A slate of documentaries are part of this weekend’s specialty offerings including The Weinstein Company’s high-profile Bully, which should garner some decent box office cha-ching based on publicity alone due to its fight to reverse an R rating from the MPAA. But before it was in the media spotlight, its filmmaker struggled to make the feature much like most indie directors. New Yorker Films is also utilizing school-yard teasing as one way to spread the word about its controversial Norwegian feature Turn Me On, Dammit! Samuel Goldwyn Films is hoping to replicate one of its past successes by keeping the focus on its main subject for its rollout The Island President. And filmmaker Alan Govenar happened upon a low-profile center of Beat culture in Paris, taking what was originally intended to be a short film about the topic and turned it into a full feature in The Beat Hotel.

The Beat Hotel
Director: Alan Govenar
Subjects: Sylvia Whitman, Matt Mitchell and Kit Hussey
Distributor: First Run Features
Director Alan Govenar stumbled on the story of a cheap Parisian Latin Quarter hotel that was an unlikely center of Beat culture. Beat writers used the establishment as a refuge from perceived conformity and censorship in America during that period. Govenar was working with a French arts group near Paris when he happened upon research describing the influence American Beats had on the famous student revolts in France in 1968, and though he initially set out to make a short film on the topic, the project morphed into a feature. “The proprietor of the hotel, though not herself an artist, was very tolerant of artists and their whims including drugs and sex,” said Govenar. “William S. Burroughs finished Naked Lunch there. I came across this material, but it was part of the Beat story that was never fully told.”

A multi-media designer, author and filmmaker, Govenar made The Beat Hotel over the course of working on multiple projects he had in Europe. The Texas-based filmmaker travels to Europe frequently and he shot the film over five shooting periods. “For me it was a work of passion. It started out as a 10 minute film, but it turned into a feature.” Govenar raised a little money through an Indie Go Go campaign and received a small grant from a New York-based foundation, but the film mostly dovetailed into whatever he was primarily working on over the course of time. He started shooting in the spring of 2008 and finished last fall. “It was a nurturing process,” he added. The Beat Hotel opens this weekend in New York for a week, followed by Chicago and Los Angeles April 6th. It will go to the Roxy Theater in San Francisco later this spring.

Bully
Director Lee Hirsch
Subjects: Alex, Ja’Maya, Kelby, David Long, Tina Long, Kirk Smalley
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Bully is likely this year’s most talked about documentary to date. The film, which debuted last year at Tribeca where Weinstein picked it up, has ridden a high-profile spat with the MPAA over its R-rating, placing the film and its director Lee Hirsch in the media spotlight including appearances on CNN and Fox as well as celeb backing by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and more. It is quite a build-up for the feature which Hirsch told Deadline he spent 90% of the time shooting alone, maxing out his credit cards.

“It’s a true independent film,” Hirsch said. “If I was lucky I had someone helping me out with sound, but in a way I think it served this movie. Some critics say it’s not artful. But it’s a movie that had urgency, so I did it with a fire under my ass.” New York-based funding source Cinereach came in with funds early on (the group was also behind this year’s big Sundance winner Beasts Of The Southern Wild) while others including the Sundance Institute joined. Sioux City, IA based anti-violence group the Waitt Institute also came on board, helping Hirsch make in-roads with the school district there where he became embedded and met one of his main subjects, Alex. “They allowed me to shoot and have editorial control,” said Hirsch. “And, I met Alex there who is of course essential to the film. I went there eight or nine times over the year.”

After shooting ended, Hirsch said he had hoped to have the film ready for Sundance, but timing didn’t work out. Tribeca loomed and Hirsch said not making it to Park City was best for the film. “Ultimately not getting into Sundance was the best thing,” said Hirsch. We kept cutting because it wasn’t ready. If you don’t get in to Sundance, it doesn’t signal that your film is crap and it doesn’t mean that your film can’t have a fantastic launch. For us, Tribeca was a great launch. We had multiple bidders so filmmakers should know that it’s not Sundance or bust. Not to say Sundance isn’t totally awesome, but for us Tribeca was great.” Hirsch has been making the final rounds pushing the film leading up to this weekend’s roll out. The film’s profile and ratings controversy has landed him appearances on Piers Morgan and even Mike Huckabee’s Fox show. “Bully is crossing all political lines, so that’s great,” added Hirsch. “I’m bummed we didn’t win this fight, but in a strange way I don’t think it’s over yet. The petition is growing I’m thankful to AMC Theatres for taking a lead on this and are willing to break from the pack and stand by this film. I like to believe in my heart that this [controversy] has caused a change that will help filmmakers down the line, if not for this film. This process needs to be reviewed. And I’m thankful to TWC and Harvey for standing by me in this process.”

