Of all the films opening this weekend at the specialty box office, all eyes will be on Judy, the biopic about Hollywood icon Judy Garland. The film made its premiere at Telluride and played the Toronto Film Festival to a great ovation, prompting early awards contender buzz for star Renee Zellweger.
Joining Judy in a trip for the box office rainbow this weekend: A24’s The Death of Dick Long from Daniel Scheinert; Samantha Buck & Marie Schlingmann’s Sister Aimee; the gripping documentary Always In Season; and the satire The Day Shall Come.
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Written by Tom Edge and directed by Rupert Goold, Judy showcases Zellweger in the title role in a biopic that’s not cradle-to-grave but rather focuses on a specific, significant piece of Judy Garland’s life.
In 1968 London, Garland is set to perform a five-week sold-out run at the nightclub The Talk of the Town. It’s been 30 years since The Wizard of Oz and her voice is weaker but the drama in it has grown. As she preps for the show, she goes toe-to-toe with her management, bonds with musicians, connects with friends and adoring fans and begins a romance with musician and soon-to-be fifth husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock).
Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions saw a glimpse of the film in 2018 when Pathe showed five minutes of footage at Cannes. Roadside partnered with frequent collaborator LD Entertainment and went in together to acquire U.S. rights to the film before they saw the whole movie.
“I think it’s fascinating how [Zellwegger] was able to put together this incredible synthesis of herself and Judy,” said Cohen. “It’s not an imitation and it’s not mimicry. A lot of critics say she becomes [Garland] right before your eyes. She really studied her and picked things that were emblematic of her like her posture, some of her nervous habits and psyche. Renee was smart and captured really important things about her. It was about finding aspects about her that she can connect to.”
The film is slated to open in 457 theaters (357 in the U.S. and 85 in Canada) and Cohen said this is part of a release strategy they have used with some previous awards season films like Mud, A Most Wanted Man, Love and Mercy and Mr. Holmes. He said a film like this should be something in between a wide release and a coasts-only four-screen release.
“The standard thing with specialty movies is that it’s four screens in New York and LA,” said Cohen. “You hope to do giant per-screen averages and expand from there. The problem with that one-size-fits-all model is that movies like [Judy] are coming into the marketplace with a huge amount of PR and buzz.”
He continues, “Renee has been on seven different talk shows — why would you want to do all of that and only be in four theaters? Yet, you don’t want to necessarily be on 2,000 screens either. This is not Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a different kind of movie. I think its ultimately going to be a crowd-pleaser but we don’t feel like it should be super wide the first weekend.”
Cohen said that they were wrestling with the thought of releasing the film this past June to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Garland’s death, which was also the 50th anniversary of Stonewall (there’s some lore connecting the two). But they decided going up against Rocketman and Yesterday. Instead, they did a marketing push for the film, doing activations during Gay Pride in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. They also pinned a teaser trailer to Rocketman which got huge play. The strategy was tied in to an awards season release.
“We are releasing it on a weekend when there is no other awards fare coming out,” Cohen said. “That was very deliberate. We wanted it to have its own moment in the sun.”
The Death of Dick Long
With Swiss Army Man, Daniel Scheinert and co-director Daniel Kwan gave us bold and unorthodox storytelling, creating an off-center film that entertained audiences but also had them asking “What did I just watch?” The same could be said for the latest pic The Death of Dick Long written by Billy Chew.
As the title suggests, it follows the death of a man named Dick — but his bandmates Zeke and Earl (Michael Abbott, Jr., Andre Hyland), don’t want anybody finding out exactly how Dick died. Since they live in small-town Alabama, word gets out; they try to cover their tracks but fail miserably. Even though authorities haven’t ID’d the body yet, Zeke’s wife (Virginia Newcomb) and daughter are already suspicious.
Producer Jonathan Wang said he was especially drawn to the story, which premiered at Sundance. “Billy Chew crafted such loveably unloveable characters who compounded their poor circumstances with even poorer decisions,” Wang told Deadline. “Following these characters was so fun yet confusing. The bounds of my empathy and judgment were really put to the test, and I ate it up.”
He added, “The challenge of getting a movie like this made was very appealing to me. But really, A24 made it easy on me. They understood what the movie was and quickly said yes.”
On paper, the story seems simple, though its execution follows the same off-center storytelling seen in Swiss Army Man. Wang admits that marketing such a big-swing film is difficult. “With films that are unique, it’s hard to keep the marketing unique because audiences — like studios — want analogies,” said Wang. “Swiss Army Man was Weekend at Bernie’s meets Eternal Sunshine, and The Death Of Dick Long has become ‘Redneck Fargo’. Thankfully we have great partners in A24 who are brilliant at eventizing art house and they have built a loyal fan base because they have become the cure for the common blockbuster.”
