Aretha Franklin Documentary ‘Amazing Grace’ Will Set a Film Forum Record

Neon, which acquired the film on the same day that the producer launched its awards-qualifying run, reports crowds breaking into song.

Aretha Franklin documentary “Amazing Grace” will set a one-week record for New York’s Film Forum, where it opened December 7 — the same day that Neon announced that the company acquired it for distribution.

The box-office calculation is based on sold-out shows and advance sales through December 13, when it’s on track to make at least $75,000. The previous best at the lower Manhattan location was “I Am Not a Negro” two years ago, which took in $73,000 for its first seven days. That film went on to a Best Documentary Oscar nomination and to an extraordinary over $7 million nationwide. This looks potentially to be even bigger: The estimated gross for Friday is $12,000, which projects to an opening weekend of at least $40,000.

Film Forum’s one-week locked-in “Amazing Grace” booking is playing for the awards qualifying process, and seeking strong reviews ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for Academy members to vote on potential nominees for Best Feature Documentary. It played in two Los Angeles theaters last week, also with very strong reviews. At this point, it ranks behind only “Roma” for highest Metacritic for any film released this year.

Qualifying runs usually leave their grosses unreported, but with a deal in place and incredible reaction, Neon reported the results to us. They were not involved in setting up the booking, or any of the advertising or publicity. That makes these initial results even more, well, amazing and suggests a massive interest in this film as a major event, and beyond just specialized venues.

The film is playing on only one screen, with around 135 seats, and the reported biggest presale in the theater’s history. Shows are sold out all weekend, with additional early ones added. Per Neon sources, the attendees are not the typical cinephile Village crowd, but includes families, older people, and many African-Americans. Neon reports that people in line waiting to get in have been breaking out in song. That suggests an event-like response rarely seen for a movie, much less a documentary.

Last night, a Spike Lee hosted an Academy-member screening (part of the campaign to get the film on the 15-title documentary short list) saw a similarly enthusiastic reaction. This is a very competitive year in the category with four acclaimed films, including Neon’s own “Three Identical Strangers,” which grossed over $10 million.

That a top specialized distributor like Neon is releasing this as a traditional theatrical run is not only a coup for them, but for the mainstream business. Netflix had been rumored as a strong suitor, which would have meant little subsequent theatrical play. It’s well suited for seeing with an enthusiastic audience to enhance the experience, and a smart release pattern could see this become popular with a wide audience that includes some who rarely see documentaries.

Of course, details for Neon’s release are still in early stages. Neon has shown the ability to turn acquisitions into releases in jsut three months  (“I, Tonya” last year, “Vox Lux” this weekend; both came after September Toronto Film Festival acquisitions). If it’s nominated, it could have optimal play time around the Oscars.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Shutterstock

Elissa Federoff, Neon’s head of distribution, said they are aiming for initial dates between February and April. The expectation is an initial release that combines core specialized theaters, but the distributor will also reach out to a broader audience, particularly African-Americans, from the early stages. Detroit, Franklin’s home base, will receive elevated importance.

The delay is normal; Neon must find the best date both for competitive purposes and getting the right theaters, creatw marketing and social media awareness, turn out trailers, and other vital preparation. The social media part should be easy; Twitter traffic about the film has been skyrocketing since yesterday. The grosses also should guarantee that top theaters will clamor for it.

Tom Quinn, president of Neon, confirmed reports of a seven-figure acquisition cost (sources tell IndieWire the figure is $1.5 million). “Seeing this at its DOC NYC premiere, I honestly don’t know that I’ve ever had such a transformative or spiritual experience in a theater.  It defies categorization on all levels,” he said. “Even its storied 46-year journey to the screen, thanks to the efforts of Alan Elliott, is its own divine miracle.  Its a precious gift from Aretha that will inspire and fill audiences with hope and joy everywhere.”

The film has one of the longest gestations in the history of movie releases, rivaling Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind.” Sydney Pollack headed a team of filmmakers who shot the film on 16mm. But Franklin prevented its showing for decades, including a scheduled premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015 that was stopped by a restraining order.

The situation apparently changed after Franklin’s death last August. The impact of tributes to her, combined with the high level of awareness, have now been joined by extraordinary reviews, and now proof of huge interest by paying customers.

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Aretha Franklin Documentary ‘Amazing Grace’ Acquired by Neon for Early 2019 Release

Neon has acquired the North American rights to “Amazing Grace,” the Aretha Franklin documentary film that made its world premiere at DOC NYC and then screened at the AFI Film Festival in November, the distributor announced.

