Brian Brooks is managing editor of MovieLine.
The dog days of summer are coming to a close as Venice, Telluride and Toronto gear up with dozens of titles that will eventually make their way to U.S. screens — at least those that receive a theatrical release. For Labor Day weekend audiences, a string of past festival pics are headed for their box office run. Sundance titles The Ambassador, For A Good Time, Call… and Little Birds make their bows this holiday. Austrian filmmaker Karl Markovics’ Breathing debuts in the U.S. after screening last year at Cannes. China Lion’s The Bullet Vanishes heads to North America, targeting Chinese audiences.
Documentary filmmaker Mads Brügger made a splash Stateside back in 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival where his The Red Chapel won the World Cinema documentary prize. His latest, The Ambassador, features the Danish filmmaker-journalist posing as a European diplomat as he goes under cover to investigate the blood diamond trade in Africa. “[We] were big fans of Mads because of Red Chapel, and The Ambassador was one of our big targets for Sundance this year,” Drafthouse Films exec James Shapiro said. “Corruption in Africa isn’t a revelation but he really throws himself in the thick of it and risks everything including his life to show an account of modern day colonialism. It hit us right in the gut and … next thing we know, we’re making an offer to Trust Nordic,” the sales company.
Shapiro said it’s “not a huge mystery” that a film like this will appeal to the “NPR crowd,” but it will also appeal to their Alamo Drafthouse fan base. “Mads is a very unique filmmaker and, for lack of a better word, he’s a badass! They love that stuff. We’ve done some double features with Red Chapel [thanks to a partnership with Kino Lorber] and Mads is in the country right now touring LA, New York and Austin. The Ambassador opened Wednesday at IFC Center. It will bow Friday in LA at Cinefamily and in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse and in San Francisco. It will expand to about a dozen markets next week.
Focus picked up the comedy out of Sundance earlier this year. It centers on a pair of “frenemies” who decide to make ends meet by setting a phone sex business. “It’s rare you find a film with this much humor, raunch and heart,” said Focus Features president Andrew Karpen. “What we’ve learned is that the people who see this film really love it,” so they plan go slow “and let word of mouth drive this film.” Toward that end Focus set up several word-of-mouth screenings ahead of this weekend’s theatrical bow. Women 18-34 are the audience and “may relate more to the friendship part then the phone sex,” Karpen said, but “guys like it too.”
For A Good Time, Call… follows other Sundance pickups for Focus including last year’s Pariah and the previous year’s Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right. The distributor also nabbed Beginners out of Toronto and Karpen said their team will be back at the festival next week. For A Good Time, Call… will open in 10 markets over the holiday weekend, including Toronto.
The drama Little Birds was originally slated to open a year ago, but Millennium held off after its writer-director Elgin James ran afoul of the courts and served jail time. James’ extraordinary journey from gang member to filmmaker in competition at Sundance received a profile by Deadline last Spring. But producer Jamie Patricof noted that the entire filmmaking team remained committed to the feature through difficult days. The 2011 Sundance premiere concernstwo young women who face a “life-changing event” after they leave their Salton Sea, CA home to follow boys they meet back to Los Angeles.
Veteran indie producer Patricof noted that every film faces something “that will go wrong” along the way. He lost funding while producing his Oscar-nominated titles Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, for examlple. “But this was definitely not something we’d expect,” he said. “It’s a testament to the crew, actors and everyone that held it together.” Millennium Films bowed Little Birds at the Angelika Theater on Wednesday in New York. It will open in Los Angeles on September 14th. James “went from foster care to homeless to gang member to jail to Sundance filmmaker,” said Patricof. “Not many people have had a similar path.”
L.A.-based distributor China Lion picked up The Bullet Vanishes through Hong Kong sales agent Emperor outside any formal festivals or film markets. In 1930s Shanghai a police newcomer sets off to investigate bizarre homicides taking place at a local arsenal. “We’re targeting Mandarin-speaking Chinese-Americans and Canadians,” China Lion exec Robert Lundberg said. “We think there will be some art house and fanboy audiences as well.” Lundberg said China Lion will bow The Bullet Vanishes on 14 screens in eight markets over the weekend. Targeted cities include Boston, LA, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Washinton, D.C. and Vancouver.
“I saw a woman dead in a room [and] the vision stayed with me,” Austrian filmmaker Karl Markovics said of the idea that eventually morphed into Breathing, his 2011 feature that won prizes at the Cannes, Sarajevo and Zurich film festivals and is now hitting U.S. theaters this weekend. Markovics said some time had passed after seeing “the vision” before he actually started shooting. The project went through Austria’s usual rigor of funding — namely three sources where virtually every film made in the Central European mostly Alpine country finds their production funds. “Austria doesn’t have the same studio or even independent film industry that America does,” Markovics noted. “And Austria is a very small market. We speak German, but our films have difficulty finding distribution even in Germany which has a large market because of our dialect.”
Markovics scrambled to finish the film after shooting in late 2010, hoping to score a slot in Cannes that May. He sent a rough cut and eventually received an acceptance in the Directors Fortnight sidebar. Kino Lorber will open Breathing at Cinema Village in New York with other dates to follow.