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Finally! Zoe Saldana’s Nina Simone Film Picked Up By RLJ Entertainment for December Release

Finally! Zoe Saldana's Nina Simone Film Picked Up By RLJ Entertainment for December Release

And so it begins… I’ve long wondered what distribution company would pick this up. Question answered!

RLJ Entertainment has announced its acquisition of all North American rights to “Nina,” the Nina Simone biopic that Zoe Saldana stars in; the one that found itself at the center of much criticism over Saldana’s casting; a film that’s been in limbo for a long while.

So it finally looks like it’s going to see the light of day; although an eventual pick-up was all-but assured when Ben Latham-Jones of the UK’s Ealing Studios (the company behind the film) revealed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter at Cannes this year, that “Nina” would be released by “worldwide later this year.” He didn’t specify dates at the time, however RLJ’s acquisition announcement lists December as the target month, but no exact day yet. That will be coming soon enough.

But, at least we have some range of time to anticipate its debut; by the end of this year, we’ll certainly know more about the film.

I’ll be keeping my antennae up for a first trailer, which I’d expect will surface some time soon (given a December release date). And once it surfaces, I’m sure it’ll be the most-talked about event that day/week/month.

“I am very excited that RLJ Entertainment will be distributing Nina Simone’s biopic with the tremendous talent involved including Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo,” said Robert L. Johnson, RLJE Chairman and Founder of Black Entertainment Television. “I had the special privilege early in my career of working with Ms. Simone while coordinating a performance for former D.C. Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy and knowing first-hand of her major contribution to the soul and emotion of the Civil Rights Movement. I look forward as I am sure many others will, to her story and legacy being made available by RLJ Entertainment to consumers on various media platforms in the coming months.”

“Robert Johnson is passionate about this film and he is passionate about Nina Simone, so we are excited to be in business with him,” said producer Ben Latham-Jones. “We believe he can bring the powerful performances of Zoe and David to as wide an audience as possible.”

Last year, the project was taken to the Cannes Film Market (Marche du Film), where it was screened for potential international distributors, and where international (non-USA) rights were apparently picked up by other companies.

However, one key person who wasn’t present for the Market was the director of the film, Cynthia Mort, who was reportedly none-too-pleased with developments regarding the production of the film, leading to her taking legal action, which may have been what’s held up the film’s release to date (it’s been complete for at least 2 years now).

Mort filed a lawsuit last year against the British backers of the film, the aforementioned Ealing Studios, claiming that the company effectively cut her out of the decision making process during production, and, as a result, she was not at all happy with the version of the film that was to be screened for distributors.

According to the lawsuit, Mort had rights over the developing picture and “got approval over the final shooting script, the cast and crew, the line producer, the designer and all department head as well as consulting rights on advertising, distribution, shooting schedule and budget.”

However, as the suit further stated that, “throughout the course of the film’s production and post-production, defendants consistently acted to frustrate Mort’s involvement in the film, thereby breaching the Director Agreement. These breaches by the Defendants include, but are not limited to: taking complete control of editing the Film in June 2013 and failing to consult with Mort about subsequent cuts and changes; abandoning Mort’s previous cuts of the Film; failing to disclose the Film’s financials, finishing budget, and financing deals; and failing to keep Mort informed of other crucial creative and budgetary developments and decisions throughout production and post-production of the Film.”

And further, apparently the film was supposed to have been released prior to the lawsuit (so we’re talking late 2013, early 2014), which obviously didn’t happen.

Mort was seeking monetary damages (the amount wasn’t made public), as well as “a declaration that the defendants can’t make decisions without her meaningful approval and consultation.”

We can assume that all these matters have been resolved, given today’s announcement of a pick-up.

In development for at least 6 years, Mary J. Blige was initially attached to star in the film, but she was eventually replaced by Saldana, who brought more international box office gravitas to the production. 

The one constant actor throughout the ordeal was David Oyelowo, cast from the beginning to play Simone’s Paris-based manager Clifton Henderson. 

Mike Epps plays Richard Pryor in the film, by the way (he’ll be starring in Lee Daniels’ Richard Pryor biopic as well).

There still isn’t much official media from the film; the above new image comes courtesy of RLJ Entertainment, who I’m sure will be releasing more photos, clips, of course a trailer, over the next 2 to 3 months.

It’s worth noting that Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, previously publicly expressed strong disapproval of the project, which doesn’t have the Simone estate’s authorization and certainly not cooperation. 

In response, Netflix and RadicalMedia paired up to produce and release the documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus (“The Farm: Angola,” “USA” and “Bobby Fischer Against the World”), which is now available on Netflix. 

It was made in cooperation with the estate of Nina Simone, and is described as an “epic” documentary that interweaves never-before-heard recordings and rare archival footage together, with Nina’’s most memorable songs, incorporating never-before-heard audio tapes, recorded over the course of 3 decades, of Nina, telling her life story to various interviewers and would-be biographers. Rare concert footage and archival interviews, along with diaries, letters, interviews with Nina’’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, friends and collaborators, and other exclusive materials, make this the most authentic and personal telling of the extraordinary life of one of the 20th Century’s greatest recording artists. 

Finally, in an interview Zoe Saldana gave to InStyle Magazine in July of this year, she had this to say about the film: “I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either… An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”

“Nina” was produced by Barnaby Thompson, Ben Latham-Jones, Stuart Parr and Cynthia Mor and executive produced by Pierre Lagrange, Allison Sarofim, Aigerim Jakisheva, Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, James Spring, Gene Kirkwood, Lauren Lloyd and Paul Rosenberg.

RLJ Entertainment executives Mark Ward, Chief Acquisitions Officer and Angela Northington, SVP, Content Acquisitions negotiated the deal with ICM Partners behalf of the filmmakers.

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