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In the first of a long list of titles stepping into the Specialty box office space is the French period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire from director Céline Sciamma. The film, which stars Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival where Sciamma made history as the first woman to win the Queer Palm. It became a buzzworthy title during it festival run and will now have an exclusive one-week qualifying run in New York at the Angelika and in Los Angeles at the Arclight. Seeing as how it is a romantic drama, it will open in the top markets on Valentine’s Day of next year before expanding throughout the country in February and March.
Set in France, 1760 the story follows Marianne (Merlant) an artist who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Haenel), who has just left the convent. Not wanting to be married, Marianne arrives as a friendly face as she observes Héloïse during the day and paints her at night. As they spend more time together they become attracted to each other and Marianne’s painting becomes a testament to their love.
The film currently sits at a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes and continues the strong momentum of Neon’s 2019 slate that includes Parasite, Monos, Clemency, Luce, The Biggest Little Farm and Honeyland.
“We hope audiences have embraced our films because they offer something truly experiential that’s only possible on the big screen in the theater,” said Elissa Federoff, Neon’s head of theatrical distribution. “The collective experience of seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire with an audience is an emotional catharsis that will travel with you long after the credits roll.”
She adds, “The extraordinary performances by Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel in what is an immortal and sublime love story will continue to transcend language, age or gender and captivate audiences.”
Amazon’s The Aeronauts is also setting its own limited theatrical run before it streams on Prime Video December 20. Instead of a traditional theatrical release, including a previously agreed one-week Imax commitment, Amazon opted for a short theatrical release before dropping into the streaming space.
Directed by Tom Harper, The Aeronauts reunites Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as they star as scientist James Glaisher and a wealthy young widow Amelia Wren. The pair set a balloon expedition to fly higher than anyone in history — but as their journey inches toward the edge of the world, their chances of survival are slim.
In addition to the film’s limited theatrical run, Amazon also eventized the film as if it were heading for a huge traditional release. At the end of November, they kicked off “The Fair of the Aeronauts”, a 19th-century carnival experience that recreates the World Fair that launched the Aeronauts in 1862.
The traveling event also featured a working version of the “Mammoth” hot-air balloon that flew attendees up as well as a screening of the film on the side of the balloon. The fair started in Los Angeles and went on to San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, Orlando and Austin before returning to L.A. in time for its streaming debut. And for the first time, Amazon took one of their titles on a roadshow, screening the film in 70MM in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, Columbus and Tucson.
Matt Newman, co-head movies, Amazon Studios, says that the fair captures and celebrates the “film’s epic and visually stunning qualities” and “creates an emotional connection to the story.”
“These events show our dedication to our customers and our filmmakers by raising awareness in an original way and showcasing the film in the many different formats we’re making it available,” said Matt Newman, co-head movies, Amazon Studios. “The events are free to consumers so that we can help draw as much awareness as possible.”
He adds, “We see these as an opportunity for customers to experience our content in a personal way and it allows us to also engage with them in a way traditional media doesn’t allow. We work backwards from our customers. We consider these events and activations successful when they delight and engage our customers.”
An interesting pair of genre-bending films will also make their debuts this week. First is David Guy Levy’s thriller The Mandela Effect which follows a man who becomes obsessed with facts and events that have been collectively misremembered by thousands of people. He considers this is something bigger and his obsession eventually leads him to question reality itself.
The second is Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe starring Emily Beecham and Ben Wishaw. As detailed in its logline, the sci-fi drama follows Alice (Beecham), a single mother and dedicated senior plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species. She has engineered a special crimson flower, remarkable not only for its beauty but also for its therapeutic value: if kept at the ideal temperature, fed properly and spoken to regularly, this plant makes its owner happy. Alice takes one home as a gift for her teenage son, Joe. They name it Little Joe. But as the plant grows, Alice thinks that Little Joe may not be as harmless as they think.
A24 steps into the weekend with the debut of its dark comedy In Fabric. Helmed by horror guru Peter Strickland, the film follows a lonely woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who has just separated from her husband. She visits a London department store in search of a dress that will transform her life. She finds the perfect gown, but little does she know, the frock will come to unleash a malevolent curse and unstoppable evil, threatening everyone who comes into its path.
Serving up its own thrills is the Sundance pic The Wolf Hour starring Naomi Watts, Emory Cohen, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeremy Bobb and Brennan Brown. Written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, the film follows June (Watts), a counter-culture figure who has past her prime. As she cuts herself off from the world in her South Bronx apartment during the “Summer of Sam” era of New York, she stares out her window looking as the violence escalate to the 1977 New York blackout riots.
Rounding out the Specialty box office releases this weekend are the Luke Lorentzen documentary Midnight Family, which follows the underground industry of for-profit ambulances in Mexico City; Padraig Reynolds’ horror Dark Light; Little Q, Wing-Cheong Law’s adaptation of the Japanese novel Goodbye, Khoru; and the Hindi war film Panipat directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar.