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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Fox Searchlight

'Martha Marcy May Marlene': Sean Durkin on creating Martha [video]

October 19, 2011 |  6:00 am

Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene
In this clip from the Envelope Screening Series Q&A for "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the film's writer-director, Sean Durkin, and breakout star Elizabeth Olsen discuss how together they created the enigmatic puzzle of the film's lead character.

The mouthful of a title comes from the three names Olsen's character goes by in the film (Martha, Marcy May and Marlene), creating a head-spinning confusion for her own sense of self, as once she breaks away from the cult she had fallen in with she struggles to rediscover who she really is inside. The film's buzzing, jangling power comes in no small part from Durkin and Olsen's ability to put the viewer right inside the young woman's head, making her interior struggles understood often without words. 

 

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-- Mark Olsen

twitter.com/indiefocus

Photo:  Elizabeth Olsen, left, and Sarah Paulson in a scene from "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

Credit: Associated Press


'Martha Marcy May Marlene': Elizabeth Olsen on role prep [Video]

October 17, 2011 | 12:57 pm

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause and Christopher Abbott appear in "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
This year's Envelope Screening Series kicked off Friday night with a showing of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" followed by a Q&A with the film's writer-director, Sean Durkin, and three of its stars, Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes. One of the breakout hits to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the film has since accomplished the rare feat of also screening at the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals.

The film covers the initiation and aftermath of a young woman (Olsen) being inducted into and escaping from a small, back-to-nature cult (though that word is never used) overseen by a darkly charismatic leader (Hawkes). Once she makes her getaway, the woman lands with her long-estranged sister (Paulson), who has no idea what her sibling has been through.

Powerfully quiet and disconcerting for its nerve-jangling sense of unease, the film purposefully leaves viewers with questions as to just what has happened to the girl -- how and why did she end up there in the first place -- as well as whether she is now, or will ever be, truly free of her torments. In the clip below, Olsen and Paulson talk about how they grappled with the delicacies of crafting performances that would allow open spaces for viewers' own interpretations.

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Sundance 2011: "Martha Marcy May Marlene" breaks out -- and faces some obstacles 

-- Mark Olsen
Twitter.com/indiefocus

Photo: From left, John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause and Christopher Abbott in a scene from "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures


'Margaret' growing on critics, but will audiences find it?

October 10, 2011 |  1:43 pm

Margaret - Matt Damon, Anna Paquin

The film "Margaret" opened two weekends ago in Los Angeles and New York with little advertising or fanfare. Shot in 2005 and embroiled in a years-long post-production mess of conflicting cuts and legal imbroglios, the film became something of a mythic creature, with many wondering whether it would ever come out. So, its quiet release didn't seem that distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures was dumping the film so much as just trying to get it over with.

Written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan as a follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature, "You Can Count on Me," "Margaret" was met with tepid reviews from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter that mostly portrayed the film as a muddled victim of its backstage dramas. The film's fate seemed sealed. Except more people started seeing "Margaret." And they can't seem to stop talking about it.

In part because of its expansive ambitions, the film is a conversation piece as much as a self-contained work. Somehow at once novelistic and operatic, it is as much about the personal growth of one specific New York City teenager as it is an essay on the city's post-9/11 hangover of grief, uncertainty and self-examination.

Having witnessed (and in small part causing) a fatal bus accident, high school student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin, looking softer and younger than she now does on TV's "True Blood") struggles with reconciling her feelings of responsibility with somehow making things right, whatever that may mean, and in turn moving forward. The film's supporting cast includes the impressive roster of Matt Damon, J. Smith-Cameron, Allison Janney, Keiran Culkin, Jean Reno, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Rosemarie DeWitt and Matthew Broderick. Olivia Thirlby and Krysten Ritter, relative unknowns at the time, pass by in small roles. There is no character named Margaret.