The company is planning an early 2019 theatrical release, and it has already opened in New York and Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run.

Directed by the late Sydney Pollack and produced by Alan Elliott, the 1972 concert film presents Aretha Franklin with a choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts back when the legendary queen of soul was 29 years old and at the peak of her vocal powers.

Also Read: ‘Amazing Grace’ Film Review: Aretha Franklin Lives in This Resplendent Gospel Concert Film

The late soul singer previously brought legal action against the film in 2015, successfully blocking it from screening at several film festivals and arguing that the concert footage couldn’t be shown without her consent. After Franklin’s death this year, Elliott was given the go-ahead by her estate to finally show “Amazing Grace” in theaters.

Elliott produced the documentary alongside Joe Boyd, Chiemi Karasawa, Rob Johnson, Sabrina Owens, Tirrell D. Whittley, Jerry Wexler and Joseph Woolf.

“‘Amazing Grace’ is the heart and soul of Aretha Franklin. This film is authentic and is my aunt to her core. Our family couldn’t be more excited for audiences to experience the genius of her work and spirit through this film,” said Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and representative of the Aretha Franklin Estate.

The deal was negotiated by Neon and Endeavor Content on behalf of filmmakers.

Related stories from TheWrap:

‘Genius’: Nat Geo May Make Aretha Franklin the Season 3 Subject Instead of Mary Shelley

Aretha Franklin Funeral Bishop Apologizes to Ariana Grande for ‘Too Friendly’ Touch

Cicely Tyson’s Voluminous Hat at Aretha Franklin’s Funeral ‘Needs Its Own Twitter’

Neon has acquired the North American rights to “Amazing Grace,” the Aretha Franklin documentary film that made its world premiere at DOC NYC and then screened at the AFI Film Festival in November, the distributor announced.

The company is planning an early 2019 theatrical release, and it has already opened in New York and Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run.

Directed by the late Sydney Pollack and produced by Alan Elliott, the 1972 concert film presents Aretha Franklin with a choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts back when the legendary queen of soul was 29 years old and at the peak of her vocal powers.

The late soul singer previously brought legal action against the film in 2015, successfully blocking it from screening at several film festivals and arguing that the concert footage couldn’t be shown without her consent. After Franklin’s death this year, Elliott was given the go-ahead by her estate to finally show “Amazing Grace” in theaters.

Elliott produced the documentary alongside Joe Boyd, Chiemi Karasawa, Rob Johnson, Sabrina Owens, Tirrell D. Whittley, Jerry Wexler and Joseph Woolf.

“‘Amazing Grace’ is the heart and soul of Aretha Franklin. This film is authentic and is my aunt to her core. Our family couldn’t be more excited for audiences to experience the genius of her work and spirit through this film,” said Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and representative of the Aretha Franklin Estate.

The deal was negotiated by Neon and Endeavor Content on behalf of filmmakers.

Related stories from TheWrap:

'Genius': Nat Geo May Make Aretha Franklin the Season 3 Subject Instead of Mary Shelley

Aretha Franklin Funeral Bishop Apologizes to Ariana Grande for 'Too Friendly' Touch

Cicely Tyson's Voluminous Hat at Aretha Franklin's Funeral 'Needs Its Own Twitter'

‘Amazing Grace’: Neon Picks Up Long-Delayed Aretha Franklin Doc for 2019 Release

The boutique distributor has picked up the Sydney Pollack-directed concert documentary, which already received its Oscar-qualifying run.

Boutique Neon has picked up the North American rights to “Amazing Grace,” the long-delayed concert documentary that follows Aretha Franklin during a seminal 1972 show. The film had its world premiere at DOC NYC and also screened at AFI Fest. Neon will release the film theatrically in 2019, although it has already received an Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles.

Per its official synopsis, the long-awaited documentary has now been “realized by Alan Elliott” and “presents Aretha Franklin with choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, when the legendary queen of soul was 29 years-old and at the peak of her vocal powers.  Elliott produced alongside Joe Boyd, Chiemi Karasawa, Rob Johnson, Sabrina Owens, Tirrell D. Whittley, Jerry Wexler and Joseph Woolf.” A young Sydney Pollack was hired to direct the project, though it remained unfinished for decades.

As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson wrote earlier this year, “Pollack captured a legendary concert: It’s when Franklin recorded her Grammy-winning gospel album ‘Amazing Grace,’ which went double platinum, sold over 2 million copies stateside, and remained her biggest seller over her 50-year career. However, difficulties with syncing the footage shot by four 16 mm cameras meant shelving the project. In 1988, Elliott obtained rights to the movie and Pollack wrote Franklin to tell her he wanted to finish the documentary. Pollack died in 2008, and that’s when Elliot made it his passion project.”

