Three documentaries that likely will be awards-season contenders begin their theatrical rollouts Friday. Magnolia Pictures is opening Sundance Film Festival pickup Mike Wallace Is Here in New York and Los Angeles. The company is hoping to tap the timeliness of the U.S. president’s ongoing attacks on the press to drive audiences to celebrate a legend of broadcast journalism. Neon’s Honeyland won big prizes at Sundance this year, including cinematography and the top World Cinema doc award. The company is giving the film a slow, curated rollout in one theater each in New York and L.A. PBS Distribution’s For Sama took prizes on the festival circuit including in Cannes, Hot Docs and SXSW. The label is opening the title in three cities Friday. On the narrative side, Kino Lorber is heading out with period drama The Mountain in a single location on each coast.
Other limited releases this weekend include Strand Releasing’s drama The Ground Beneath My Feet and Vertical Entertainment’s romantic drama See You Soon.
Mike Wallace Is Here
Director: Avi Belkin
Subject: Mike Wallace
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
In the fall of 2017, filmmaker Avi Belkin approached producer Rafael Marmor about an idea to tell the larger story about broadcast journalism though the work of maverick CBS newsman Mike Wallace. With the media labeled as “the enemy of the people” by the current U.S. president, Belkin wanted to contextualize the debate around “fake news,” which threatens to dislodge the fourth estate.
“He had the idea of telling Mike Wallace’s story and how we got to this insane tipping point we’re at now,” said Marmor. “The challenge at that point, though, was he didn’t have access to CBS or anything we’d need to get this done, but by the beginning of 2018, we had [Wallace’s] family involved and started talking to CBS.”
Mike Wallace Is Here looks at the legendary reporter, who interrogated the 20th century’s biggest figures in his 50-plus years on air and his aggressive reporting style and showmanship that redefined what America came to expect from broadcasters. Unearthing decades of never-before-seen footage from the 60 Minutes vault, the film explores what drove and plagued Wallace, whose storied career was entwined with the evolution of journalism itself. The filmmakers went through tens of thousands of hours of footage.
After getting the Wallace family’s blessing, CBS opened the entire vault, giving the filmmaking team entrée to footage from 60 Minutes and other Wallace programs. “We had all the raw footage from more than 60 years of Wallace,” said Marmor. “CBS had been approached before, as well as his family, but the time was right when we came to them. They liked the idea of telling [Wallace’s] story and relating it to what’s going on with journalism now.”
Financing came through private sources. “We found a financier to fund the film who believed in Avi from the beginning,” said Marmor. This allowed us to make the movie in the way we did. We also assembled a great team of assistant editors including [the film’s main editor] Billy McMillin. … It was complicated to edit. It’s an all-archive movie, but it feels fresh. … It doesn’t feel like a movie made of just clips from the last 50 years.”
Editing went down to the wire just ahead of the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere in January — going from a first-cut nine hours down to the final 82-minute version. Magnolia Pictures caught the film at the festival and began talks immediately after the screening. “They understood [the film] immediately,” noted Marmor.
Mike Wallace Is Here opens Friday at the Landmark in Los Angeles and the Angelika and Landmark 57 West in New York. The docu then will head to additional markets in Southern and Northern California along with Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas and Coral Gables, FL, the following week. More markets will continue to be added around the country throughout August and into September.
Directors: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
Honeyland is Neon’s fifth acquisition out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the feature took the World Cinema Documentary prize as well as awards for cinematography and impact. Since its January debut in Park City, the feature has played a heavy roster of festivals around the country.
“Its cinematography [award] is a testament to why people should see Honeyland on the big screen. It’s not unlike Apollo 11 [in that respect],” said Neon chief Tom Quinn. “There’s also a real purpose behind this film, and we’ve been tailoring it in that way [similarly] to our recent success with The Biggest Little Farm. It’s a world we haven’t seen before.”
Honeyland follows Hatidze, a woman who lives with her ailing mother in the mountains of Macedonia, making a living cultivating honey using ancient beekeeping traditions. When an unruly family moves in next door, what at first seems like a balm for her solitude becomes a source of tension as they, too, begin to practice beekeeping.
