Specialties continue to crowd the exhibition market. After a brief lull, theatrical newcomers are back en force this weekend, though the numbers should lighten up as the year winds down. Alex Gibney is back for a second time this year with The Armstrong Lie after opening We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks in May. The film took a major turn during filming after doping allegations hit a crisis moment for subject, Lance Armstrong. Fellow veteran doc filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is also hitting theaters with his latest, At Berkeley. Both films played at the Toronto and New York film festivals this fall. The films will be joined in theaters with Polsky Films’ The Motel Life with Emile Hirsch and John Sayles’ latest, Go For Sisters through Variance Films. And Screen Media will roll out French-language title Paris Countdown in limited runs.

The Armstrong Lie
Director-writer Alex Gibney
Subjects: Lance Armstrong, Reed Albergotti, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Veteran doc filmmaker Alex Gibney did not initially set out to make what eventually became The Armstrong Lie. The famed multiple winner of the Tour de France decided to come out of retirement and once again compete in bicycling’s most famous competition in 2009. Gibney set out to capture his return, but what might have been a puff piece for Armstrong fans got clobbered when doping allegations — accusations he had mostly dodged throughout his career — came back in full force. “It was challenging on two levels,” said producer Matt Tolmach. “[My fellow producer] Frank Marshall goes way back with Lance and I go back pretty far as well. We had to get our heads around a new emerging truth.” Tolmach said personal relationships aside, the doping crisis gave them an unlikely opportunity as filmmakers. “We had to be nimble. We had to get our heads around the deception, but realized we had an opportunity. It became a different animal. We had set out to do an inspirational story, but it turned out differently. But we also believe in finding the truth, so in that sense it became inspirational.” Frank Marshall noted that by the time Armstrong faced the worst of the crisis, most of the “epic” elements of the film had already been shot, so the main goal was to address the core of the controversy, which required Armstrong’s participation. At September’s Toronto International Film Festival where the film had its North American debut, Gibney noted that after the allegations hit the news, he told Armstrong that he was “obligated” to speak to him about the doping issue. “I told him he owed it to me,” he said. “Everything meant something completely different [afterward],” said Marshall about the film after the crisis erupted. “That is what is so fascinating about documentary. It is so different from our [usual work] which typically involves a locked script.”

Though the panoramic scenes of Armstrong cycling in the race against picturesque backdrops etc. remained, Tolmach noted that the film was only 30% complete once the news broke and the filmmaking team realized it had to re-think its narrative. “There’s a lot of investigating and uncovering of the truth, but in the end he did step up and come clean with Alex,” said Tolmach. “It became a thing between Alex and Lance.” Marshall added that the production also had to re-evaluate where the film would best live. The team approached Sony Classics to help finish the film and to release it. “We went to the SPC guys and said, ‘Do we want to finish this thing brilliantly and break new ground and blow people’s minds?’ And they were all in,” said Tolmach. “Alex is an investigative journalist and was able to convince them that he was chasing the truth. He can get people to speak honestly.” Marshall noted that many of the people they had originally interviewed in 2009 had also lied to cover Armstrong’s doping. Sony Classics will open The Armstrong Lie in limited release in New York, Los Angeles and Austin followed by major markets in about 50 cities in 100 theaters by the end of November.

At Berkeley
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Subject: U.C. Berkeley
Distributor: Zipporah Films

Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman follows up his long career looking at institutions, this time going to U.C. Berkeley. The campus sits at the pinnacle of higher public education and Wiseman captures the school as it confronts a financial crisis that threatened to upend its prestige as well as its economic and racial diversity. “I contacted the chancellor there and he said, ‘OK,’” said Wiseman about taking on the project. ” I didn’t want to do a private institution like Harvard, Yale or Princeton because they are well endowed. Since public education affects so many people in America and Berkeley is the leader in providing a public university education.” Wiseman also solicited the help of a retired U.C. Berkeley vice chancellor to help him navigate the sprawling campus which has about 35,000 students. Wiseman said that, like his other films, he did not come into the project with an agenda and said it would be impossible to fully capture the entire campus in one film, even his, which has a 244-minute run time. “If I wanted to find out what meetings were going on over the course of a week or couple weeks, he’d be able to call the chancellor’s office to find out what was going on,” said Wiseman. “So I had ideas about [the project] but in terms of implementation and the knowledge of what was happening, I’d use him as a liaison. The only things I couldn’t shoot were [faculty] tenure discussions which is quite understandable because there’s a lot of personal information being discussed there and exchanges about one’s capacity or incapacity to achieve tenure.”

