Specialty film’s gravitational pull is anchored at the Telluride Film Festival this holiday weekend, while a moderate number of new limited releases begin their theatrical rollouts. IFC Films bio-drama Official Secrets starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes opens New York and L.A. Set against the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Sundance premiere had been a number of years in the making. Sundance and SXSW doc Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins heads to select Texas locations after a strong showing of sneak screenings midweek. Pantelion has the weekend’s widest release among the debut specialties with Mexican comedy Tod@s Caen, starring Martha Higareda and Omar Chaparro. And 1091 is opening its first acquisition since the company’s relaunch, Before You Know It, starring Judith Light.
Other Labor Day weekend specialty releases include Forrest Films’ Bennett’s War and Blue Fox Entertainment’s crime drama Killerman with Liam Hemsworth. Also in select Imax locations is Well Go USA’s Chinese pic Ne Zha. The title is the highest-grossing animated feature all time in China and second-highest grossing film all time at $638M so far.
Director-writer: Gavin Hood
Writers: Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein, Marcia Mitchell (book), Thomas Mitchell (book)
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Indira Varma, Rhys Ifans
Distributor: IFC Films
Producer Ged Doherty and potential financiers eyed an initial script for bio-drama Official Secrets, based on a true-story set against the backdrop of political intrigue ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s. There would be more versions of the script to come.
“We didn’t like the initial script, but we liked the story,” said Doherty. “I actually thought I knew about the story but was ashamed I didn’t know Katherine Gun. I spoke to [director] Gavin Hood, and we decided to change the script, so we hired him as well the original writers of the book.”
Based on world-shaking true events, Official Secrets tells the story of Gun (Keira Knightley), a British intelligence specialist whose job involves routine handling of classified information. One day in 2003, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, Gun receives a memo from the NSA with a shocking directive: the United States is enlisting Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on United Nations Security Council members in order to blackmail them into voting in favor of an invasion of Iraq. Unable to stand by and watch the world be rushed into an illegal war, Gun makes the gut-wrenching decision to defy her government and leak the memo to the press.
After boarding the project, Hood traveled to London, spending time with Gun and others who were at the heart of the real-life drama. The initial potential financiers dropped out, but Doherty reached out to Mark Gordon, who had worked with Doherty and Hood on their 2015 film Eye in the Sky. Entertainment One, which Gordon recently exited, came on board with financing.
“We spent about 18 months to two years working on a new script,” said Doherty. “Gavin is a stickler for research. We honed it down and found the angle. The focus was following Katherine Gun’s story because we could only speculate what was happening on the U.S. side.”
With a script in place, the filmmaking team reached out to Knightley for the role of Gun. Doherty said her political activism was one of a number of reasons why the British actor felt like a proper fit for the starring role. “Keira was our first choice,” he said. “She’s politically aware. We sent her the script, and she responded immediately. We built the cast around her.”
Doherty added: “We have an incredible who’s-who of British cast. Everyone came on board. A lot of the actors were involved with the ‘stop the war’ protests in 2003. They gravitated toward being involved. Sometimes you have actors who are afraid of the politics, but they embraced it.”
Official Secrets shot over 38 days in spring 2018 in the north of England. “It went phenomenally well, although it’s always a challenge not having enough money or time,” said Doherty. “Having worked with Gavin Hood on Eye in the Sky, we had a shorthand in place. We were incredibly lucky.”
Timing with post meant the film missed a possible Toronto debut, so the feature headed to the U.S. for its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where IFC Films caught the title. “We had an incredible seven-minute standing ovation,” Doherty said about the film’s Sundance bow. “IFC Films has done a phenomenal job with the release, taking it to the right activist groups.
Official Secrets opens today at Arclight and the Landmark in L.A. as well as Lincoln Square and IFC Center in New York. The title then will expand to major markets around the country September 6, followed by further bows throughout September.
Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins
Director-writer: Janice Engel
Writer: Monique Zavistovski
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
After making its premiere at Sundance this year, the Janice Engel-directed documentary Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins will debut in limited release — a fitting film for the impending 2020 election.
The docu, which has virtual sellouts from sneak-peek screenings at various Alamo Drafthouse locations in Texas, puts the spotlight on the Texas-based political columnist, best-selling author and ACLU activist Molly Ivins, who Rachel Maddow says “was not afraid to be angry.” Ivins was a maverick who spoke truth to power and gave voice to those that had none. She used humor like Mark Twain — to skewer the powerful, protect the helpless and to shine a light on bad government.
Engel was motivated to make the documentary after seeing the Kathleen Turner one-woman play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins with her soon-to-be producing partner James Egan. Before seeing the show, Engel said she and Egan were not very familiar with Ivins and never read her political columns. After the play, she went home and went down a Google rabbit hole researching her. She and Egan both found out that there had never been a film documenting her life.
“We both could not believe there had never been anything done on Molly Ivins save for the play,” Engel told Deadline. “So we jumped in full throttle, and here we are getting ready for a nationwide release of Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins thanks to Magnolia Pictures.”
