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‘Bitter Harvest’, ‘My Life As A Zucchini’ & ‘Dying Laughing’ Offer Oscar Weekend Alternatives – Specialty B.O. Preview

Deadline logo Deadline 2/24/2017 Brian Brooks
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Roadside Attractions is looking to take advantage of an Oscar-overloaded audience with its war drama Bitter Harvest, starring Max Irons and Samantha Barks. The company has tapped Ukrainian-Americans for the title’s opening weekend in three dozen markets. Gkids on Friday opens its Swiss-French animated film My Life As A Zucchini, which is up for an Animated Feature Oscar this Sunday, while Gravitas Ventures digs into comedy with documentary Dying Laughing by Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, opening day-and-date today.

Well Go USA’s comedy Punching Henry with J.K. Simmons also is among the weekend’s limited-release debuts. Simmons is also a voice in Lionsgate/Summit Premiere’s family animation title Rock Dog, featuring the voices of Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard and Lewis Black. Other Specialty openers include XLrator Media’s Drifter and Year By The Sea from Real Women.

Bitter Harvest

Director-writer: George Mendeluk

Writer: Richard Bachynsky Hoover

Cast: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan, Terence Stamp

Distributor: Roadside Attractions

The producers of war drama-romance Bitter Harvest gave Roadside Attractions a look at the film last spring, and by late summer, the company announced its acquisition. Roadside was drawn to the title which reveals a Stalin-era tragedy that is little known outside the Ukraine.

Bitter Harvest is based on an overlooked 20th century tragedy seen through the eyes of two young lovers caught in the ravages of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policies against the Ukraine in the 1930s. As Stalin advances the ambitions of the burgeoning Soviet Union, a young artist named Yuri (Max Irons) battles to survive famine, imprisonment and torture to save his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) from the “Holodomor,” the death-by-starvation program which ultimately killed millions of Ukrainians. Against this tragic backdrop, Yuri escapes from a Soviet prison and joins the anti-Bolshevik resistance movement as he battles to reunite with Natalka and continue the fight for a free Ukraine.

“I think what interested us is that it’s a story that’s never really been told,” said Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. “It’s a significant budgeted movie. It looks really beautiful and we’re impressed that it had been made as an independent movie. It’s an important topic and relevant right now since the [turmoil] between Russia and the Ukraine continues to be in the news.”

Roadside is working with an agency based out of Washington to tap the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. The company has screened Bitter Harvest to various prominent groups in the community, hoping to tap word of mouth for this weekend’s release, which will primarily target locations where Ukrainian-Americans live.

Cohen noted that Roadside opened war drama ’71 by Yann Demange on Oscar weekend in 2015 with success and is using that template for Bitter Harvest’s roll-out. “It was successful. It wasn’t huge, but we were happy with our choice to open ’71 that weekend,” said Cohen. “Others choose not to open their movies on Oscar weekend, so we’re taking advantage of that. The Oscar-nominated movies are still in theaters, but many are going into their third month. This gets something new in theaters for the art house audience that’s ready for something new.”

Roadside Attractions is opening Bitter Harvest in 127 theaters in 36 markets this weekend.

My Life as a Zucchini

Director-writer: Claude Barras

Writers: Gilles Paris (novel), Céline Sciamma, Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro

Voices: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz, Raul Ribera, Lou Wick

Distributor: Gkids

Swiss-French stop-motion animated feature My Life As a Zucchini is likely the last of this year’s Oscar nominees to open ahead of the Academy Awards on Sunday. Distributor Gkids caught the film last year in Cannes where it premiered at Directors Fortnight and saw it as a good fit. “We felt it was right up our alley with the types of storytelling the film embodies,” said Gkids’ Dave Jesteadt. “There is a high level of craft and the script is great. It challenges the types of stories that animated films tell.”

The feature centers on Zucchini, who following the death of his mother is befriended by police officer Raymond. The officer accompanies him to his new foster home, filled with other orphans his age. At first he struggles to find his place in this at times strange and hostile environment. But with Raymond’s help and his newfound friends, Zucchini eventually learns to trust and love, as he searches for a new family of his own.

