By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 20, 2014 at 3:23PM
I wondered who would have the guts to pick up North American rights to marketer-turned-filmmaker Justin Simien's biting college satire "Dear White People," which scooped up a Sundance Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent and has already sold out two shows at New York's New Directors/New Films.
Luckily for "Dear White People," the answer is ten-year-old Roadside Attractions ("Mud," "Arbitrage," "Winter's Bone"), a smart and innovative distributor (whose co-heads Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff got married last weekend). “Justin Simien is a funny, fresh and current voice with his finger on the Millennials’ pulse,” said Cohen, who describes the movie as a "sly and extremely topical satire sparking conversations about our supposed ‘post-racial,’ 21st century America.”
Simien's first film charges out of the gate exploding with all the things the young filmmaker wants to say about racial politics. The L.A.-based one-time studio publicist, 30, explores millennial race identity at predominantly white fictional Ivy League Winchester University. The film, shot digitally in 21 days last summer with two weeks in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is based on Texas-raised Simien's experience going to Chapman University.
Simien rips a page from Spike Lee's "School Daze" and "Do the Right Thing," as biracial film student/activist Samantha (Tessa Thompson, "Veronica Mars") hosts the campus radio show "Dear White People," flinging provocative taunts over the airwaves and taking over her ex-boyfriend's (Brandon P. Bell, "Hollywood Heights") role as head of the African-American house. She keeps her new white boyfriend behind closed doors. Tyler James Williams ("Everybody Hates Chris") plays a kid who belongs nowhere except the campus newspaper. Teyona Parris (the receptionist on "Mad Men") is Coco, a conflicted smart girl who wants to be taken seriously by everyone without regard to her race. The best-known cast member is Dennis Haysbert as the Dean of Students, who nurses an old rivalry with the white college president, which is played out by their respective sons, who each run their student house, under serious pressure from their fathers to perform and conform.
The filmmakers tested the film with audiences with several screenings which helped to hone the story in the editing room, to make it clearer and more accessible. The New York Times' A.O.Scott wrote of the film:
“Seeming to draw equal measures of inspiration from Whit Stillman and Spike Lee, but with his own tart, elegant sensibility very much in control, Mr. Simien evokes familiar campus stereotypes only to smash them and rearrange the pieces.”
With a solid target audience of college students and millennials, it will be fascinating to see how Roadside handles the release of "Dear White People," given that the project started out as a provocative concept trailer that went viral in 2012 on Twitter (@dearwhitepeople), Facebook, Vimeo, crowd-funding site Indiegogo (which raised $40,000) and YouTube. This provided investors with reason to back the rookie filmmaker's first feature. Among those responding to the trailer were executive producer Stephanie Allain ("Boyz 'n the Hood") and producers Effie T. Brown ("Real Women Have Curves") and Julia and Leonid Lebedev (Code Red Productions), with Simien, Angel Lopez, Ann Le and Lena Waithe as producers.
Simien is certainly sophisticated about marketing and has built up a solid following for the film that could be reached via a digital VOD release, which Roadside knows how to handle --both "Margin Call" and "Arbitrage" were models for the recent Kickstarter-funded Warner bros. release of "Veronica Mars."
I have more details on how the movie got made here.
Still to come this year from Roadside is David Gordon Green’s SXSW film "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan, plus two Sundance debuts, Craig Johnson’s "Skeleton Twins," winner of the Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, and Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John LeCarre's "A Most Wanted Man," adapted from John le Carré’s bestseller, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright.