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Cinema Chat: Sundance Film Festival, 'The Lobster,' 'The Big Short,' 'The Finest Hours,' And More

Jan 28, 2016

Michigan Theater Upstairs Lobby
Credit Michigan Theater / michtheater.org

Michigan Theater Executive Director Russ Collins is back from the Sundance Film Festival!  In this week's installment of "Cinema Chat," he talked about his time at the festival, plus other movies opening at in theaters this weekend with WEMU's David Fair.


Sundance Film Festival Deals (and How They Paid Off)

Most buzzy titles at the Sundance Film Festival these days sell to distributors between $1 million and $3 million, but some movies buck the average entirely and igniting fierce bidding.

"The Birth of a Nation" (2016)

The Big Deal: $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight

What's the Big Deal?  Fox Searchlight has made history at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by picking up Nate Parker's acclaimed slave revolt drama for an earth-shattering $17.5 million, the biggest deal in Sundance history.  The distributor is notorious for throwing down big money for the buzziest Sundance titles (see "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Way, Way Back" below), but this gargantuan deal is the most they've ever paid for a Sundance movie. It's a deal that rivals the highest international festival deals of all time ($20 million for Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals" and Denis Villeneuve's "Story of Your Life" at Cannes in 2015 and 2014, respectively).  Searchlight is surely hoping "Nation" will follow in the footsteps of their other successful slave drama "12 Years a Slave," which rode acclaim and Oscar wins to the tune of $188 million globally.

According to insiders, Parker’s deep connection to the material and his willingness to go door-to-door to promote the picture were major reasons that “The Birth of a Nation” landed the biggest deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival: a $17.5 million payday from Fox Searchlight for global rights.

Parker’s story, and his multi-hyphenate status (writer-director-star), is expected to be a key component in the marketing outreach of the film.  With the possible exception of Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” or Warren Beatty in “Reds,” few have managed to successfully write, direct, produce, star in a film as Parker did with “The Birth of a Nation" (There are always the counter-examples: see what happened to Angelina Jolie on “By the Sea.”).  Details about the film’s rollout have yet to be discussed, but Parker has envisioned holding Q&A’s and discussions across the country, where he’ll tie the themes of the movie with the current nationwide dialogue about race.

"Manchester by the Sea" 

The Big Deal: $10 million from Amazon Studios

What's the Big Deal?  Kenneth Lonergan's third feature made a splash over the first weekend of this year's festival, earning some major premature Oscar buzz and near-unanimous critical praise.  In what has become an increasingly common trend, Amazon Studios stepped in to acquire worldwide streaming rights to the film for a lofty $10 million, making it one of the top Sundance purchases of all time.  A big-time awards-friendly distributor is bound to join Amazon to release the film theatrically in the fall (similar to how the company partnered with Roadside Attractions for "Chi-Raq" last December), but "Manchester" boasts slow-burn drama and weighty themes that are sure to make it a tough mainstream sell.  Lonergan has never been the most commercial filmmaker, and even though his new film deals with a recognizable story thread — a downtrodden janitor heads back home to look after his deceased brother's son — the emotional drama will need to put in some serious work to make its $10 million worth it. Moving forward, it's all eyes on "Manchester."

Sundance: Netflix Strikes Again, Picking Up "Audrie & Daisy"

Netflix has struck again, landing teen assault documentary “Audrie & Daisy” out of the Sundance Film Festival.  The film will premiere globally in 2016. Netflix has been very active at this year’s Sundance, snapping up streaming rights to “Tallulah” with Ellen Page, “The Fundamentals of Caring” with Paul Rudd and the Farsi horror film “Under the Shadow.”  Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (“The Island President”), “Audrie & Daisy” charts the parallel stories of two teenage girls who are sexually assaulted by boys they thought were friends.  They both attempt suicide after being subjected to online harassment and school bullying.  The film is critical of a legal system that it claims does not extend enough rights to abuse victims.  “Audrie & Daisy” is an AfterImage Public Media production, in association with Impact Partners and Actual Films. UTA Independent Film Group represented Impact Partners and the filmmakers.