“Some people are taken aback by the fact that it takes place in an orphanage, but [the setting] is used as a launchpad to tell a really moving story,” said Jesteadt. “It’s maybe darker than some people are used to, but it is still great for families. There is a lot of depth.”

Following Cannes, My Life as a Zucchini played the Annecy International Animation Festival in France, an event, not surprisingly, is popular with veteran animators. The company was curious to see how others in the profession would take to the title, and were ultimately pleased with the result, which would foretell more awards potential. Gkids announced its acquisition of the title ahead of its next showing in Toronto.

“It won two awards [at Annecy] and then it played Toronto,” said Jesteadt. “[We then] premiered a new English-language version at the Sundance Film Festival and the reaction was really great. There was a good mix of young families and older art house viewers that were drawn by its festival pedigree. The responses were broad and that informed our theatrical strategy.”

Gkids opened up its French 2014 Oscar-nominated animation pic Ernest & Celestine (domestic gross around $300K according to Gkids) Academy Awards weekend that year and decided to do the same with My Life as a Zucchini. Added Jesteadt: “It got a lot of exposure because of the Oscars, so we’re expecting [similarly here].”

Gkids will open My Life as a Zucchini at the Sunshine in New York and the Nuart in Los Angeles Friday. The film’s director and producer will be in L.A. for the Oscars and will attend screenings at the Nuart. The title will platform out March 3 followed by additional markets around the country through March and into April.

Dying Laughing

Directors: Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood

Subjects: Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Bob Saget, Jamie Foxx, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Lewis, Steve Coogan, Bobby Lee, Garry Shandling

Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Filmmakers Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood have teamed to work on projects that spotlight various creatives. They produced 2012 doc Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, directed 2012 doc 30 Years of Comic Strip and television series, The Great Songwriters. “We were looking for a similarly under-appreciated art form and were fascinated by stand-up comedians,” said Toogood. “When they are great, they give an extraordinary look at the human condition and we wanted to shine a light on this group of performers.”

Dying Laughing is a candid look inside the agony and ecstasy of making people laugh for a living. A stand-up comedian must be the writer, the director, and the star performer. There is no rehearsal, no practice, and no safety net when in front of a live audience. For most people, baring their soul on stage and having an audience boo would become a life-long trauma, but for stand-up comedians, it’s a nightly possibility. The documentary contains original interviews interlaced with personal footage of life on the road from a comedian’s point of view.

“These big-range projects take some time to put together,” said Toogood. “We first wrote to some of our favorite [comedians], talked to people who wanted to be involved and tapped friends to come on board and introduce us. We also sent out clips of some of the other things we’ve done.”

Toogood and Stanton raised financing independently in the U.K. for the project starting at the end of 2013. During that process and heading into 2014, the filmmaking duo traveled back and forth between the U.K. and Los Angeles filming various subjects. From that, they’d get footage from some comedians and show it to others hoping to recruit them for an interview.

“We kept shooting off and on. Kevin Hart told us, [for example] that he had some time off, so we’d go there to film,” said Stanton. “Gradually, you grind everyone down when they realize you’re not going away.” Hart took part in the project after Bill Connolly joined and because “he’s a fan,” added Stanton.

It was important to Toogood and Stanton to make Dying Laughing from the point of view of the comedians. They drove around the U.S. to comedy shows and to “get a feel for their lifestyle.”

“There’s humor in it, but it is a very serious look at comedy,” said Toogood. “It can be grueling, but they’re not complaining despite the contestant travel across the country and around the world.”

Filming took place over two years with 130 people, averaging about an hour per person. The filmmakers decided not to include archival stand-up footage in the movie, opting to let their subjects “express what it feels like to do their work.” Toogood and Stanton do have plans, however, for the extras.

“We have a lot of footage so we’re turning it into a ten-part television series,” said Stanton. “The series will include more people not seen in [the movie] and will include stand-up.”

Dying Laughing debuted in the U.S. at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Gravitas Ventures picked up the title out of the festival. The feature will open in 13 markets day and date along with on-demand platforms. Added Stanton: “The film is dedicated to the great Garry Shandling and is being released [to benefit] his favorite charity for Cystic Fibrosis where proceeds from the film will go to.”

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