Dealing with big themes and big emotions and with a running time of 2½ hours, there is something overwhelming about "Margaret," which has made it tantalizing fodder for movie folks on Twitter, where people often love to champion an underdog or proclaim their passion for films being overlooked and underseen. As "Margaret" expanded in its second weekend to cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, and more people have been catching up with and talking about the film even in N.Y. and L.A., writers such as Wesley Morris, Carrie Rickey, Ben Kenigsberg, Karina Longworth, Alison Willmore, Matt Singer, Mike D'Angelo, Vadim Rizov, Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody (as well as myself) have all taken to voicing support for the film either through reviews or on Twitter. There is no small undercurrent of simply trying to encourage awareness of the film, hoping audiences know it's out there before it's gone from theaters.

In a post at Yahoo's The Projector blog, Will Leitch did the math to surmise that the film was seen by only 624 people in its first weekend. The film expanded to 14 cities this past weekend, and its box office went up by 70%, for a per-screen average of around $900 and a new total nearing $25,000.

In Los Angeles, the film opened at the Landmark, one of the city's top-grossing theaters; for its second week, it moved over to the second-run Culver Plaza. (Even getting that second week at all could be considered a victory for the film.) Audiences that want the chance to join in the conversation and see for themselves what has critics a-Twitter had better try to find the time to meet "Margaret" before the last show on Thursday. 

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-- Mark Olsen

twitter.com/indiefocus

Photo of Matt Damon and Anna Paquin from "Margaret." Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures


'Shame' finds U.S. buyer, to hit theaters in 2011

September 9, 2011 |  4:51 pm

Michael_fassbender_carey_mulligan_in_Shame
"Shame," the provocative and kinky film starring Michael Fassbender as a thirtysomething New York man obsessed with impersonal gratification, will be coming to U.S. theaters before the year's end, having found a distributor Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival: Fox Searchlight.

 "Shame,” which world premiered last week at the Venice Film Festival and also played at the small Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last weekend, is directed by Steve McQueen and also stars Carey Mulligan. It was seen as one of the hottest titles up for grabs in Toronto -- albeit also one that poses serious marketing challenges.

“Steve McQueen’s courageous exploration of modern life’s extremes is breathtaking,"  Fox Searchlight Co-presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula said in a statement announcing the deal.  "He has crafted an extraordinary film that probes some of the deepest and darkest issues ever portrayed on screen with amazingly gifted performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.”

Fox Searchlight began talks with producers after seeing the film in Telluride and apparently won them over with their plans for how to market the film, which seems certain to get an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. That can pose a marketing challenge, as some theaters refuse to play such films and some publications frown on advertising for films with that rating.

"Their approach to marketing and distributing the film this year was incredibly detailed and impressive. We are excited to be working with them on a film that is sparking debate and a strong emotional reaction from audiences,” producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman said in a statement.

Searchlight, though, does have a track record in marketing difficult and unusual fare, including last year's ballet-horror film "Black Swan," which went on to five Oscar nominations and grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. alone.

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-- Julie Makinen in Toronto

  Photo: Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in "Shame." Credit: Toronto International Film Festival.


Sundance 2011: 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' breaks out -- and faces some obstacles

January 26, 2011 |  7:02 pm

Mart
By almost any yardstick, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is one of the hits of the Sundance FIlm Festival. It's gotten strong reviews from critics and has been talked about feverishly by filmgoers, boosting the stock of its director and two leads, including newly anointed Sundance It girl Elizabeth Olsen (yes, sister of those Olsens). Fox Searchlight thinks it's the syrup on the pancake too: It made a quick move and acquired rights to the movie before the festival's first weekend was even over.

That's good news for anyone who wants to see the film outside of Park City, Utah. But there's a big question looming for the studio: Just how do you market something like "Martha Marcy May Marlene?"

In case you're just tuning in, T. Sean Durkin's first feature tells the story of Martha (Olsen), a bruised twentysomething who early in the film escapes a commune-cum-cult. She takes shelter with her married yuppie sister, from whom she had been estranged. Durkin's script teases out details of Martha's horrific past very slowly, while simultaneously showing her (largely futile) attempt to escape that past, at least psychologically, in her new quarters.

Nearly every choice Durkin makes seems driven by artistry instead of commerciality -- in subject matter, tone, pacing and a highly ambiguous ending. Even the tongue-twisting title doesn't scream get-thee-to-the-multiplex (we have a feeling that title could change by the time the movie reaches theaters). In a post-screening question-and-answer session, Durkin said that one of his guiding principles in shaping the movie was that he "didn't want to give too much information."

