Non-Fiction as it heads out this weekend. “It’s a departure from his last film, Personal Shopper, which skewed younger. We’re going with a more traditional approach with this.”
Non-Fiction will bow at IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade theater in New York. It will head to the Royal in L.A. and BAM in Brooklyn next week in a traditional release, with more cities to follow. Added Bocco: “The reviews have been solid and the festival run was good. We’re confident it will satisfy the audience.”
Directors: Werner Herzog, André Singer
Subject: Mikhail Gorbachev\
Coming right out of its Tribeca Film Festival screenings, distributor 1091 (formerly The Orchard) is taking the Werner Herzog and André Singer-directed documentary, Meeting Gorbachev, to Film Forum in New York and the Nuart in L.A. this weekend. The company caught the title last fall at the Telluride Film Festival, picking it up from A&E IndieFilms, which it had worked with on previous releases, Cartel Land and Life Animated.
Meeting Gorbachev combines archive material with three long interviews with the former General Secretary of the U.S.S.R. Now 87 years old, Mikhail Gorbachev has mellowed. Still, gently but resolutely, he is pushing towards his goals. Herzog, as on-screen interviewer, does not disguise his affection, celebrating Gorbachev’s three remarkable accomplishments: negotiations with the U.S. to reduce nuclear weapons; cessation of Soviet control of Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany; and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Herzog and Singer remind their audience of the drastic and unforeseeable way the world changes.
“We were taken by the timeliness of the film considering [the ongoing] controversy with Russia and the 2016 U.S. election,” said 1091’s Chief Revenue Officer, Julie Dansker. “The film features two towering figures [including Gorbachev along with Herzog]. He humanizes an historical figure that a lot of us grew up with.”
The company is capitalizing on its Tribeca dates along with another recent event at LACMA to launch Meeting Gorbachev. Herzog has been featured on various podcasts and programming including NPR to reach Herzog’s ingrained fans along with the title’s potential core of politicos and history buffs. The company is also keeping an eye on awards season.
“We had an intimate dinner during Tribeca and Michael Moore and other members of the Academy’s documentary branch joined,” said 1091’s SVP of Acquisitions and Strategic Partnerships, Danielle DiGiacomo. Added Dansker: “During Tribeca, people came off the streets to take pictures with Werner. We’re checking the boxes with print, radio and social, but word of mouth for a film like this along with reviews [are key].”
Meeting Gorbachev is one of a number of releases planned for this year for 1091, which announced its relaunch at the beginning of April. Later this month, it will open fellow Tribeca doc Halston, followed by Sundance acquisitions Them That Follow, Midnight Family and Before You Know It.
Following its New York and L.A. playdates this weekend, Meeting Gorbachev will head to 10 – 15 additional markets next week including Austin, Chicago and San Francisco. The title will then head to another 25 cities with additional markets to follow. Herzog will take part in select Q&As in L.A. this weekend.
Tell It to the Bees
Director: Annabel Jankel
Writers: Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth, Fiona Shaw (novel)
Cast: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Emun Elliott, Steven Robertson, Lauren Lyle, Gregor Selkirk, Kate Dickie
Distributor: Good Deed Entertainment
Good Deed Entertainment is giving period drama-romance Tell It to the Bees a pre-Mother’s Day push with the title’s release this weekend. Directed by Annabel Jankel and starring Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger, Good Deed’s VP of Acquisitions & Distribution, Kristin Harris said she had been tracking the film since early on.
“I’ve been a fan of female-driven stories and period films,” she said. “When pitched to me, it seemed very different from other period films. It’s a romance between two women, but not exploitative. It’s very grounded with [a central component to the plot] of a mother who wants to protect her son. … It’s based on a best-selling novel, so there’s awareness of the story.”
Based on the book by Fiona Shaw, the feature centers on Dr. Jean Markham (Paquin), who returns to the town she left as a teenager to take over her late father’s medical practice. When a school-yard scuffle lands Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) in her surgery, she invites him to visit the hives in her garden and tell his secrets to the bees, as she once did. The new friendship between the boy and the bee keeper brings his mother Lydia (Grainger) into Jean’s world. In the sanctuary of the doctor’s house the two women find themselves drawn to one another in a way that Jean recognizes and fears, and Lydia could never have expected. But, in 1950’s small-town Britain, their new secret can’t stay hidden forever.
“As we did test runs with early versions of art, we thought the audience would skew older,” said Harris. “There is that older audience, but the film has also attracted a younger LGBT crowd that is attracted to this story. Anna Paquin identifies as bisexual, so that also gives it authenticity. We’ve had great engagement on social media.”
Good Deed has primarily pushed the title through social platforms with an eye to Pride Month in June. The film had some difficulty with early reviews, but the company is looking at one particular group of supporters for support.
“We’ve been reaching out to female critics,” said Harris. “We were surprised that it didn’t get more critical love, but then we discovered women critics found it more appealing.” In addition to social media marketing, the company has given the title a round of word of mouth screenings.
Tell It to the Bees opens day and date this weekend, with theatrical engagements set for L.A., Seattle, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Denver, Cleveland and Austin.
Director: Patrick Creadon
Writers: Christine O’Malley, Jerry Barca
Subject: Rev. Theodore Hesburgh
Distributor: O’Malley Creadon Productions (self-distributed)
While working on an ESPN documentary Catholics vs. Convicts, director Patrick Creadon and producer Jerry Barca had numerous suggestions by people they encountered to do a story on Father Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of the University of Notre Dame and one of America’s most well-known Catholic priests. The duo looked further into Hesburgh, but decided they wanted to make the doc their own outside of the institutions most associated with the priest.
“We wanted to make a film that was relevant and didn’t want to make a ‘Notre Dame University film,’” said Barca who along with Creadon are both graduates of the school in Indiana. “After two-and-a-half years of making it, we realized that it was very timely. He was in the eye of so many issues in America.”
Educator, civil rights champion, advisor to presidents, envoy to popes, theologian and activist, Hesburgh was called on by countless world leaders to tackle the most challenging issues of the day. He built a reputation as a savvy political operator with a penchant for bridging the divide between bitter enemies. Through it all, he remained a man armed with a fierce intelligence, a quick wit and an unyielding moral compass — a timeless example of bipartisan leadership that would serve us in today’s increasingly polarized times.
Though made “independently” of the university, Creadon and Barca still wanted a working relationship with Notre Dame for a number of reasons including access to its archives. A fellow graduate who wanted to see a film on Father Hesburgh, Pat Eilers, offered to raise funds for the project.
“Though we are Notre Dame graduates, it was clear from the outset we’d have to earn [the school administrators’ trust],” said Barca. “Hesburgh is very important to that community and I don’t think they knew what we were trying to do.”
The documentary includes archive footage from a cross-section of the political and media establishment of post-war America in addition to two Popes. They also did interviews with Ted Koppel, Leon Panetta, Alan Simpson among others.
“Outside of luminaries, we thought it was important to talk to [ordinary] people who knew him, so we interviewed his driver and administrative assistant of 25 years as well as his favorite bartender. We wanted people who had known Hesburgh to go into the film and find out something new about him.”
Hesburgh debuted at AFI Docs. The producing team decided to go DIY with the release to “get it out as widely as possible” on screen, according to Barca. The title is opening in 30-plus markets this weekend. Added Barca: “We’re obviously the underdog, but we’ve done a lot of grassroots with the Catholic and civil rights communities. This is a big weekend for us.”