Initially, Engel, Egan and Carlisle Vandervoort funded the film out of their own pockets. They soon got sponsorship from the International Documentary Association and held fundraisers. This eventually led to a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, where they raised more than $120,000. They crossed the finish line soon after, which allowed them to make their world premiere at Sundance.
Engel said that she started netting interviews in August 2012 and from there, the footage started to come together. “Over the years I amassed over 45 interviews and unearthed Molly’s interviews, talks, on a variety of networks — C-SPAN, PBS — college lectures and speeches,” said Engel. “It was an archaeological deep-dive dig into her archives, which are housed at the Briscoe Center for American Studies at UT Austin.”
The film went from Sundance to SXSW and other festivals before landing at Magnolia, and although Ivins died in 2007 of cancer, the release date of August 30 is more than appropriate. “It is so fitting because it also happens to be Molly Ivins’ 75th birthday!” Engel said. “There’s no doubt that Molly’s driving this bus — we’re just all blessed to be on her ride.”
Magnolia is opening the title today in 17 theaters throughout Texas before heading to New York on September 6, followed by L.A. and other cities September 13.
Director: Ariel Winograd
Writers: Cory Brusseau, Martha Higareda
Cast: Martha Higareda, Omar Chaparro, Claudia Álvarez, Mauricio Barrientos, Miri Higareda, Santiago Michel, Eugenio Siller, Consuelo Duval, Anabel Ferreira, Tiare Scanda, Edgar Vivar
Distributor: Pantelion Films / Lionsgate
Spanish-language romantic-comedy Tod@s Caen (aka Todos Caen) reunites Mexican stars Omar Chaparro and Martha Higadera, who starred in this past spring’s No Manches Frida 2, which Pantelion released stateside, grossing more than $9.2M.
“We got Tod@s Caen from the producers,” said Pantelion chief Paul Presburger. “We have a close relationship with the two stars. The director, Ariel Winograd, is a big Argentine comedy filmmaker.”
The feature centers on Adán, a charming seducer who believes he knows how to make any woman swoon. He prepares to teach his friends the art of conquering women, using his array of bulletproof rules of seduction. Mia, meanwhile, is an ambitious producer who dreams of having her own TV show on women empowerment called Todos Caen, a strategic guide to dating that teaches you just how to hook a man and have him eating from the palm of your hand in no time. Mia and Adán cross paths at a bar one fateful night, and from there the game is on in an all-out battle of the sexes.
Tod@s Caen’s release is in line with Pantelion’s template of opening a popular Spanish-language film in late summer/early fall in a few hundred-plus locations. The company opened dramedy Ya Veremos late August last year, eventually taking in $4.16M. In 2017 Pantelion bowed Hazlo Como Hombre and drew $2.53M at the domestic box office.
“We’re expecting results somewhere between the last two Labor Day releases,” said Presburger. “After the traditional window, Tod@s Caen will go to our subscription service, Pantaya. [The theatrical release] is also a great downstream business for us. … Ya Veremos was a huge success on Pantaya for us…”
Pantelion is expecting an audience that skews female for Tod@s Caen. That has been a strong demographic for Mexican titles both at home and in the U.S., according to Presburger.
Tod@s Caen opens in the U.S. in about 370 theaters this weekend ahead of the title’s bow in mid-September in Mexico, timed to the country’s Independence Day holiday.
Before You Know It
Director-writer: Hannah Pearl Utt
Writer: Jen Tullock
Cast: Judith Light, Mandy Patinkin, Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Mike Colter and Alec Baldwin
Sundance comedy Before You Know It is the first acquisition for the relaunched 1091, formerly known as The Orchard. The feature is Hannah Pearl Utt’s directorial debut and stars Judith Light, Jen Tullock, Many Patinkin and Mike Colter.
“We saw the film at Sundance,” explained 1091 execs Julie Dansker and Danielle DiGiacomo. “It stuck out to us in the sea of films because of Hannah’s refreshing voice. Her intelligence, sense of humor and heart in storytelling really resonated. We were also attracted to the fact that it was driven by a female creative team.”
Written by Utt and Tullock, the pic thrusts co-dependent, thirtysomething sisters Rachel and Jackie Gurner into a soap opera after a long-kept family secret is revealed, taking them on a journey that proves that you really can come of age, at any age.
1091 is eyeing a mature art house audience for Before You Know It’s launch, along with the LGBTQ community. The company has print, radio and digital ads running ahead of the release.
Noted DiGiacomo and Dansker: “We’ve had a lot of exhibitor support around the film and this release date. This weekend positions the film well to have a fall platform release before the crowded awards season. In addition, this film skews toward a more sophisticated audience and is the only movie of that nature opening this weekend.”
Looking ahead to the fall, 1091 will be opening Tribeca ’19 doc Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice as well as Sundance prize winner Midnight Family.
1091 opens Before You Know It today at the Landmark in L.A. along with the Landmark 57 West and the Quad in New York. Next weekend, the title will platform out to over a dozen theaters ahead of opening in the top 50 markets into September.