All this makes for a cinephile's dream -- and a marketer's, well, something else.

There are ways to sell difficult dramas, of course, especially when you have an attractive up-and-coming female star. Roadside Attractions, the distributor behind last year's Sundance hit "Winter's Bone," pulled it off for Jennifer Lawrence, peddling that dark Ozark tale as an opportunity for us to get a first look at a major new talent. One can imagine Searchlight doing the same here with Olsen, who flashes chops her famous twin sisters could only (but probably don't) dream of.

Searchlight could take the topical route, getting news-page publicity out of the movie's abused-victim angle. But that would make "Martha Marcy May Marlene" sound like Brussels sprouts instead of the narrative puzzle that it is. (A spokeswoman for Searchlight declined to comment on marketing plans.)

Searchlight is known for rolling out its movies very slowly, spending little on advertising and letting word-of-mouth build. That approach worked wonders last year for "Black Swan," but it didn't fare well for "Never Let Me Go," a piece of melancholia with attractive young stars.

It's bold for a conglomerate-owned studio to take a gamble on a movie like "Martha Marcy." The trick now is how to make it pay off.

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene.' Credit: Sundance Film Festival


Sundance 2011: Ed Helms says don't expect a 'Hangover 3'

January 26, 2011 |  4:19 pm

HelmsIn just a few weeks, Ed Helms will attempt to make the jump from television personality to bona fide movie star in “Cedar Rapids,” a  Fox Searchlight comedy that marks his debut as a leading man.

Helms, who was first seen on TV for five years on “The Daily Show” and now is part of the ensemble cast of “The Office,” has been in films before –- most memorably as a guy who cowers before his girlfriend in “The Hangover.” But “Cedar Rapids” presents a new set of challenges for the actor, who is known mostly for playing the nice-guy sidekick.

This week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Helms sat in a faux insurance office that  Searchlight had set up on Main Street to replicate the building seen in the movie.  Seeming almost as polite and earnest as his character in the movie, the wide-eyed Tim Lippe, Helms insisted he wasn’t worrying about the TV-to-film transition.

“Well, um, I don’t know what is ahead. But as long as I’m excited about what I’m working on, I’m not gonna get too hung up on the format,” the 37-year-old said. “ 'The Office' is in this really exciting transitional phase — it’s kind of awesome.”

The actor was referring, of course, to Steve Carell’s imminent departure from the sitcom. Carell is still filming his final episodes, and Helms on Sunday swore he has yet to discover who will be stepping into the show’s boss role. However, on Wednesday, it was reported that Will Ferrell will help ease the changeover, appearing on the show for four episodes.

Still, Helms was unsure of how the show will “find equilibrium in the long run. Like, who will be the boss? That question has, I think, 100 answers that will probably get explored. It’s basically like one of the biggest story lines in the history of the show, so it will get milked out over a long period of time and there won’t be, like, an easy, simple answer. But there will be a lot of us vying for the position.”

Helms is also a part of another project that many are anticipating: “Hangover Part II,” due out in May. Those hoping “The Hangover” sequel evolves into a full-blown franchise may be disappointed, the actor said, as he believes the second film will be the last in the comedy series.

“I doubt it,” he said, when asked if there would be a third installment. “I don’t think Todd [Phillips, the director] would let that happen.... I would hope that ‘The Hangover’ kind of has a dignified legacy, if that makes any sense.”

Look for more with Helms in the coming weeks.

-- Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah

Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: Ed Helms poses with a cutout of himself in Park City. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times.

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Sundance 2011: Paul Giamatti and a newcomer hit the red carpet for 'Win Win'

January 22, 2011 | 10:45 am

Elizabeth Olsen may be the Sundance 'It' girl this year, but there are plenty of other fresh faces at the film festival who have been received well by moviegoers in Park City, Utah, this week.

Alex Shaffer, the 17-year-old who stars alongside Paul Giamatti in Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," took a break from his junior year at Hunterdon Central High in New Jersey to fly to Sundance. In the film, set for release in March by Fox Searchlight, Shaffer plays a teenager from a broken home who is taken in by a wrestling coach (Giamatti) and his family. In real life, Shaffer is a New Jersey state wrestling champion who was cast despite his lack of acting experience. (Before "Win Win," the only time he'd acted was in a sixth-grade production of "The Pirates of Penzance.")