In 2015, Lionsgate was on board to release the film, until the courts granted Franklin’s lawyers an injunction to stop a scheduled world premiere at Telluride. The legal team also stopped a subsequent screening at Toronto, as well as a Telluride showing the following year, on the grounds that Elliott still needed Franklin’s permission to release the film.

After Franklin’s death earlier this year, Elliott and his producer Tirrell Whittley screened the film for Franklin’s family. As Elliott told IndieWire at the time, “The family loved it. They laughed and cried and sang. It was an emotional time.” Bolstered by their affection for the film, the family and Elliott soon closed a deal, agreeing to partner and hold onto the rights in hopes of retaining more leverage in a distribution deal. It seems to have paid off.

In an official statement, Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and personal representative of the Aretha Franklin Estate, said “’Amazing Grace’ is the heart and soul of Aretha Franklin. This film is authentic and is my aunt to her core. Our family couldn’t be more excited for audiences to experience the genius of her work and spirit through this film.”

The film joins Neon’s growing stable of documentary offerings, including this year’s Sundance hit “Three Identical Strangers,” fall discovery “The Biggest Little Farm,” and the upcoming Sundance premiere “Apollo 11.”

Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ Acquired By Neon, Will Get Early 2019 Release

Neon has acquired North American rights to Amazing Grace, the Aretha Franklin concert film that has taken 45 years to get to a big screen. The 1972 concert documentary directed by Sydney Pollack chronicles Franklin’s famed performance with the ch…

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In the trailer…

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‘Vox Lux’ Trailer: Natalie Portman’s Bitter Pop Star Is An Oscar Dark Horse

Neon will open the Brady Corbet-directed drama in select theaters December 7.

You’ve heard of Natalie Portman’s dazzling transformation into a pop star in Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux,” and now it’s time to see a first look at the performance for yourself. Neon has debuted the official trailer for the drama, which is being marketed as an awards vehicle for Portman’s critically acclaimed performance. Portman is being submitted in the Oscar race for supporting actress.

“Vox Lux” stars Portman as an international pop star named Celeste, but the actress doesn’t appear in the film until the back half of its 110-minute running time. The film begins with Celeste as a teenager, played by “Tomorrowland” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” breakout Raffey Cassidy. Celeste survives a violent tragedy in her school and becomes a viral sensation after singing a song at a memorial service. Years later, Celeste (now Portman) is a pop star trying to overcome scandal and mount a comeback.

“Vox Lux” debuted at the Venice Film Festival and is the latest directorial effort from actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet, who last helmed “The Childhood of a Leader.” The supporting cast includes Stacy Martin and Jude Law, the latter of which plays Celeste’s manager. Cassidy has a double role and stars as Portman’s daughter in the scenes set in modern-day.

IndieWire’s Michael Nordine praised Portman’s work in his B+ review out of Venice. “‘Vox Lux’ is a powerful, haunting film in part because Portman is a powerful, haunting presence — you can’t turn away from her, even if you occasionally want to,” he wrote. “Portman is fearless, going all out in a role that requires nothing less.”

Neon will open “Vox Lux” in select theaters December 7 and expand the film in the following weeks. Watch the official trailer below, courtesy of Neon.

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‘Assassination Nation’ Ads Got Blocked From YouTube and More Because of Gun Footage, Character Flashing Her Bra

“We’re making a movie about strong young women,” Neon’s Christian Parkes told Variety. “People feel threatened because it is honest.”

Assassination Nation,” the Sundance hit from writer-director Sam Levinson, opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, September 21, but marketing the movie over the last several months hasn’t been the easiest road for co-distributor Neon. Christian Parkes, the company’s chief marketing officer, revealed in an interview with Variety that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube all rejected a cut of the film’s trailer.

Neon told Variety the intended clip for the movie violated the social media platforms’ terms of use for two reasons: One scene featured a group of women pointing guns directly at the camera, while another scene featured a woman pulling up her shirt and flashing her bar to the camera. The latter scene featured no female nudity whatsoever. Parkes said Neon was informed that trailers could show characters in their underwear but not the physical act of undressing. Similarly, guns were allowed to be featured but not if they were pointing directly at the camera.

“We’re not depicting a sanitized world,” Parkes said. “We’re making a movie about strong young women. People feel threatened because it is honest.”

