This is a packed weekend for new specialty rollouts, one of the most crowded of the summer. Neon is opening writer-director Julius Onah’s drama Luce with New York and L.A. runs in its opening frame. The company picked up the title starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. out of Sundance. Diane Kruger stars in psychological thriller The Operative by writer-director Yuval Adler. The Vertical Entertainment release is playing 10 theaters around the country starting Friday. IFC Films released Jennifer Kent’s 2014 feature The Babadook and is spearheading her latest, The Nightingale, with a traditional rollout. Photographer and artist Jay Maisel is at the center of the documentary Jay Myself, which is playing an exclusive window at Film Forum in New York via Oscilloscope. Cohen Media Group picked up Tel Aviv on Fire out of its Venice premiere, beginning its U.S. theatrical run in New York, L.A., Chicago and Phoenix.
Also opening in limited release is the Anton Yelchin doc Love Antosha by Garret Price. mTuckman Media is opening the title in New York and L.A. with further expansion around the country throughout August. Other newcomers include Slovenian LGBTQ title Consequences, Cleopatra Entertainment’s Ladyworld, Music Box Films’ Piranhas and 1091’s Them That Follow.
Director-writer: Julius Onah
Writer: J.C. Lee
Cast: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Neon picked up rights to Julius Onah’s psychological thriller, Luce, out of the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in the U.S. dramatic competition. Luce is based on a play by J.C. Lee, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Neon had been following the title from the script stage. The company saw Luce in full in 35mm at the Library in Park City.
“We took an interest in the project after reading the script and had been tracking it for a long time,” said Neon founder and CEO Tom Quinn. “We met with Julius last year and after seeing footage we thought it would be a great fit for us. Julius ultimately delivered, exceeding our already very high expectations and that doesn’t always happen.”
The film centers on Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr), an all-star high school athlete and accomplished debater who is perceived as a poster boy for the new American Dream. Sharing that idealized picture are his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from a war-torn country a decade earlier. When Luce’s teacher (Octavia Spencer) makes a shocking discovery in his locker, Luce’s stellar reputation is called into question. The challenge is understanding whether he is really at fault or if Ms. Wilson is preying on dangerous stereotypes.
“Julius has developed the kind of psychological thriller you rarely see get made anymore, addressing issues of race, class and identity,” said Quinn. “It’s so of the moment. It’s simultaneously classical and contemporary with a prescient handle on what’s happening today. We’re in this business to be a part of movies like this.”
Neon has been working with “multiple organizations” for word-of-mouth screenings of the feature ahead of its rollout in New York and L.A. this weekend. The company said the feature should attract a “broad, independent specialized audience” from the post-college/mid-20s range up to the 60s.
“Early August is the perfect bridge from summer counterprogramming to awards season,” said Quinn. “BlacKkKlansman fell on a similar date last year.” Added Neon exec Elissa Federoff, “It’s a genre of film that attracts both younger and older audiences.”
In New York, Luce will bow at the Angelika, AMC Lincoln Square and the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, while it will open at the Landmark and Arclight in L.A. It will continue its rollout through August with additional expansion over Labor Day weekend.
Director-writer: Yuval Adler
Writer: Anne Carey, Eitan Mansuri, Yiftach R. Atir (book)
Cast: Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, Cas Anvar
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Filmmaker Yuval Adler read the novel, The English Teacher, and acquired rights. After writing an initial draft, he developed the script with Anne Carey and Eitan Mansuri. “The adaption process was tricky,” shared Yuval Adler. “The book is very different from the final script; it was set in different countries and the characters were fundamentally different. But there was something about the structure of the book that I really liked — the way the handler recalls his work with the operative as part of an investigation. So you experience both the handler’s perspective and the operative’s.”
The Operative is a psychological thriller about a young Western woman (Diane Kruger) who is recruited by the Mossad to go undercover in Tehran, where she becomes entangled in a complex triangle with her handler (Martin Freeman) and her subject (Cas Anvar).
“The film is actually a very unusual co-production between Israeli and German film funds, French distributor Le Pacte and American financing from Black Bear Pictures,” Adler said. “Stitching it all together was not, let us say, trivial. … Eitan Mansuri of Spiro Films in Israel worked closely with our German partners Match Factory on the European side and producer Anne Carey on the American side.”
Kruger was the first actor to board the project, joining not long after winning Best Actress in Cannes for In the Fade (2017), while Martin Freeman came on much later in the process, according to Adler. Noted the filmmaker: “I had enough time to rewrite the script with her in mind, and we also made use of the fact that she speaks three languages perfectly. The film is about a character that is ‘from everywhere and nowhere’ and in a sense, Diane the actress is that person.”
Filming took place in Germany, Israel, Bulgaria and Iran. The latter was particularly challenging since the project had Israeli backing and Adler is from Israel. To get around restrictions, the producing team formed what Adler called “a shell company” in Germany, which sent German DP Kolija Brandt to Iran.
“He shot a lot of high-resolution footage of the city plates with some of it while I was on a video call with him from New York, directing him,” explained Adler. “We then shot other footage with the actors to match the plates so we could VFX it all together. There’s a lot of real Tehran in the film, which is great. We tried to have him go a second time after the shoot, but the Iranians denied him entry. Initially I tried to hide the fact that he did it and told all kinds of cover stories, but then we realized it was no use.”
The Operative debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. Vertical Entertainment came on for the U.S. release after the festival. The feature opens day-and-date this weekend. Theatrically it plays in about 10 cities including New York, L.A., Philadelphia and Dallas.