"Tom had an article in the newspaper for all wrestlers around the area to audition for this movie," Shaffer told us at the film's premiere Friday. "I really wasn't that into the whole movie thing. I really wasn't that excited about it or into it or anything. Over time, like now, I love it."

It appeared the crowd at the Eccles Theater took to Shaffer. Standing on stage with the rest of the cast during a question-and-answer session after the screening, he received the most applause from the audience when McCarthy introduced him.

Later that evening, at the party to celebrate the film's release at a local saloon, Shaffer stood in a corner, non-alcoholic drink in hand, talking to his publicist.

"This is a really good indicator," she told him, referring to the audience's positive reaction. "They loved you. You're going to do well."

While Shaffer took in his new surroundings, co-star Giamatti seemed at ease, smiling as partygoers including Ed Helms back-slapped him and offered congratulations on his recent Golden Globe win for "Barney's Version."

"How am I coping? I don't know. I'm doing OK," he said, when we asked him on the red carpet about his whirlwind of a week. "It's all good. It's a nice thing. It's all positive. So I'm just having a good time."

His calm demeanor is thanks in part, he said, to one Sundance tip he's discovered on his trips to Utah over the years.

"I stay off Main Street, is what I do," he said. "Because it gets so crazy on there. So I just stick to the side streets. That's what I figured out."

-- Amy Kaufman

Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

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Fox Searchlight celebrates those who survive '127 Hours'

December 15, 2010 |  4:40 pm

Fox Searchlight isn’t growing lightheaded from all the fainting spells its “127 Hours” is generating. Instead, the studio has decided to have fun with how difficult some moviegoers find watching director and co-writer Danny Boyle’s account of how Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) amputated his own arm following a Utah hiking accident.

1 On Thursday, the studio will launch the website www.ikeptmyeyesopenfor127hours.com. Fox Searchlight also is sending out promotional T-shirts with the website’s logo and is distributing free pins carrying the same message in about 200 theaters showing “127 Hours” this weekend.

Among the contenders for the best picture Academy Award, “127 Hours” has sparked visceral reactions at its earliest screenings, with a number of people people keeling at its initial screenings at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.

Although the movie has drawn steady box-office business, with a cumulative gross of $8.5 million through six weeks of release, "127 Hours" is running about 50% behind the pace of “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle’s last, Oscar-sweeping effort.

It's unclear how much the amputation scene -- which somehow feels more graphic than it really is -- can be blamed for the performance. But now Fox Searchlight is trying to see if the film's potential liability can cut the other way.

-- John Horn

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Why didn't audiences spark to 'Never Let Me Go'?

October 21, 2010 |  2:32 pm

Never
With bankable stars and a bestselling book as its source material, "Never Let Me Go" looked for a long time like it would be this season's art-house breakout. When costar Andrew Garfield was chosen as the new "Spider-Man" this summer, the movie's stock shot up even further.

But five weeks into its release, Mark Romanek's film has been an undeniable disappointment. The Carey Mulligan-Keira Knightley picture -- a science fiction-tinged mood piece about a group of petri-dish babies in a slightly altered universe -- has grossed less than $2 million in domestic release. (By comparison, "Winter's Bone," another movie about young people in a difficult situation that hits the down beats pretty hard, has tallied three times as much.)

And "Never Let Me Go's" run, which distributor Fox Searchlight hoped could continue through the fall, appears to be nearing its end. The movie widened to more than 200 theaters last weekend, but its per-screen average was so low that the movie will start to lose screens in the coming weeks.

The film's performance has disappointed its ardent fans, who have responded enthusiastically to its performances and ideas. We polled a few outside experts and talked to Fox Searchlight executives to discover why it didn't catch on. Five factors emerged.

It's a downer. Adult-oriented movies have been enjoying a good season, with "The Town" and "The Social Network" rolling along. But, true to Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, the book maintains a melancholy tone throughout. Even "Winter's Bone" gives you a bit more of a hug.

