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Sundance Winner ’Cold Case Hammarskjöld’, Bollywood’s ‘Mission Mangal’ & Doc ‘Aquarela’ Among Weekend Bows – Specialty B.O. Preview

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August warmth is a harbinger for the fall theatrical season, which is already revving into gear. Magnolia Pictures’ Cold Case Hammarskjöld continues recent non-fiction theatrical debuts that are eyeing awards season. Cold Case won the Best Director prize in the World Documentary section at Sundance in January. Sony Pictures Classics is opening doc Aquarela in select locations. The Participant-produced title debuted at last year’s Venice Film Festival. India’s FIP will have the widest Specialty start on this continent this weekend for drama Mission Mangal headlined by Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar. Sundance comedy Adam begins its run in two New York and L.A. theaters, while Slamdance honoree Birds Without Feathers by Wendy McColm launches exclusively in Manhattan.

Other limited releases include Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? via KimStim. Halfway Crooks Entertainment has Low Low in L.A. starting Friday, while Cinema Guild opens End of the Century. And Well Go USA has two titles, The Divine Fury and Line Walker 2 Invisible Spy opening.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Director-writer: Mads Brügger
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger began his seven-year doc project Cold Case Hammarskjöld after reading an article in 2011 about a private investigator tracking down the 1961 plane crash death of former U.N. Secretary-General Dags Hammerskjöld in Africa.

“I was intrigued by the murder mystery,” said Brügger. “There was conflicting evidence [surfacing] from the official version, which was that there was pilot error. At the time, my knowledge of Dag Hammarskjöld was very limited.”

Cold Case Hammarskjöld follows director Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl as they seek answers to questions about the mysterious death. As their investigation closes in, they discover a crime far worse than killing the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

“I had no idea how complicated this [project] would be,” said Brügger, who took a prize for Best Director in the World Cinema Documentary section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. “Luckily for me, I’m the head of programing for a large radio station similar to NPR, so that allows me to work on my films.”

Funding for Cold Case Hammarskjöld came through Danish, Swedish and Norwegian film institutes. Though the funds are generous by American standards, which has virtually no government equivalent, Brügger did have to answer for the project’s length.

“They want things to be done in a reasonable amount of time, but every year, I had to come back to them and explain why it was becoming more and more complicated. I would have to tell them I needed ‘one more trip to Africa and the film would be finished…’”

Toward the end, however, financing “fell apart,” according to Brügger, until he and Björkdahl made important breakthroughs, which are evident to audiences. “We had tracked down and met with some people who knew things,” he said.

With multiple roadblocks and a perhaps unorthodox narration framing the multi-threaded story akin to a thriller, the project produced what Brügger described as a “mountain of footage.” The feature could have easily been much longer, but convention intervened.

“My ideal would have been to have a film that’s five hours long, but my producers weren’t so into that idea,” said Brügger somewhat jokingly.

With a two-hour cut, Brügger said he was “extremely nervous” ahead of the premiere screening of Cold Case Hammarskjöld at Sundance. The event, in fact, took a bit of a surreal turn when during the actual screening, a person approached him and asked to speak outside.

“He said he had worked as a military contractor in the Congo and said the circumstances of the film were real,” said Brügger. “That was it. He wouldn’t go on the record.”

Magnolia Pictures picked up the title shortly after the festival. Cold Case Hamarskjöld will bow in seven markets including the Monica Film Center and Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Los Angeles as well as IFC Center in New York and theaters in San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia. The title will head to additional markets around the country throughout August and into September.

Director-writer: Victor Kossakovsky
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky found inspiration for his documentary Aquarela from the paintings of Russian Romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky, a master of marine art. Sony Classics picked up the Venice world premiere from Participant Media last fall. Previous SPC-Participant documentary collaborations include Merchants of Doubt, Standard Operating Procedure and Jimmy Carter Man From Plains.

Aquarela takes audiences on a cinematic journey through the transformative beauty and raw power of water. Captured at a rare 96 frames-per-second, the film is a visceral warning that humans are no match for the sheer force and capricious will of Earth’s most precious element. From the precarious frozen waters of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Miami in the throes of Hurricane Irma to Venezuela’s mighty Angel Falls, water is Aquarela’s main character.

Shooting Aquarela took “about a year,” according to Kossakovsky, who added that financing “took much longer” to finalize. “First and most difficult, however, was making sure there was no risk of life for anyone on my team because filming in such conditions is extremely dangerous,” noted Kossakovsky. “We also wanted to keep our lenses clean while filming, even in the hell of Hurricane Irma…”

Kossakovsky added that the filmmaking team’s other big challenge was keeping the skyline horizontal while filming at sea in a storm .

“Everything in the film is seen in the same chronological order as it was filmed,” explained Kossakovsky. “Shooting took place without a script… What took a long time and proved much more difficult was sound editing. Our brilliant sound man Alexander Dudarev recorded a lot of incredible sounds that we wanted to keep. We wanted to make a symphony just from water and present it in its grandiose diversity… I think Alexander Dudarev deserves to be nominated for an Oscar.”

SPC tracked the Participant project from the beginning, meeting them in their New York office before filming.

Mission Mangal
Director: Jagan Shakti
Writer: Riturraj Tripathii
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu and Sonakshi Sinha
Distributor: FIP

Mumbai-based distributor FIP boarded historical drama Mission Mangal in the script stage. The company was compelled by the historic significance of the story as well as its cast.

