Film media attention is typically dominated by the Awards Hopefuls in the fall, typically meaning those features that distributors are positioning to catch attention from prognosticators to propel them onto the long road to Oscar. Perhaps more importantly, this usually translates into audience dollars along the way. The Toronto International Film Festival is underway, while the New York Film Festival opens at the end of the month — two important launching pads into the busy fall festival lineup and fight for the gold trophies.
Over the last couple of years, there have been a few independent studio stand outs who have wedged their way into the big studio fray. This has been tackled by either co-producing extremely strong projects, or via their ability to acquire the best work at domestic and international fests. Miramax, turned The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight, have historically dominated this space. However, there have recently been a few mighty engines that could.
The first tremendously exciting one is A24 Films, run by David Fenkel and Daniel Katz. Fenkel and Katz met at ThinkFilm, started by Mark Urmann, who helped found Lionsgate. While at Thinkfilm, their “Midas touches” released award champs such as Murderball, Half Nelson and Before The Devil Knows Your Dead. Last year A24 was awarded three Oscars® for Room, ExMachina and Amy, the Amy Winehouse documentary. The studio team felt like it was a surreal dream.
A24’s 2016 releases and upcoming award hopefuls include Director Trey Edward Shults’ family drama, Krisha, which stars Krisha Fairchild. The film takes place in Texas, on Thanksgiving, as secrets and resentments come to the fore, when everyone becomes immersed in an emotionally charged familial reckoning.
The team also released wunderkind Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore effort, follow up to his hugely acclaimed Blue Ruin. The Green Room stars Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart and one of the last performances by the beloved Anton Yelchin. Saulnier returns with a nest of down on their luck punk rockers, The Ain’t Rights, who get an unexpected booking at an isolated, run-down club deep in the backwoods of Oregon. You guessed it, of course it results in a macabre, ultimate life-or-death flesh fight.
A24 had the chutzpah this year to acquire Daniel Radcliff and Paul Dano’s twistedly oddball Swiss Army Man at Sundance. Hilarious, deranged, and always alive, the risk suggests Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie’s. It really feels like a twisted idea of a big studio comedy — or maybe just a psychotic hallucination. It isn’t for everyone, but the story is absurdly original. You might love it or you might hate it, but you won’t forget it — and you will never be able to say you’ve seen another movie like Swiss Army Man.
The studio’s year end award bait is Moonlight, which debuted to accolades at this September’s Toronto International Film Festival. Moonlight is a tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, and the beauty of falling in love, while struggling with his own sexuality. Director Barry Jenkin’s movie stars Mahershala Aliand and Shariff Earp. Excited to see what the world thinks of this one.
Other A24 releases this year worth mentioning are: The Lobster, The Witch, DePalma, Equals, Into The Forest and Morris From America, with Craig Robinson of The Office and Mr. Robot.
Another indie stalwart features Bleeker Street Films, named after the iconic street in NYC. Andrew Karpen, the longtime co-CEO of Focus Features, created the new, New York-based distribution company that has backing from 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava. At Focus, Karpen was responsible for Dallas Buyers Club, which garnered a Best Actor Oscar for Matthew McConaughey.
Bleeker Street’s 2015 and 2016 releases included such emeralds as Trumbo, Pawn Sacrifice, Al Pacino as Danny Collins, and the theatrical release of Netflix’s immensely powerful Beasts of No Nation.
This year they released Anthropoid, based on the WWII mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution and the Reich’s third in command after Hitler and Himmler. They also distributed the extremely successful and timely Helen Mirren movie Eye in the Sky, which deals with the sore subject of murderous drones.
Bleeker Street’s Oscar® campaigns should include Director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic and Paterson, the new one from indie pioneer Jim Jarmusch. Captain Fantastic stars Vigo Mortensen and Frank Langella who square off wrestling with the virtues of off-the- grid home schooling versus learning how to cope in a conventional material world. Seeing this will definitely spark a thoughtful discussion.
Always a must-see, director Jarmush casted Adam Driver in his tale about a bus driver poet, set in the present, in movie namesake Paterson, in New Jersey. The studio is holding this gift very close to the vest at time of publishing with intentions of a magnificent announcement to film fans everywhere.
The third independent studio champion is Roadside Attractions, which is run by industry Co-Presidents Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff’, who manage the brand as a boutique subsidiary of Lionsgate. Their recent stand outs include Dear White People, Love and Mercy, Mr. Holmes, My Name Is Doris, and Tom Hanks’ A Hologram for the King.
Their two 2016 award heavyweights include Manchester By The Sea and Indignation. The latter is directed by former studio head James Schamus who also ran Focus Features and Good Machine for Universal. Shamus has written and produced: Brokeback Mountain, Taking Woodstock, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Ice Storm. James has also been a close, longtime partner and collaborator of Ang Lee’s.
Indignation stars Logan Lerman, and Sarah Gadon and is based on Philip Roth’s popular novel of the same name. As with many of Roth’s powerful stories, this one is about a working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, the writer’s home town. Lerman’s character travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, which exempts him from being drafted into the Korean War. Shamus does an extraordinary job with his directorial.
The last one of Roadside’s and one that is certain to be one of the absolute best pictures of the year is Manchester By The Sea. This one is writer, director, playwright, Kenneth Lonnergan’s triumphant return to the screen. His last picture was 2011’s Margaret, and prior to that he wrote, Gangs of New York, Analyze That, and directed all time indie favorite, You Can Count on Me, which helped launch the careers of Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney.
New England faithful Matt Damon is one of the producers and the film is set in the namesake town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. The stellar cast includes: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Josh Hamilton, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol, and Baryshnikov’s daughter, Anna. The movie was acquired by Netflix and is being distributed theatrically by Roadside.
Lonnergan conducts a master class in writing and directing. The movie struggles with death, and sole guardianship, intertwined amongst a complex family, all born and raised in this stunning masterpiece.
Of course, all of the above will have to contend with other indie faves: La La Land, Hell or High Water, Little Men, Don’t Think Twice, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, for the independent crowns of 2016.