Neon ran into similar issues trying to market the movie with more traditional methods such as billboard advertisements. The company was not allowed to rent billboard space in Los Angeles for a poster that included the tagline “Ass Ass In Nation.” Parkes said “every single out-of-home vendor in Los Angeles” passed on the ad because they thought it was a political ad calling for violence or found the word “ass” offensive.

“We knew that this film was a stick of dynamite,” Parkes said. “We didn’t want to dress it up into something it isn’t. This isn’t a feel-good coming-of-age story. It’s a depressing meditation on where we are as a culture.”

The marketing roadblocks forced Neon to get more creative. The company partnered with clothing brands like Dolls Kill and Pleasures to make shirts, socks, and more inspired by the film. “Assassination Nation” centers around a group of high school girl friends who get blamed for leaking everyone’s private information across social media. The leak sends the town into a violent riot.

“Assassination Nation” opens September 21. Head over to Variety to read more about the film’s marketing.

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‘Vox Lux’ Sells to Neon: Natalie Portman’s Sudden Oscar Bid Adds a Surprising Twist to the Fall Season

Portman has been through this before, but “Vox Lux” won’t be an easy sell.

Natalie Portman is entering Oscar season from a surprising direction: Her jarring turn as a loathsome pop star in “Vox Lux,” writer-director Brady Corbet’s dark, unconventional saga about a woman propelled into the media spotlight after a national tragedy, landed one of the Toronto International Film Festival’s biggest sales even as it divided critics and audiences. Chic distributor Neon beat out other offers for the movie in a seven-figure deal almost exactly a year after it picked up “I, Tonya” at TIFF and rushed into awards season with a successful campaign for Alison Janney as Best Supporting Actress. Now, sources say the company has similar plans for Natalie Portman, and will release the movie before the end of the year — but this time, it faces a more crowded field, and dicier odds.

Last September, Neon was an ambitious newcomer to the distribution landscape with a last-minute Oscar contender on its hands. The company spent a reported $5 million on “I, Tonya,” Craig Gillespie’s dark comedic take on the Tonya Harding saga, in the immediate aftermath of its Toronto premiere — and cobbled together an awards campaign before the festival ended. It paid off in three nominations for the movie — Margot Robbie in the Best Actress category for her turn as Harding, a Best Editing nomination, and Janney as Harding’s mother. At the time, Neon was less than a year old, and the company sustained by investment outfit 30West had already launched several edgy titles to solid figures, including Sundance hit “Ingrid Goes West,” which pulled in $2.7 million in limited release.

Neon’s ambition has continued to expand since then. The company bought the subversive teen comedy-thriller “Assassination Nation” out of Sundance for $10 million, marking the biggest deal of the festival for another divisive movie designed to stir up conversations about America’s destructive media obsessions, in this case through a group of young women targeted by online trolls and forced to fight for their lives. That movie, which is screening in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section and opens September 21, reflects the company’s aggressive interest in cracking the millennial-focused market dominated by A24. “Vox Lux,” which Corbet dubs “a 21st-century portrait” in the end credits, falls into a similar category with more highbrow ambitions.

The movie, which begins in the late ‘90s and careens through 9/11 as the pop star’s loss of innocence comes to embody the national mood, suggests aspects of the unsettling allegorical storytelling found in Lars Von Trier’s movies (Corbet, originally an actor, appeared in Von Trier’s “Melancholia”), while Portman’s unnerving turn has generated instant recollections of her ambitious role as a disturbed ballerina in “Black Swan,” which scored her a Best Actress win seven years ago. “Vox Lux” finds the actress returning to similar territory on several fronts: The climax of the movie once again revolves around a dramatic stage performance under bright lights and flamboyant costumes. As Celeste, Portman’s dance moves were choreographed by her husband Benjamin Millepied, and the pair re-teamed for the new role, which was modeled on several pop stars’ moves. Portman also did all her own singing for the role.

If Portman remains in the conversation throughout the season, the campaign will harken back to Sony Pictures Classics’ last-minute TIFF deal for “Still Alice” in 2014, which ultimately scored Julianne Moore a Best Actress Oscar. This year, however, the field is already crowded, with buzz centering on Lady Gaga for Warner Bros.’ “A Star is Born,” Olivia Colman in Fox Searchlight entry “The Favourite” (the Venice and Telluride hit skipped TIFF and will open New York Film Festival), and Melissa McCarthy as a literary forger in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, also from Searchlight.