Direct From Sundance 

"The Lobster"

Over the last decade the Michigan Theater has developed a close relationship with the Sundance Film Festival.  Because of that relationship, the Michigan Theater will host a very special screening of “The Lobster,” starring Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz.  This one-night-only screening, next Thursday, February 4 at 8 PM, is the Midwest premiere of this absurdist comedy, set in the near future when every adult must be part of a couple.  Recently dumped by his wife, David (Farrell) is assigned to a countryside “hotel” where he must find a suitable mate or be turned into the animal of his choice (part of the absurdist nature of this movie).  David attends group meetings and mixers designed by staff to foster compatible pairings.  David’s search ultimately leads him to escape from the “hotel” to join a group of militant outcasts who live in the woods, free but hunted and living under their own set of quirky “rules.”  “The Lobster” exudes a Monty Python-like humor Ann Arbor audiences enjoy, and is played by an expert cast for maximum fun.  “The Lobster” won the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and is a hit right now at Sundance – and the Michigan Theater will bring Sundance to you, right here in Ann Arbor!  Don’t miss it!

Sundance Shorts

Showcasing a variety of stories and styles, the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour is a theatrical program of six short films that won awards at last year’s Festival, which over the course of its more than 30-year history has been widely considered the premier showcase for short films and the launch pad for many now-prominent independent filmmakers.  Including fiction, documentary and animation from around the world, the distinct 2015 program traverses vibrant styles from wild comedy to quiet poetry.  The 2015 Sundance Shorts program plays Tuesday, February 2 and Wednesday, February 3 at the Michigan.

Opening Downtown

See all the Oscar nominees for Best Animated, Live Action, and Documentary Shorts before the 88th Academy Awards ceremony on February 28!  Oscar-nominated shorts play at the Michigan Theater starting Friday, January 29.  Check the Michigan Theater website for times and complete details.

"The Big Short"

When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to recognize - the global collapse of the economy - they had an idea: “The Big Short."  Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything.  By the time the market finally crashes in 2008, these contrarian investors will make billions, yet will be forever changed by their experience.  Based on the true story and nominated for five Academy Awards, “The Big Short” stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt and opens Friday at the State.

Special Screenings Downtown

"How to Steal a Dog"

A young girl’s father goes bankrupt and the family loses their house.  One day, the girl sees a flyer offering a reward of $500 for a missing dog.  The young girl then sets out to “borrow” dogs from wealthy families to obtain reward money.  “How to Steal a Dog” plays Saturday at 2 PM at the Michigan as part of the Korean Cinema Now film series.

"Much Ado About Nothing"

Director Joss Whedon’s adaptation is a stylized melding of classic language and a modern setting.  “Much Ado About Nothing” kicks off the Michigan’s latest film series, “The Bard: Film Adaptations of the Works of William Shakespeare” on Monday, February 1 at 7 PM at the Michigan.

"Lone Wolf and Cub:  Sword of Vengeance"

The story of a samurai who embarks on restoring honor to his name after being framed for disloyalty to the Shogunate, all while caring for a small child.  “Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance” plays Wednesday, February 3 at 7 PM at the State as part of the CineManga Film Series.

Opening at the Multiplex

"Kung Fu Panda 3"

When Po's long-lost father suddenly reappears, the reunited duo travels to a secret panda paradise to meet scores of hilarious relatives.  But when the supernatural villain Kai begins to sweep across China defeating all the kung fu masters, Po must do the impossible:  learn to train a village full of his brethren to become the ultimate band of Kung Fu Pandas!  “Kung Fu Panda 3” opens Friday.

"The Finest Hours"

The film details a daring 1952 Coast Guard rescue off the New England seaboard.  Starring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, and Eric Bana, “The Finest Hours” opens Friday.

"Jane Got a Gun"

With help from her ex-fiancé (Joel Edgerton), a woman (Natalie Portman) must defend her family from a vengeful outlaw (Ewan McGregor) and his gang of killers in the Old West.  “Jane Got a Gun” opens Friday.

"Fifty Shades of Black"

The latest spoof from the Wayans Brothers, it parodies the ultra-popular book/film series, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”  “Fifty Shades of Black” opens Friday.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu