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‘Free State of Jones’: Five Reasons a 150-Year-Old Story Could Resonate Today

With summer beginning in earnest this weekend, movie patrons will be able to choose from an earthlings vs. aliens tentpole, one of the hottest animated films in history and a comedy starring two of the world’s most bankable stars. “Independence Day,” “Finding Dory,” and “Central Intelligence,” with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, are poised to blot out all challengers at the the multiplex.

But an upstart studio with big ambitions is hoping it can find a niche in the market with a gritty historical drama about a 150-year-old slice of Americana that few people had ever heard of.

“Free State of Jones” may be the most audacious piece of counter-programming on the 2016 summer calendar. Its June 24 opening is flying against, not only the headwinds of bigger, splashier competition, but of also a history of tough results for adult summer films. The movie’s tracking is weak, with weekend opening estimates of just $11 to $13 million, which would make it challenging to recoup its production cost  of $50 million.

Still, the founders of two-year-old STX say they are proud to have greenlit “Free State of Jones” as their first production (and fifth release), because the film’s acclaimed production team and cast send a message about their company’s willingness to back big projects that defy standard studio conventions.

“The value to the company of having this movie made has already been realized exponentially because of the kind of care that was taken and the kind of people who demonstrated they were prepared to throw in with us when we were less than a month old,” said Adam Fogelson, chairman of the STX Entertainment Motion Picture Group. Those partners ranged from producer Scott Stuber, a former Universal production chief, to writer-director Gary Ross, who previously scored big commercial and critical wins with “Seabiscuit” and “The Hunger Games.”

Fogelson noted what a vote of confidence this was coming from Ross, “who was looking to fulfill a 10-year obsession with this important and compelling story,” and from star Matthew McConaughey, “one of the most talented actors in the business.”

The STX executive said, despite the welter of competition and challenges, he believes there is a substantial audience looking for movies that are not “just loud and noisy, with no story or character or real reason to exist.” Fogelson added: “There is a group of people out there that wants a more thoughtful and more emotional package when it comes to films and that doesn’t always feel like it is being served.”

Tracking suggests the film would have a soft opening, and early reviews did not promise much help from the critics. Still, Fogelson cited at least five reasons that “Free State” — about a group of poor Southerners who rise up in rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War — could resonate with audiences:

1.) The allure of a secret hidden in plain sight.

While much has been written about the rebellion of Newton Knight and his cadre of Southern roughnecks, few outside the region (or academia) have heard the story before.

2.) Everybody loves an underdog. 

And McConaughey leads a small army of them, “who are able to overcome an seemingly unbeatable enemy and come out on the good end of a fight.”

3.) Relevant themes.

Issues of justice and equity are at the forefront of today’s news. Still pertinent today is a 19th Century dilemma about who serves their country. In the case of “Free State,” the question was why Southern slaveholders were released from military service, when the poor farmers who got no direct benefit from slavery were forced to fight.

4.) A multi-racial cast. 

Newton Knight (McConaughey) and crew aren’t just fighting the Confederacy. They are fighting for human rights.

5.) Potential success overseas.

International audiences have warmed to other high quality accounts of the American Civil War. “Lincoln” made more than one-third of its $275 million worldwide in theaters outside the U.S., while “12 Years a Slave” collected a whopping 70 percent of its $188 million global take from other lands.

STX hopes that the film’s release date — leading into the 4th of July holiday — will capture a bit of historical/patriotic updraft. The film opens in 2,815 theaters. Its total production cost was $65 million but company officials say that with tax concessions from the state of Louisiana the net cost was closer to $50 million. With a collection of investors and international rights sold by IM Global, a majority of the film’s cost was covered by partners, the company said.  “The budget made the risk/reward opportunity a good sound one for everybody involved,” Fogelson said. “We wanted to bring this great movie to the market without having to fret unduly about costs.”

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