The Island President
Director: Jon Shenk
Subjects: Mohamed Nasheed
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Samuel Goldwyn Films’ Peter Goldwyn said he thought of documentary The Island President as an “amazing David and Goliath story” when he first saw it last year at the Telluride Film Festival. The film revolves around the first democratically elected president of the tiny nation of the Maldives, a thinly populated country in the Indian Ocean made up of low-lying islands that is threatened of slowly disappearing by its biggest natural resource, the sea. “It’s not just an issue, it’s life and death,” said Goldwyn. “So he’s thrust onto the world stage using everything he can to bring up the issue of global warming.” Since the film’s making, President Mohamed Nasheed was overthrown in a coup d’etat, but he is still fighting to keep human-caused climate change alive on the world stage.

The film opened in New York Wednesday night and he went on the David Letterman Show that evening to talk up the film and the issue he’s determined to force the world to pay attention to. “He’s speaking to a lot of groups including the Sierra Club as well as meeting the Secretary General of the U.N. and he’ll do The Daily Show next Monday,” Goldwyn told Deadline. “He decided not to challenge the coup because he did’t want blood in the streets, so he backed down. He’s now trying to push for new elections in the country. His message is that you can’t fight for climate change without democracy.”

Goldwyn added that they’re concerned for his safety due to the “delicate situation” at home, and they would have liked him to be in the U.S. as president to promote the film, but they still see Nasheed as the film’s biggest asset. “We’re staying on message that this guy is a dynamic leader. He has that something that makes you listen. He makes a lot of sense,” said Goldwyn. “Similar to when we released Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock was the best asset and in The Island President Nasheed is too. He’s the one who is going to get people interested in the film. Once you see him, he’s the draw.” The Island President opened Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum and on Friday it will bow at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco. April 6th, it will open the NuArt in Los Angeles, followed by Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis.

Turn Me On, Dammit!
Writer/Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
Cast: Helene Bergsholm, Matias Myren Malin Bjørhovde, Lars Nordtvedt Listau, Beate Støfring, Henriette Steenstup
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Norwegian director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen created a story that is a marketing challenge at best for distributors in the comparatively puritanical United States. Turn Me On, Dammit! revolves around a 15-year-old teenage girl with raging hormones and fantasies about the boy she yearns for, Artur, and practically everyone else she sees. New Yorker Films will release the film in the U.S. (it debuted here at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, winning best screenplay). “My first thought in working on the film is the older audience who [are more inclined] to go see subtitled films – women 25, 35 and up,” said Reid Rosefelt who is helping with the film’s American release for New Yorker. “I [also] believe it needed to be screened because it doesn’t have a name director though it’s a movie that people enjoy, but it is small. It’s a film that people love at festivals and win prizes, but could have a hard road when it comes to opening day.”

Of course word-of-mouth can be very effective, but Rosefelt noted that strategically creating that can also be an expensive proposition. He had wanted to employ screenings by New York-based publicist/event figure Peggy Siegal “because you get a lot of great people who can start talking about the film,” but the cost was prohibitive. Instead, he approached Oscar-nominated actress Patricia Clarkson who liked the film and she hosted a screening, which was then followed by others. “In the end, we didn’t do as many screenings as I would have liked to do, but the ones we did were good in getting industry to start talking about it and others to start spreading the word through social media.” The screenings proved that men – perhaps not a surprise – liked the movie as much as women. In its native Norway, the film opened to a $700,000 box office take, outshining bigger Hollywood competition there, with 12 and 13 year olds a particularly strong draw.

It remains to be seen whether that will happen Stateside especially with the content likely to exclude the younger crowd that came out in droves in Norway. “There is 15 year-old masturbation, so I think this could give [presidential candidate] Rick Santorum a heart attack,” said Rosefelt who added that he hoped it would because that would be a publicity god-send, though he doubts Santorum or his crowd have heard of the film. “He would be my chief marketer,” Rosefelt said. Rosefelt is trying to lure younger audiences through a campaign via Facebook and casting the lead as an outcast. He created a video with actors in the movie talking about teasing and put ads on YouTube talking about the subject, something akin to its fellow weekend release, Bully.

New Yorker also bowed a bit to some U.S. sensitivities, changing the title of the film slightly. In Norway it is called Turn Me On Goddammit!. The film will open a the Anjelika Theater in downtown Manhattan and uptown at the Elinor Brunin Munroe Film Center in New York this weekend followed by more locations across the country in the coming weeks.