At Berkeley debuted at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals and will open one-week runs at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and IFC Center in New York this weekend. It will head to Music Hall for one week in Los Angeles November 15 followed by play dates in Dallas, Boston and Cleveland. It will head to the Bay Area December 6.

Go For Sisters
Director-writer: John Sayles
Cast: LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, Edward James Olmos, Isaiah Washington, Hilary Barraford
Distributor: Variance Films

This is Variance’s second straight John Sayles title. The crime-thriller centers on Fontayne, who enlists help from her parole officer (and estranged old friend) to help him search for his son, who has gone missing on the Mexican border. “We’re excited because it’s our second time around with John after Amigo in 2011. We came on early at SXSW for this one, said Variance’s Dylan Marchetti. “John is one of the godfathers of independent cinema and has financed his films from the ’80s. This is a very different film.” Marchetti described Go For Sisters as more accessible than perhaps some of Sayles’ previous work and said the film should appeal to a cross-section of audiences. “I don’t want to say it’s ‘commercial’, but it’s much more about the day to day,” added Marchetti. “We’re blessed with four distinct audiences for this one. There’s the John Sayles audience and we know how to reach them through our experience on Amigo. There’s also African-American audience because of the film’s two rich Afro-American leads. And Edward James Olmos is likely the biggest Latino star, so we’re hitting that. I also firmly believe there’s a younger film audience that knows John but hasn’t seen all his films.”

Go For Sisters is the first title that Variance has acquired all rights for. It will launch the film as a traditional theatrical rollout and Marchetti noted that AMC and Landmark are on board for the bulk of its exhibition. It will use the theatrical release to hype the film’s digital and DVD release next year. Go For Sisters will open in New York this weekend at the Empire 25 and Village East, with Olmos, Sayles and Yolonda Ross slated for screening appearances. The film will be in the top 30 markets through January. “It’s a crowded time and we don’t want to go too fast,” said Marchetti. “It’s a longer word of mouth release.”

The Motel Life
Directors: Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky
Writers: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Willy Vlautin (novel)
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, Dakota Fanning
Distributor: Polsky Films (self-distributed), FilmBuff (VOD/digital)

Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, The Motel Life follows a pair of working class brothers who flee their Reno motel after getting involved in a fatal hit and run accident. The book had been under option, but became available and filmmakers Alan and Gabe Polsky went after it. “Directing is something Gabe and I had always had our eye on doing,” said Alan Polsky. “We were waiting for something to come our way and we were moved by the story. It’s a contained story with a brotherly love story in the middle.” Emile Hirsch was at the top of the filmmakers’ list to play the lead, recalling his performance in Sean Penn’s Into The Wild as a harbinger to the role of Frank Lee in The Motel Life. “Into The Wild was such an amazing silent performance,” said Gabe Polsky. “The Frank character [in this movie] is in every part of the film. [Emile Hirsch] examined the script quickly and he wanted to know more about us. We flew to New Orleans where he was shooting Killer Joe and we had a nice meeting and he signed on after that. Then we had a number of actors come in and speak with Emile…” Stephen Dorff joined the cast, playing a character that the Polskys said was unique for him. The filmmakers put together financing after the cast came together, but noted that the budget did not require an extensive amount of resources. The film shot in January, 2011 in Reno and Virginia City. The Polskys said that the cast and crew lived at Harrah’s Casino and that gambling became a distraction for some.

The film screened at various festivals including the recent Woodstock, Philadelphia and Mill Valley film festivals. Werner Herzog and Sofia Coppola hosted recent word of mouth screenings ahead of its rollout this weekend. The film will be released under the Polsky Films label, bowing this weekend in 16 markets in 17 theaters. FilmBuff will handle the film’s VOD release.

Paris Countdown
Director-writer: Edgar Marie
Cast: Jacques Gamblin, Olivier Marchal, Carlo Brandt, Reda Kateb
Distributor: Screen Media

Screen Media president Suzanne Belch first saw a teaser of Paris Countdown at the Berlin International Film Festival last February. The French-language crime thriller centers on Milan and Jonas who were once friends. They had to turn in Serki to the Mexican police, and six years later Serki is back in Paris seeking revenge. “I thought there would be a great market for a sexy slick French noir,” said Blech. “I think there’s room for it [in the marketplace]. It has a bit of a Miami Vice element to it too.” Blech said the film’s natural audience will be Francophiles and people who “identify with strong sexy thrillers.” She is tapping her connections with the French embassy, French publications and ex pats (her French husband has connections to the community) to spread the word. “French language departments are always happy to promote films from their countries and for me, that’s a win,” added Blech. The film will open day and date with Universal Digital partnering on the non-theatrical rollout. It will open at Cinema Village in New York.

For more estimates listed by title, see box office results here...
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