Most indie films struggle financially in the production stage, but the challenges don’t stop when it’s finally time to head into release. Good word of mouth, of course, can be a holy grail in terms of box office for these films, including this week’s spotlight of specialty releases. IFC Films hit the festival circuit with their Belgian feature The Kid With A Bike by auteurs the Dardenne brothers. Robbie Pickering is opening his multiple SXSW ’11 winner Natural Selection, while Tribeca Film is rolling out Detachment. Indie filmmakers the Duplass brothers had a bit more in terms of resources for Jeff Who Lives At Home, though they used their DIY roots to keep costs low, while British filmmakers David Conolly and Hannah Davis sold their home when unexpected expenses came their way on The Understudy.

Detachment
Directors: Tony Kaye
Writer: Carl Lund
Cast: Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden
Distributor: Tribeca Film
Director Tony Kaye admits a bit of apprehension about how his film Detachment may be perceived in the U.S. Featuring American stars Adrien Brody and Marcia Gay Harden, the film revolves around a substitute teacher who goes to class and discovers a connection to students and teachers with his latest assignment. “There are a lot of people who think it’s a movie about teachers and schools but it’s not,” Kaye told Deadline. “People going in thinking it is will be unhappy about it. Like Star Wars this is not about robots that fight each other. The tricky thing with Detachment is that if you’re going to make a movie about a substitute teacher in an ailing school one would think that’s what the film is about.” What Kaye did make, he explained, is a film about “humanity and people in difficult situations” and how they choose to cope, though without judgment. Kaye added that performance is central to the film, which he said isn’t an “every day occurrence” today and was about getting “great people” to play as many of the roles as possible.

If the film’s release in France is any indication, Detachment could be in for a good ride with its U.S. roll out, but of course that is a big ‘if.’ The film picked up two major awards at the Deauville Film Festival in France and it did very well when it hit the box office there. “It’s been a juggernaut here in France with 300,000 admissions,” said Kaye. “But it was very polarizing when it opened the Tribeca Film Festival last year. But here, Adrien Brody is the King of France right now.”

Jeff Who Lives At Home
Directors: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Writers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Cast: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Susan Sarandon
Distributor Paramount Vantage
With star Jason Segel and others in the mix, writer/director Mark Duplass and his filmmaking partner – and brother – Jay Duplass were wary that audiences might be confused just where they were going with their latest, Jeff Who Lives At Home. The Duplass Bros and their distributor Paramount Vantage said they were determined to get the word out about their “dramatic comedy” to avoid audiences being confused from the outset and possibly facing negative word-of-mouth after opening the feature. “We tested this movies and we talked to audiences,” Duplass told Deadline. “Nineteen out of 20 liked it. But only eight hands went up about whether they would recommending it. They said it was a sensitive comedy and not what they thought it would be. It’s a comedy and people laugh a lot, but it’s a dramatic comedy and we want people to realize what it is. It’s not just naked Asian people jumping out of trunks.”

Paramount and Indian Paintbrush financed the feature about a slacker who leaves his basement room to spend the day with his brother as he follows his wife whom he suspects of cheating. The indie filmmakers who hit the scene back in 2005 with The Puffy Chair at Sundance kept to their indie roots with Jeff Who Lives At Home, Mark Duplass said, keeping costs to a minimum despite what could have been a temptation to spend more freely. “The indie world is still the wild west but this movie was made so it couldn’t lose money,” Duplass said. “We don’t ask for anything we need to make a movie without some kind of sacrifice. I want these companies to make money on my movies because I want to work with them again. I’m not interested in gouging these people.”

The Kid With A Bike
Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Cast: Thomas Doret, Cécele De France and Jérémie Renier
Distributor: IFC Films
Calling it “the most accessible” of the Dardenne brother films, IFC Films picked up The Kid With A Bike quickly out of Cannes last year where it won the Jury Grand Prix (the Dardennes have scooped up many Cannes prizes including two Palme d’Ors). Still, a French-language Belgian film can be a challenging sell in the U.S. So IFC took the Dardennes on the fall festival circuit, including Telluride, Toronto, New York, AFI, Chicago, Philadelphia, Opening Night of New French Cinema in San Francisco, European Union Festival in Washington, DC and Palm Springs to raise its profile. The distributor’s Ryan Werner noted some disappointment when Belgium didn’t select it as its contender for Best Foreign Language consideration at the Oscars, but it did receive Golden Globe and Spirit Award nominations. “The Dardennes did extensive travel including to LA twice which was their first visit there,” said Werner. “We screened the film for a lot of organizations and have pushed to get word of mouth going for the film and they did extensive interviews.”