Director-writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Damon Herriman, Sam Claflin, Michael Sheasby, Baykali Ganambarr
Distributor: IFC Films
IFC Films caught writer-director Jennifer Kent’s drama-thriller The Nightingale at a private screening last fall. The company had released Kent’s 2014 feature The Babadook, taking in just under $1 million domestically in theaters.
“We loved The Nightingale and started a conversation to acquire it post-Toronto,” said IFC Films EVP Acquisitions and Production Arianna Bocco. “We feel like we’re [Kent’s] U.S. home and have an ongoing relationship.”
Set during the colonization of Australia in 1825, The Nightingale follows Clare, a 21-year-old Irish convict who chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who also is marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.
“I think people will want to be a part of the conversation the film is saying,” said Bocco. “We’re not afraid of challenging films and embrace that conversation.” Bocco added that along with Kent’s base of fans, the title will tap younger audiences along with the overall “smart, arthouse” crowd.
Following its U.S. debut at Sundance in January, the title has traveled to other major regional events. IFC Films has also played the film at word-of-mouth screenings in the lead up to its theatrical bow Friday.
The Nightingale will open exclusively at the Arclight in L.A. and IFC Center in New York in a traditional rollout. The title will expand in both cities on August 9, while also opening in Austin, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Boston. Added Bocco: The exhibition world has been fantastic.”
Director: Stephen Wilkes
Subject: Jay Maisel
Producers Henry Jacobson and Emma Tammi became aware of doc Jay Myself through a mutual friend, photographer Kerry Payne. Jacobson has a photography background and had been aware of filmmaker Stephen Wilkes’ work. Bette Wilkes, also a producer — and the filmmaker’s spouse — sent over footage, which sold them on the project.
“Stephen, Bette, and their daughter Jennie — also an EP on the movie — had put together a brilliant teaser, which they sent over and which immediately hooked Emma and me,” said Jacobson. “The footage was beautiful. Jay was this bombastic, larger-than-life character, but it was the intimacy of his and Stephen’s relationship that took it beyond a standard art doc.”
Jay Myself documents renowned photographer and artist Maisel, who, in February 2015 after 48 years, begrudgingly sold his home: the 36,000-square-foot, 100-year old landmark building in Manhattan known simply as “The Bank.” Through the intimate lens of filmmaker and Maisel’s protégé, noted artist and photographer Stephen Wilkes, the viewer is taken on a journey through Maisel’s life as an artist, mentor and man — a man grappling with time, life, change and the end of an era in New York City.
“Stephen had always teased Jay about moving, never believing Jay would actually move,” said producer Bette Maisel. “Stephen would always say to Jay, ‘If you ever move, I would want to film the mother of all moves.’ In the fall of 2014, Jay called and said he was in the process of selling the building, and Stephen immediately asked if he could film the move. Jay was overwhelmed but ultimately agreed.”
Bette Maisel and Stephen Wilkes financed the production, noting that time was “of the essence.” “Once the footage was shot, we created a teaser, and when [Jacobson and Tammi’s] Mind Hive Films came on board we started budgeting the finishing costs. We shared the teaser with a close friend and collector of Stephen’s who was interested in film and when he saw it he decided to finance 50% of the finishing costs. Stephen and I financed the other 50% and here we are.”
Production began in 2015, centering on the move. The title premiered at DocNYC in 2018. Added Maisel: “Stephen always understood that this was a very sensitive time in Jay’s life, and although it was difficult he respected Jay’s privacy. It wasn’t just a move, after all. It was the end of an era.”
ICM took on sales for the doc, reaching out to Oscilloscope to catch Jay Myself at DocNYC. The feature began an exclusive opening window at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday. Oscilloscope reported sellout prime showings Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.
Tel Aviv on Fire
Director-writer: Sameh Zoabi
Writer: Dan Kleinman
Cast: Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal, Yaniv Biton
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Cohen Media Group saw comedy Tel Aviv on Fire at its Venice premiere in February. The film, which is an Israeli, French, Luxembourg and Belgium co-production, shot over 27 days in early fall of 2017. Filmmaker Sameh Zoabi said that the feature had secured French distribution but then lost it when the company went bankrupt while the film was still in production.
“We were struggling to find a distributor,” he said at the film’s New York premiere last week. “A lot of [companies] saw it, but they said they didn’t know what to do with it because it wasn’t truly ‘art house,’ plus it’s a comedy and they weren’t sure it would translate.”
Zoabi said, however, that Tel Aviv on Fire’s premiere in Venice changed all of that. “It received a standing ovation and the audience laughed, plus we won a Best Actor award. Then the distributors came back to us.”
Said Cohen Media Group head Charles Cohen: “We were instantly won over by its charm. The film is a great fit for our slate as it is an audience-friendly movie that particularly serves the appetite of sophisticated art house moviegoers, our core audience.”
The film centers on Salam, an inexperienced young Palestinian man who becomes a writer on a popular soap opera after a chance meeting with an Israeli soldier. His creative career is on the rise until the soldier and the show’s financial backers disagree about how the show should end, and Salam is caught in the middle.
“This seems to be a strong window for the release of a foreign-language film, given that it is great alternative programming for audiences with an appetite for something other than larger studio summer fare,” noted Cohen. “This is a heartfelt, character-driven comedy that investigates traditionally serious subject matter with levity and wit. We are targeting arthouse audiences through traditional channels alongside a grassroots campaign engaging Jewish and Middle Eastern communities around the country.”
Tel Aviv on Fire bows in three New York theaters along with four locations in L.A. with additional playdates in Chicago and Phoenix. The feature will head to additional runs in top markets around the country.