“This is a woman who absolutely represents the salt of the earth,” said Quinn. “She’s a microcosm of the old and new converging. It reminds me of film I released years ago, [2013’s Oscar-nominated] Cutie and the Boxer.”
Neon has racked up success with docs this year, following its box office hit Three Identical Strangers last year. The company currently has three of the top-grossing non-fiction titles of 2019 in Apollo 11 ($9M), Amazing Grace (late-2018 open, $4.45M) and The Biggest Little Farm ($4M).
In addition to festivals, the company has partnered with environmental groups to push Honeyland ahead of its release in addition to what it called the “tight-knit” beekeepers community
The distributor will go slowly with its Honeyland rollout. “We are opening in New York at the Quad and in L.A. at the Royal,” noted Quinn. “It’s much more targeted than two theaters per city. I think that’s the right scale for the opening.”
He added: “It’s perfect counter-programming for summer. I think the payoff is seeing it with a group of strangers and being in the communion of what the film is about which is the health of the world. I expect it to have [a long tail] in theaters.”
Directors: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
Distributor: PBS Distribution
PBS Distribution’s documentary For Sama centers on one woman’s journey through love, motherhood, war and survival during five years of conflict in Aleppo, Syria. The film has been an awards heavyweight at festivals including Cannes, SXSW, Hot Docs and Sheffield, where it took a mix of top prizes. More recently, the film played the inaugural 51 Fest in New York, which spotlights women in film.
PBS Distribution were introduced to For Sama through its partnership with Frontline. “We were keen to work with them again after our successful partnership on Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” noted Amy Letourneau, SVP of PBS Distribution. “Once we saw For Sama, we knew we it was essential for us to release this film because we had never seen anything like it before — a raw, unflinching female perspective on the war in Syria.”
PBS Distribution is hoping momentum from the film’s festival run will carry over to its theatrical bow this weekend. The label also is hoping that opening-frame Q&As will boost turnout.
“Since we have been gaining momentum from the spring festival circuit, we wanted to segue directly into the theatrical,” explained Letourneau. “And because we have seen how audiences react when the filmmakers and subjects have been in attendance at film festivals, we knew that had to become an integral part of our theatrical strategy. Additionally, the travel process for our Syrian filmmaker and subject is complicated. We selected a window that would give us the best chance of getting them to the U.S.”
For Sama is PBS Distribution’s third theatrical title this year, following The Chaperone and Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation. The label is targeting three to four releases per year.
For Sama open Friday exclusively at one location each in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The feature will continue to roll out to a limited number of top markets throughout August and September.
Director-writer: Rick Alverson
Writers: Dustin Guy Defa, Colm O’Leary
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan, Hannah Gross
Distributor: Kino Lorber Films
Filmmaker Rick Alverson became fascinated by American physician Walter Freeman, who specialized in lobotomies. After wrapping his last project, he worked with writers to build a story around the controversial procedure.
“It speaks to something that is uniquely American,” he said. “We built this narrative around that and discarded the biographical particulars of [Freeman’s] life.”
Set in 1950s America, The Mountain follows Andy, who has lived in the shadow of his stoic father since his mother’s confinement in an institution. A family acquaintance, Dr. Wallace Fiennes, employs the introverted young man as a photographer to document an asylum tour advocating for his increasingly controversial lobotomy procedure. As the tour progresses and Andy witnesses the doctor’s career and life unravel, he begins to identify with the institutions’ patients. Arriving at a California mountain town, a growing center of the New Age movement, they encounter an unconventional French healer who requests a lobotomy for his own daughter.
Private financing came on in the summer of 2017. Actor Tye Sheridan boarded the project early on, while casting director Avy Kaufman rounded out cast. Udo Kier joined after an introduction from Canadian filmmaker Guy Madden.
The Mountain shot for a month in upstate New York in over a dozen cities ranging from the Bronx to the Finger Lakes region. “We were looking for different institutions,” said Alverson. “A lot of institutions had been destroyed, so we were chasing architecture.”
The production also shot in the Northwest. “It’s a period piece, so that component was challenging,” Alverson said.
The Mountain premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and played both Sundance and SXSW stateside. Kino Lorber is opening the film Friday at IFC Center in New York and the Nuart in L.A..