Werner had a bit of a coup in terms of marketing material, hiring Michael Boland — who does a lot of the Criterion work — to do the film’s poster. IFC Films also hired Mark Woollen & Associates to do the trailer. Some of the company’s latest work include The Tree Of Life, The Social Network, True Grit and Black Swan. “They don’t do many foreign-language trailers,” Werner said. “We got the trailer prominently featured on art house hits like A Separation, Pina and The Artist,” he added. The distributor decided it wanted to let the Oscar films play out before releasing this film. IFC Films will roll out The Kid With A Bike at Lincoln Plaza and IFC Center in New York as well as the Landmark in Los Angeles this weekend, followed by the top 25 markets in the next few weeks with a minimum of 40 prints.

Natural Selection
Director: Robbie Pickering
Writer: Robbie Pickering
Cast: Rachael Harris, Jon Gries, Matt O’Leary
Distributor: Cinema Guild
“This was a difficult movie to get made,” Robbie Pickering offered up about his 2011 SXSW Film Festival winner, which will get its theatrical roll out the same weekend the event closes out its 2012 edition. Natural Selection had its initial budget slashed from $2 million to just $150,000. After the massive cut, its star dropped out and Pickering had to find another person to play a mother approaching middle age who discovers her dying husband has another son living in Florida and sets out to find him. ” It’s hard to get a movie made especially a coming-of-age story about someone who’s a 40 year old woman that doesn’t star one of the cast members of Friends,” Pickering told Deadline. Enter actress Rachael Harris, who Pickering had initial misgivings about casting, but later realized it may just work after meeting the actress who has appeared in film and television. After shooting 18 days in the South, Pickering said he knew he had found the right person in the top role, and SXSW judges and audiences apparently agreed after the film took seven awards including the best narrative jury and audiences prizes as well as breakthrough performance for Harris.

“No matter what people think of the film, it’s undeniable that Rachel is great in the movie,” said Pickering. “I think it was good having to do this in 18 days. She was so great, and there are very few people who can go from comedy to drama so seamlessly. It’s also good having her marketing-wise because she’s someone who is somewhat under the radar and people want to see something from her. There are these movies like Transamerica with Felicity Huffman [and others] that have these great performances.” Even with the festival accolades and later Spirit Award nominations, he admits it’s a tough fight getting his film noticed with very little in the way of P&A when competing with other openers.

“We just have to rely on it touching people around the world and we’re going to go with that,” he said. “It’s tough to get people to pay attention when you don’t have a huge distributor behind you. Our film wasn’t on anyone’s radar when we were making it and nobody cared about me directing or Rachael being in it and that’s the genius of SXSW. It is a place for true discovery and new voices.” Natural Selection will debut in New York and Philadelphia this weekend and will expand further in April.

The Understudy
Directors: David Conolly, Hannah Davis
Writers: Hannah Davis, David Conolly
Cast: Marin Ireland, Paul Sparks, Aasif Mandvi
Distributor: Indican Pictures
British filmmakers David Conolly and Hannah Davis were regular Broadway enthusiasts when they came up with their project about a perennial understudy on the stage who takes matters into her own hands to achieve the notoriety she believes she deserves. The duo had just finished a good festival run with their previous film, which they made for 8,000 pounds, maxing out their credit cards, and they eagerly wanted to follow up their success with another film. “We were victims of our own success, so we decided to make another movie, but it fell through so we were very frustrated,” Conolly told Deadline. “We had to prove to ourselves we could write. We did it in three weeks, but we didn’t want to go through the same development hell we did with our other project, so we closed our eyes and went for it.” Going for it meant casting then relatively unknown theater actors (though many have since gone on to television fame) and despite hoping to avoid some of the tribulations they experienced the first time around, they did experience some production trials.

“We got money out of friends and family in the UK, but there were more problems. The U.S. is different than the UK and some things went awry,” Conolly said. “A few trucks had crashed during production, so Hannah disappeared from the set and came back with the money to pay for these unexpected expenses. She sold our flat in London.” Added David, “We gave up a house, but we had a film.” To save some money post-shoot, they opted to edit the film at a school under the watch of editor Kate Eales, which they said gave the film “20 pairs of eyes” allowing them to edit scenes in many ways creating loads of storytelling possibilities for the film that took 28 days to shoot. “We think we could re-release the film with a different story because of the many edit possibilities we had,” said Davis. The Understudy will bow in Los Angeles this weekend, expanding to Chicago and Philadelphia the following week and more cities including New York, Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis soon afterward.

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