However, this could have been a different kind of movie outside of the arthouse world. “We tried to get some A-listers to play the role of Richard (aka Dick) Long,” admits Wang, “but needless to say, Channing Tatum and Justin Timberlake didn’t jump at the role.”
Filmmakers Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann first heard of Aimee Semple McPherson while working on the short The Mink Catcher with Anna Margaret Hollyman who told them to look up the evangelist who mysteriously and briefly disappeared back in the ’20s. The two became fascinated with her story but didn’t want to create a straight biopic. They invented a story of what could have happened to her during the disappearance.
“We start the movie by saying ‘5 ½ percent is truth’ — and we aren’t lying!” said the filmmakers. “We wanted to say something truthful about her character, about female ambition and the power of storytelling, but not be bound by facts or court transcripts.”
Sister Aimee stars Hollyman and follows McPherson as she fakes her own death after being fed up with success as an evangelist. As a result, she gets swept up in her lover’s daydreams about Mexico and finds herself on a wild road trip towards the border with her boyfriend and a female guide.
“At the heart of this movie are two complex, overlooked entirely fascinating female characters, one of which was a real person we were inspired by,” said Buck and Schlingmann. “We also wanted to explore a more unorthodox, somewhat revisionist approach to period storytelling – we are queering history to an extent. We think this can be used as a powerful tool. Reparative reading, if you will.”
The Day Shall Come
In Chris Morris’ satire The Day Shall Come, Marchant Davis plays Moses Al Shabaz, “a Miami street preacher whose radical revolutionary ideas connect with a Middle Eastern terrorist organization.” As a result, they offer to fund his dream of overthrowing the US government — but it’s all a set-up. The financial backer is really the US government, scheming to entrap Moses and make his arrest the latest national security “win.”
Things take a turn when Moses doesn’t fall for it and FBI agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) sets out to get him — even if she has to go to extreme, outlandish lengths.
Arianna Bocco, EVP of acquisitions at IFC, first screened The Day Shall Come when it premiered at SXSW and, she said, saw a phenomenal audience reaction.
“The dialogue was in another league,” she said. “We knew immediately this would be a fit for IFC. Chris Morris and Jessie Armstrong are some of the best writers working in the industry today and we really think they delivered with this film.”
And in a social climate where a satire like this can be a hard sell, Bocco said the cast adds to the film’s appeal. She points out, “Having distributed both In The Loop and Death of Stalin during the last decade successfully, we are confident that this type of film can find an audience in theaters and at home.”
Always In Season
Multitude Films and Tell It Media
Directed by Jacqueline Olive, Always In Season is a documentary which follows Claudia Lacy as she tries to find answers about the death of her 17-year-old son Lennon, who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina. The authorities ruled the death a suicide, but Claudia suspects her son was lynched.
The catalyst for the documentary sparked when Olive came upon a collection of photos and postcards of men, women and children posing proudly with the mutilated bodies of lynching victims. The faces of the people who were lynched called to Olive as she realized they had ties to friends, families, and the communities where they had lived. She researched and developed a project about the complex and brutal history of lynching this eventually led to Always In Season.
“After four years of documenting justice and reconciliation efforts in eight cities across the country, including Georgia where a multiracial group of amateurs annually reenact the quadruple lynching of two couples, the Malcoms and the Dorseys, that occurred near Atlanta in 1946, I was ready to wrap production,” Olive told Deadline. “Within a few weeks, though, I learned of the hanging death of Lennon Lacy.”
As a mother of a 17-year-old, Olive immediately empathized. “I saw the connections between the horror that people in Bladenboro were suddenly confronted with and the aftermath of trauma that still lingered unacknowledged in the communities where I’d already been filming,” she said. “I spent four more years in production in Bladenboro, filming with many people in the community to learn what happened to Lennon and how his death has reverberated throughout the area.”
Olive was faced with lots of challenges when filming, but what surprised her the most was how unwilling local officials were to comment or share their records on the case. “The DA’s office, chief of police, medical examiner, coroner and others all refused to even comment,” she remarks.
Olive points out that films like Always in Season aren’t difficult to market — but the mainstream market finds it difficult to understand and embrace these films.
“Racial terrorism is intrinsically woven into the fabric of this country, but it’s not a part of the branding of the American identity,” she said. “Complex narratives that illuminate the myriad of social issues that people of color face, as well as others pushed to the margins, offer deeper truths and increased insights into questions of community, freedom, safety, home, accountability, and more that are, in fact, universal.”
She adds, “As a filmmaker of color, I know things about the audience for this film that come out of an intimate understanding of POC communities and relationship-building over the decade I spent making the film.”