Divided critics. Art-house films -- and especially Britain-set dramas -- need all the critical support they can get. But the movie stands at just 65% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, not nearly a large enough number. (By comparison, "Winter's Bone" has elicited a 94% approval rating, as did last year's Mulligan breakout "An Education").

Men don't dig it. Although there's a science-fiction premise, the movie hasn't elicited an especially warm reaction among men, according to Searchlight's informal polling. That cuts out half of the audience -- and makes it even less of an art-house date night film than it otherwise would have been.

The novel problem. The audience for Ishiguro's book gives the movie a marketing head start. But a beloved novel also sets expectations high -- expectations that even the most faithful adaptation sometimes can't reach.

Date issues. With its mid-September release date, Fox Searchlight hoped to beat the rush for serious fall movies. (The company also needed to take advantage of a narrow publicity window for Mulligan.) But it might have gone too early, before filmgoers were ready for the more weighty fare of the fall.

The movie could yet find an audience on DVD, especially as Garfield continues to come into his own. But those who appreciate serious drama made within the Hollywood system -- that is, with stars and a modicum of a budget -- may find the development more depressing than the film. Fox Searchlight wouldn't say that the box-office performance will force it to reevaluate whether to make these kinds of films in the future. But any company with designs on making a prestige-heavy drama will undoubtedly be given pause by "Never Let Me Go."

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

 Photo: A scene from "Never Let Me Go." Credit: Fox Searchlight

 


'Conviction' and Hilary Swank draw fire from slain woman's family

October 14, 2010 |  1:27 pm

Getprev Hilary Swank has called "Conviction," the Fox Searchlight film she stars in, a "feel-good" story.

But apparently, there's nothing about the movie, which hits theaters Friday, that makes Melrose and Charles Brow feel good. They're the children of Katharina Brow, a diner waitress who was found stabbed to death in her trailer home in 1980. A local troublemaker named Kenny Waters was charged with her murder, and spent 18 years in prison. But he was released after his sister, Betty Anne Waters, brought to light DNA evidence that proved his innocence. Subsequently, no one has been charged with Katharina Brow's murder.

That's the real-life story that's told in "Conviction," in which Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a single mother who put herself through law school to help her brother.

On Thursday, Brow's children held a news conference with their lawyer, Gloria Allred, to express their disappointment that they had not been contacted by the "Conviction" filmmakers or by Swank, who executive produced the film.

"We are angry and disappointed that in the making of the film, neither executive producer Hilary Swank nor anyone else connected to the film ever contacted us to see how we would feel about the fact that our mother’s murder is the basis for events which transpired as a result of her tragedy," Melrose Brow said.

She and her brother have requested a meeting with Swank, during which Brow says she would like to ask the actress a number of questions, including why the movie was made and how the film's profits will be used.

“I want to find out what the movie’s made and, as the profits come in, if they’ll use those profits to help us with trying to find out who the perpetrator is,” Brow said in an interview after the news conference. She and her family are not seeking compensation, but would like money to go toward a search for the killer, she said.

Fox Searchlight did not respond to an immediate request for comment. Swank's representative said the actress had no comment.

The Brow family has not had the opportunity to see "Conviction" yet because they have not been invited to any private screenings before its release, Allred said. Katharina Brow's murder, although the impetus for the film's plot, does not occupy much of the movie itself. In the film, after she is slain, Brow is shown in a mildly graphic scene, bloodied and sprawled across a floor. But little else is revealed about her in the movie.

In a recent interview, Swank said she had prepared diligently for "Conviction." She traveled to the East Coast to visit Waters, who drove Swank through her hometown of Ayer, Mass., pointing out "where she lived, where her trailer was, where she used to eat, the candy store she used to steal from," the actress recalled.

Swank said she took the responsibility of portraying the Waters family accurately on screen seriously. 

"I wouldn’t be able to live with myself [if] I somehow didn’t portray the story in a way that [Betty Anne] felt reflected her story," Swank said. "I was at the premiere with her in Toronto, and I don’t want the credits to roll and have her look at me and go, 'What are you thinking? That’s not how it happened at all.' So it’s an enormous responsibility. You can't take a lot of liberty with the storytelling."

--Amy Kaufman
Twitter.com/AmyKinLA

Photo: Hilary Swank. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times


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