Other contenders include two from Annapurna Pictures: Nicole Kidman in a similarly disturbing turn as a no-nonsense L.A. detective in Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” and newcomer KiKi Layne in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” A24, which won one of its first Oscars for Brie Larson in “Room” in 2015, is not expected to be a big player this fall — but the company is planning a best actress campaign for Toni Collette in horror sensation “Hereditary,” which garnered $78 million worldwide earlier this year. And they’re gauging positive TIFF reaction to Julianne Moore’s performance in Sebastian Leilo’s English language remake “Gloria Bell.” (So far they’re keeping it in 2019.)

As for “Vox Lux,” it remains unclear in which category Neon will submit the actress, since Portman doesn’t even surface in the movie until the halfway mark; the teen version of her character is played by Raffey Cassidy. The surprising newcomer remains onscreen in the second half to play her own daughter, in tense scenes with Portman’s character that underscore an ongoing cycle of estrangement. Last seen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ similarly disturbing and otherworldly “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Cassidy herself may be an awards candidate if the movie gains significant traction among younger voters, though it will continue to alienate audiences with more conservative sensibilities. Of course, that could be a blessing in disguise — whipping up controversy could mean free publicity.

“Vox Lux” is also bound to generate further conversations this fall around its opening sequence, a high school shooting that propels Celeste into sudden fame when the teen performs at a televised memorial service. That queasy hook scared off some buyers from the outset, with some wondering how the movie could even be released if a shooting took place around its opening date. TIFF itself was reportedly concerned about the project, initially rejecting it before adding it to the lineup as a late addition.

Brady Corbet, Natalie Portman, Jude Law. Brady Corbet, from left, Natalie Portman and Jude Law attend a screening for "Vox Lux" on day 2 of the Toronto International Film Festival at Elgin Theatre, in Toronto2018 TIFF - "Vox Lux" Screening, Toronto, Canada - 07 Sep 2018

Brady Corbet, Natalie Portman, and Jude Law attend a screening for “Vox Lux”

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Regardless of how the “Vox Lux” campaign comes together, it will make for another unconventional awards movie on Neon’s docket this season. The company is already campaigning for “Border,” the so-called “troll sex” movie that won the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in May. Iranian-born filmmaker Ali Abbasi’s imaginative fairy tale was a surprise hit out of that festival, and later became the Swedish Oscar submission, screening at Telluride and TIFF this fall.

The company will next screen that movie at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, with an awards push planned not only for the foreign-language category but for its complex prosthetic makeup. 30West/Neon also has another TIFF 2018 acquisition, musical “Wild Rose,” starring breakout Jessie Buckley, and is releasing Sundance carryover “Monsters and Men,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s tough ensemble piece about police brutality. Over the summer, the company released Sundance acquisition “Three Identical Strangers,” the conspiratorial documentary about triplets separated at birth, which grossed over $11 million at the box office and is considered a significant contender in the Best Documentary race.

The “Vox Lux” pickup marks the latest update in a rather surprising set of acquisitions this fall. Focus Features bought Neil Jordan’s campy Isabelle Huppert vehicle “Greta” early in the festival, while WellGo USA spent a reported $2 million on cheap sci-fi thriller “Freaks.” Magnolia Pictures picked up the documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes” as well as the futuristic Swedish space drama “Aniara.”

Neon Buys ‘Vox Lux,’ Eyes Oscar Season Launch for Natalie Portman’s Acclaimed Performance — TIFF

Neon could be following its own strategy with “I Tonya” last year in sneaking a TIFF favorite into awards season.

Neon has purchased distribution rights to Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux” out of the Toronto International Film Festival. The film has earned universal acclaim for Natalie Portman’s performance as a pop diva. Variety reports the indie distributor is now in the process of figuring out a release date, with an eye on a possible launch this year to qualify the movie for Oscar consideration.

“Vox Lux” stars Portman as Celeste, a struggling international pop star whose comeback plans are threatened by a tragedy that links to her past. The drama is the latest from indie actor Brady Corbet, who made his feature debut with “The Childhood of a Leader.” While the subject matter in “Vox Lux” has proven polarizing, Portman’s performance has been hailed as one of her most ferocious turns yet. The actress doesn’t appear in the film until the halfway point, so it’s unclear whether Neon would campaign for actress or supporting actress should they want to get “Lux” into the Oscar race this year.

Neon had great success in 2017 with another TIFF pickup,  “I, Tonya.” The distributor picked up the Tanya Harding drama after its buzzy world premiere and it ended up earning three Oscar nominations: Margot Robbie for best actress, Allison Janney for best supporting actress, and best film editing. Janney won the prize earlier this year.

“Vox Lux” co-stars Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, and Stacey Martin and features original music by Sia. The title is the second Neon pickup of TIFF 2018 after “Wild Rose.” Click here for all of this year’s TIFF acquisitions.