“The script is laced with drama, humor and a great narrative,” explained FIP head of International Sales & Distribution Sales Rohit Sharma. “The ensemble cast of Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu along with Akshay Kumar — one of the top Bollywood actors leading this project – made this a perfect film for us.”

Mission Mangal is based on the true story of scientist Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar) and Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) who lead a motley team of scientists who overcome personal challenges and failures to launch India’s first satellite to Mars, an achievement that restored the nation’s confidence.

“Akshay Kumar has been delivering blockbusters consistently and we have had a lot of press interactions using him with mainstream media platforms as well as Indian media platforms across North America over the last few weeks,” noted Sharma. “The idea behind this is to engage audiences of Bollywood films and beyond. The film is an inspiring story of India’s successful space mission and should appeal to fans beyond the Bollywood diaspora as well.”

Sharma added that Mission Mangal is “by far” the company’s “most ambitious” drama undertaken in recent years. FIP produced ‘small budget’ drama Neerja, which was also based on a true story, a few years back.

Mission Mangal will bow in over 260 theaters in North America today, which Sharma said will be the “widest release for an Akshay Kumar film in recent years.” Added the exec: “The film releases on August 15, which is Independence Day in India — and that is the perfect release date for such a film.”

Director-writer: Rhys Ernst
Writer: Ariel Schrag (novel)
Cast: Nicholas Alexander, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Margaret Qualley, Leo Sheng, Chloë Levine
Distributor: Wolfe Releasing

Sundance ’19 debut Adam is based on Ariel Schrag’s controversial novel of the same name. Wolfe Releasing caught the title by Transparent producer and director Rhys Ernst at its Park City premiere. The company has targeted its core LGBTQIA+ audience in addition to millennials generally leading up to its theatrical launch on Wednesday.

Adam follows the awkward title character, a straight, white, cis teenager, as he spends his last high school summer in New York City with his older sister and her LGBT activist friends. The film tracks the complications that arise when he’s incorrectly mistaken as a transgender man by a girl he likes and can’t quite bring himself to correct her error as the two grow closer.

“Complex films also don’t come without their controversy, and there has been a lot of chatter happening in the Twitter-verse and on social media platforms about Adam,” noted Evan Schwartz, VP of Content at Wolfe. “As we approached the theatrical release, it became clear to our team that Adam was inciting a cultural conversation with a wide range of viewpoints. The conversation has been eloquently amplified from our friends at GLAAD and in a diverse spectrum of press outlets.”

Wolfe targeted Adam’s mid-August roll out in part as counter-programming to the studio fare. The film, which is set in the summer of 2006, is also timely. “[The LGBTQIA+ movement] was rising in New York City [that summer],” added Schwartz. “As a historic summer for the queer community is winding down, mid-August became the right time to launch our theatrical release in New York…Moviegoers are yearning for well written and entertaining films and we are confident Adam is the film that can break out and surprise audiences everywhere.”

Schwartz noted that queer content generally “continues to reach new heights,” citing recent offerings such as 1985, Booksmart and Giant Little Ones.

“The fact that so many LGBTQIA+ themed films are securing theatrical releases and grabbing attention at the studio level is a sign that the genre is reaching its ultimate potential. We believe Adam has the potential to inspire a new industry standard for representation and inclusion, behind and in front of the camera.”

Adam opened Wednesday at IFC Center in New York. It will bow in L.A. at Laemmle Music Hall August 23.

Birds Without Feathers
Director-writer: Wendy McColm
Cast: Wendy McColm, Cooper Oznowicz, Alexander Stasko, William Gabriel Grier, Lenae Day
Distributor: Synergetic

Quirky dark comedy Birds Without Feathers, written, directed and starring Wendy McColm, won the George Starks Spirit of Slamdance Award at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival. Distributor Synergetic began talks with the filmmaking team to release the title in February.

“It’s such a confident film, its idiosyncratic characters worked their magic on us. I can’t say they charmed us because in the end the team, myself included, felt they were all a bit too abrasive and yet there is something magnetic about them,” commented Synergetic’s Anatol Chavez. “I don’t think we had seen anything quite like it and that spoke volumes to us. So we decided to run with it.”

The official description states that the feature centers on people “desperate for interaction in an irrational world where six emotionally damaged individuals risk self-respect and shed their disillusionment in a last grasp for happiness.” Over the course of a weekend, they fight, get lunch with the wrong Jeff Goldblum, perform hoedowns, ruin life milestones, and challenge each other’s sense of self-worth.

Synergetic worked with the filmmakers to identify its audience in the lead-up to this weekend’s roll out. “We had discussions with director Wendy McColm about how it was received in film festivals and who in the audience was receptive to the film,” shared Chavez. “In our conversations with people and feedback in our ads, the film skews younger than the typical 45-plus art house crowd. “We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful people working with us on positioning and messaging the film, most notably McColm herself.”

Chavez added that the company has been sharing parts of the feature that allow “the inner characters of Birds Without Feathers to shine and resonate” with a younger audience by engaging them through digital entertainment sites, social media and email. Added Chavez: “Luckily every character in the film freely expresses what’s on their mind, so it’s not exactly rocket science.”

Synergetic is releasing about 30 titles this year, with only a few, including Birds Without Feathers, slated for a theatrical window. The company has five features set for release in 2020. Birds Without Feathers will open in New York at the Roxy Cinema exclusively this weekend before heading to L.A. next month.

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