Arthouse Distributors Fret At Slow Return Of “55+ Crowd”; ‘The Lost Leonardo,’ Pablo Larrain’s ‘Ema’ Debut – Specialty Preview

Documentaries about a da Vinci and a dictator, a Pablo Larraín drama with Gael Garcia Bernal, a Donnie Yen martial arts thriller by the late Benny Chan, and CODA, Apple’s record-busting Sundance acquisition, make specialty bows this weekend as the arthouse sector fights through a slow reopening.

“The market is still finding a balance right now,” said Kyle Westphal, theatrical sales manager for Music Box Films (and programming associate for Chicago’s Music Box Theatre). The distributor deubts Larraín’s Ema in 11 theaters in nine markets with plans expand thereafter — to maybe another 20, but it’s hard to say. “The normal [criteria] like what’s your opening per screen average right now, those are all upside down,” Westphal tells Deadline.

Recent bright spots — Anthony Bourdain doc Roadrunner (Focus Films) and The Green Knight (A24) “doing as well as it has over the past few weeks,” he says. Hopefully “exhibitors look at that and see that there is still considerable value and audience interest in specialty films.”

“But the shape of that audience is not there yet. It is not the audience we had pre-pandemic. Older audiences appear to be more reluctant to return to theaters than younger,” Westphal said. He called Ema – which Music Box acquired at TIFF 2019, meant to release last year but held until now for theaters — “a younger skewing, sexy film with a reggaeton beat.”

“They idea was that the 55 would be the first back. But it really hasn’t happened like that. Because even though they were the first to be vaccinated, they are the most careful and the most at risk,” agreed Neal Block, head of Distribution & Marketing, Magnolia Pictures (with two in theaters this weekend, The East and Swan Song). The highly contagious Delta Variant has surely not helped.

In Ema, adoptive parents Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gastón (Bernal) are artistic free spirits in an experimental dance troupe whose lives are thrown into chaos when their son Polo is involved in a shockingly violent incident.

Ema trailer:

Arriving Stateside as it nears the $100 million mark in China, is Raging Fire, directed by the late Benny Chan with martial arts action star Donnie Yen (MulanIp Man franchise) and Nicholas Tse (ShaolinNew Police Story). Yen is a principled cop, Shan, who’s protective of his pregnant wife. When his domestic idyll is shattered by corrupt colleagues more interested in cash from criminals than the law, bodies pile up. Tse plays Ngo, Shan’s former protégé with a grudge.

Well Go USA Films is opening the film in 59 theaters. It will play as the New York Asian Film Festival centerpiece film selection Monday night.

Raging Fire trailer:

Magnolia Pictures has two films out this weekend showcasing the strategic complexity of pandemic releasing. Jim Taihuttu’s straightforward war drama The East opens in Los Angeles, basically prepping it for PVOD, which has been highly lucrative for genre films during Covid.

Set during the post-WW2 Indonesian War of Independence, a young Dutch soldier joins an elite unit led by a mysterious captain known only as “The Turk.” As fighting intensifies, he questions and ultimately challenging his commander’s brutal strategy to crush the resistance.

The distrib’s Swan Song expands some to 45 theaters (from 35) and goes virtual in week 2. The SXSW pickup is written and directed by Todd Stephens. With Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, Stephanie McVay. Produced Stephens, Eric Eisenbrey, Tim Kaltenecker, Stephen Israel.

Kier stars as retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger, who escapes the confines of his small-town Sandusky, Ohio nursing home after learning of his former client’s dying wish for him to style her final hairdo.

It had a solid debut. “But in a normal landscape it would have been a breakout indie hit. We hope those wider audiences will watch at home,” said Block.

Trailer, Swan Song

Sony Pictures Classics bows The Lost Leonardo in New York and LA to be followed by a national release. Directed by Andreas Koefoed (At Home in the World, Ballroom Dancer), the film — the inside story behind the Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold at $450 million — premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. It follows the presumed long-lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci from purchase at a shady New Orleans auction house, to the masterful brushstrokes revealed beneath a cheap restoration. and how its fate ha been driven by a quest for fame, money and power.

IFC debuts The Meaning of Hitler in 17 theaters and on demand. The latest documentary from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein (Gunner Palace, Karl Marx City) explores our culture’s fascination with Hitler and Nazism, set against the backdrop of the current rise of white supremacy, the normalization of antisemitism and the weaponization of history. It traces Hitler’s rise to power and crimes with historians and writers including Martin Amis, Deborah Lipstadt, Saul Friedlander, Francine Prose, Yehuda Bauer and famed Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld.

And CODA is being released in 40 theaters in the top 20 markets and on Apple TV today. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner was acquired by Apple for a record $25 million.

Written and directed by Siân Heder with Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Amy Forsyth and Kevin Chapman. Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, Patrick Wachsberger, Jérôme Seydoux.

The film follow seventeen-year-old Ruby (Jones), the sole hearing member of a deaf family (CODA stands for ‘child of deaf adults’). Her life revolves around interpreting for her parents (Matlin and Kotsur) and working on the family’s struggling fishing boat before school. When she discovers a passion for singing and is urged by her choir teacher to apply to music school, she finds herself torn between family obligation and pursuing her dreams.

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