Grownup flicks: ATO launches feature films with 'Mao'

news-mao-movieChi Cao and Camilla Vergotis strike a ballet pose in the new ATO film.

With Netflix and YouTube grabbing eyeballs, and with blockbusters expanding their hold on the movie-going public, the problem stymieing indie filmmakers has only intensified. Getting an independent film distributed is tough.

Enter the Charlottesville-New York firm called ATO Pictures. In its first foray in feature film distribution, the company teams up with Samuel Goldwyn Films to bring Mao's Last Dancer to Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill Theatre on September 24.

Dave Matthews and Coran Capshaw co-founded ATO, so it appears there are deep enough pockets to overcome some of the hurdles like distribution and financing that face the foundering indie industry.

"We saw this in Toronto and fell in love with it," says ATO CEO and co-founder Temple Fennell. "We didn't produce it; we acquired it."

ATO's strategy veers sharply from the studio formula geared to the male-12-to-29 audience, explains Fennell. "We're really focusing on the 30-plus market," he says. "When they look at the paper on Friday night, there's very little there for them."

ATO is also taking a page from the DMB/Capshaw playbook and its model of connecting directly with the consumer, says Fennell. Before DVDs, on-demand, and Netflix took hold, the movie studios, much like 20th-century record labels, controlled all the shelf space for distribution.

"Now that's all changing," says Fennell. "We don't compete with the Carmikes and Regals."

There are only 6,000 theater complexes in the country, he says, and of those, 1,500 are single-screen cinemas like Vinegar Hill. That's where ATO-model films will appear.

ATO released Mao August 20 in about a dozen markets, in what's called a "platform release," says Fennell. By the local release September 24, it will be in about 50 markets.

"We want it there with word of mouth," he says.

Mao's Last Dancer is the true story of Chinese-born Li Cunxin, who is plucked from the impoverished world in which he was born to become the principal male dancer with the Houston Ballet. Directed by Bruce "Driving Miss Daisy" Beresford and starring Chi Cao and Amanda Schull, as well as Twin Peaks alums Kyle MacLachlan and Joan Chen, it's an "incredible story of will and perseverance," says Fennell.

Spoiler alert: Bring tissue. "It's hard not to weep at the end," warns Fennell.