Brian Brooks is Managing Editor of MovieLine.
Documentaries dominate this weekend’s new specialty offerings including Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s feature directorial debut Sound City, which premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival. Grohl has partnered with various companies and groups for traditional and non-traditional rollouts for the film, which will also screen at SXSW in March. Sony Pictures Classics’ The Gatekeepers looks inside Israel’s intelligence agency, Shin Bet. The film gripped audiences at the Jerusalem International Film Festival where it debuted, followed by Telluride and the New York Film Festival last fall. And Hamptons International Film Festival premiere, Koch, will bow in New York — naturally. It’s about former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, who died early this morning in New York.
Director: Dror Moreh
Subjects: Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Realizing its potential, producer Philippa Kowarsky jumped on the Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers from the outset. She was “taken by how candid” the former heads of Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, were and “how their thoughts did not conform with the obvious.” Kowarsky added, “They were not predictable. It got me thinking. I was hoping we could get others to feel the same.” While the subjects seemed forthcoming, the project’s financial makeup posed challenges. It received a mixture of Israeli and European financing plus French-speaking Canadian television. Global partners, however, had agendas that did not always align with director Dror Moreh’s goals. “I think that one of Dror’s greatest achievements is his decision-making during the long editing process,” she added, suggesting Moreh didn’t let the financiers pressure him on the content.
Sony Pictures Classics followed the film since its beginning but came on board officially last summer. It will bow The Gatekeepers in New York including Lincoln Plaza and Los Angeles’ Arclight Hollywood this weekend followed by other U.S. markets.
Director: David Grohl
Writer: Mark Monroe
Subjects: Trent Reznor, Tom Petty, Mick Fleetwood, James Brown, John Fogerty, David Grohl, Barry Manilow, Stevie Nicks, Krist Novoselic, Lars Ulrich
Distributor (Theatrical): Variance Films
Foo Fighters/Nirvana musician Dave Grohl has directed music videos in the past but dived into feature documentary filmmaking with Sound City, which debuted recently at Sundance. After the film’s eponymous San Fernando Valley recording studio moved into the digital age, Grohl bought facility’s decades-old mixing console used for the recordings of Fleetwood Mack, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor and many others. Grohl then got an idea to document the console’s “unsung” contribution to popular music. “The owner of the studio who’s in his 80s came in with a spreadsheet of all the artists who had recorded there,” said Sound City producer Jim Rota. “So Dave Grohl texted me that night saying, ‘We have to do a web series or something to get people to talk about this.’ He ended up writing an outline that night of a feature-length documentary.” Rota phoned his friend John Ramsay at production group Therapy Content to come on board in Spring 2011. “By the time we got people scheduled and ready for interviews that was in the fall of 2011,” said Rota. “The big challenge was that we were shooting interviews and performance segments.”
Grohl’s management company helped wrangle the artists who recorded at Sound City, although he personally reached out to dozens of artists with emails. “Dave and the other guys from Nirvana recorded [their 2nd album] Nevermind” at Sound City, noted Rota. “The same goes for artists from Rage Against the Machine to Fleetwood Mac. That’s how great music is made — by yourself in front of a computer and taking stock stuff out of a library and burning it onto a screen. …The point of music is that anybody can do it and that’s what really gets to people.”
Emulating writer/director/actor Louis C.K.’s method of getting work “out there as quickly as possible,” according to Rota, Sound City will head into select theatrical runs this weekend with digital/VOD simultaneously via Gravitas. Variance opened Sound City in 50 theaters tonight night in the U.S. and Canada and it will add 15 markets beginning Friday with two runs in New York as well as LA, Pasadena, Toronto, San Fran, Montreal, Providence, Phoenix, Miami, Dallas, Long Beach, Asbury Park, and Seattle. It will continue bookings through the month via traditional bookings as well as with audience-driven TUGG campaigns. The just announced SXSW Film Festival also added Sound City to its lineup.
Director: Neil Barsky
Subjects: Ed Koch, Michael Bloomberg, Calvin O. Butts III, Christine Quinn, Charles Rangel
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Zeitgeist had its eye on Koch, about the former New York Mayor, during production but came on board after its competition, which is typical for the niche producer. Koch, who served as mayor from 1978-1989, suffered from congestive heart failure and wasn’t able to attend the film’s premiere Tuesday. He died this morning at age 88. The documentary’s release this weekend in New York is a fitting send-off for the charismatic and sometimes controversial personality. “He screened it for us when it was done and we just loved it,” said Zeitgeist co-chief Emily Russo. “It’s entertaining and well done and not a puff piece, which we were afraid it might be.” Barsky, who marks his debut with Koch, also had his eye on Zeitgeist after the company opened the doc Bill Cunningham New York in March 2011. “They’re very different films but there are parallels because they’re New York characters and figure prominent characters in New York. One was fashion and this is political so we hope there will be similar parallels at the box office,” said Russo. Bill Cunningham New York opened in one theater, grossing $33,677 and eventually took in more than $1.51 million at the box office. Barsky, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was able to persuade the charismatic Koch to appear in the film. Additionally, “there’s extensive archival footage and present day appearances,” noted Russo. “There’s a lot of New York that you wouldn’t recognize.”
Zeitgeist expects the film to perform well in the New York area, where it will bow this weekend at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza before heading out to other NYC boroughs and surrounding areas in the metropolitan area. It will open in Los Angeles in select locations and plans are for additional markets in the coming months based on its initial performance. “I think people all over the country are fascinated by NY and Koch has national recognition,” said Russo. “He’s more a recognizable name than Bill Cunningham. People laugh and enjoy it and hopefully that will translate around the country. Exhibitors are exhibitors and they’ll wait to see, but we’re planning on an eventual national release.”