True Crime Maven Joshua Zeman Takes An Oceanic Detour In ‘The Loneliest Whale,’ ‘Summer of Soul’ Passes $1M – Specialty Preview

Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Moviegoers not far removed from the isolating strains of lockdown may find The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 strikes a chord. Distributor Bleecker Street and director Joshua Zeman hope so as the doc, a shift from the helmer’s true crime roots (The Sons of Sam: Descent into Darkness, Cropsey), opens in 75 theaters.

Digital release is set for July 16.

The film is a cinematic quest for the 52 Hertz Whale, which scientists believe has spent its entire life in solitude calling out at a frequency that is different from any other of its species. The whale, discovered in 1989, became a global sensation over the past three decades — including songs about it by British indie rock band Amber Run and K-pop’s BTS.

Zeman, who said he had childhood ambitions to be a marine biologist and loved Jacques Cousteau, was floored by the story and spent ten years trying to make the film beginning with a Kickstarter campaign that caught the eye of Adrian Grenier and Leonardo DiCaprio, who kicked in $50,000. Eventually Zeman set off with oceanographers, biologists, Navy sonar equipment, drone cameras and tracking tags. “It took us four years to even confirm it was even alive much less still out there, and how we could find him. Finally, it turns out, he was in Santa Barbara looking for his close-up,” he told Deadline.

“This has been my white whale in some respects,” he said, inevitably riffing on Moby Dick. But the pandemic made 52 feel even more relevant. “The idea of all of us at home, calling out into the void … on Zoom … with people thousands of miles away. That is what whales do – they call, and it reverberates back.”

The documentary was written by Zeman and Lisa Schiller. Producers: Zeman and Jonathan Shukat. Co-produced by Caitlin Colford and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Lucy Sumner, Adrian Grenier, Jim Jacobsen, Maria Bertrand, Gabriel Napora, Yas Taalat, Yipeng Ben Lu, Jeffrey Sobrato, Nicole Shipley, Jeff Rice, Brian Devine and Evan Krauss.

Sons of Sam Netflix docuseries looks at serial killer David Berkowitz and the investigative journalist who tracked him. The 2009 documentary film Cropsey explores the origin story of an urban-legend series of child murders in Staten Island where Zeman grew up.

“What I discovered coming from the true crime world is it’s not different, it’s a different kind of mystery. The ocean and science is the greatest mystery there is,” he said.

Trailer below: 


Elsewhere in the specialty space, Questlove’s Summer of Soul from Searchlight about a landmark1969 Black music festival in Harlem with never-before-seen performances has now crossed the $1M mark in its first full week. The film is in about 700 theaters, keeping that number steady.

Arthouse distributors, however, still describe the specialty box offices as looking to find its footing even as major studio releases roll out to headlines and dollar signs.

“The big chain theaters have their F9 and Godzilla vs Kong, the big ones that get everyone out. That doesn’t happen for the indies until later in the year,” said one distributor, calling it “too bad that Wes Anderson had to hold off for Cannes.”

“I wish The French Dispatch was going out [today]. It would get people back,” he said. The arthouse segment will be crowded with titles in late August-early September, per screen averages will grow, money spent will go up, but the space needs a high-profile bump, he said. Until then, it’s hard to tell “how the post-Covid landscape works. Arthouse audiences are loyal, but just how many are back in the habit of going to the theater? Will it be weekly or monthly?”

New weekend releases include Scales from Variance Films, in New York and LA. The black-and-white film from Saudi Arabia — that country’s official Oscar submission for best international feature – is a visually gripping parable of a strong-willed young girl, Hayat, whose poor fishing village is governed by a dark tradition: every family must give one daughter to the mermaid-like sea creatures who inhabit the waters. When Hayat’s father refuses, the girl becomes a pariah, considered a curse by the village and urged to sacrifice herself but Hayat has her own ideas about her destiny.

Starring Ashraf Barhoum, Yagoub Alfarhan, Scales also won the Verona Film Club Award at the Venice Film Festival

Summertime, from Good Deed Entertainment, opens in New York and LA and plans to expand to over 25 market on July 16.

Directed by Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting, Raya and the Last Dragon)and executive produced by Kelly Marie Tran, the film follows the intersecting stories of 27 youth spoken word poets over a single day in Los Angeles. The director’s vision began at a poetry showcase where performers from across the City of Angels recited fearlessly personal texts about themselves, their communities, and their relationship to their city. The project was then developed around their individual poems and interwoven into a larger narrative experiment — part contemporary musical and part sociological art.

Documentary Platform opens at eight theaters, billed by Venera Films as a Rocky-esque tale of determination and grit following three Iranian sisters competing to become international champions of Wushu, a Chinese martial art. The sisters’ underdog story explores not only their dedicated training, but also their surprising place in society as they challenge traditional gender roles on the path to success. Produced by Iranian actress Mahtab Keramati, with the Mansourian sisters Wushu World Champions — Elaheh, Shahrnaboo and Soheila Mansourian.

Another offbeat sports doc is The Witches of the Orient. A group of Osaka textile workers are transformed into a fiercely competitive volleyball team by their astonishingly ruthless coach whose unconventional techniques emphasize speed and aggression. A record-setting winning streak and a dramatic 1964 Tokyo Olympics triumph follow. Archival footage of the women in training and on the court, animated versions of their championship games, and moving interviews with the women today are set to a pulsating electronic score.

Opens at the Film Forum in New York. Directed by Julien Faraut. Produced by William Jéhannin. Cinematography: Yutaka Yamazaki. Sound: Léon Rousseau. Editing: Andreï Bogdanov. Special thanks to Catherine Cadou. France. In Japanese with English Subtitles. A KimStim release.

AND — Pow! — for a more bare-knuckle alternative engagement, the UFC will hit select AMC Theaters tomorrow as per the movie chain’s ubiquitous CEO Adam Aron, touting the franchise’s lightweight main event, Dustin Poirier vs Conor McGregor, via Twitter:

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