‘Empire’s’ Lee Daniels to Direct Apollo Theater Documentary

White Horse and Piper Cub are producing the film, which traces the famed New York theater’s 82-year history

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lee Daniels has signed on to direct the feature-length documentary “The Apollo Theater Film Project,” which will serve as an authorized history of New York’s famed Apollo Theater, it was announced Thursday by White Horse Pictures’ Nigel Sinclair and Jeanne Elfant Festa.

In the spirit of the Apollo Theater’s tradition of active audience participation and in support of this documentary, Daniels and Apollo Theater CEO Jonelle Procope are jointly making an appeal to members of the public, audience-goers, and fans for film footage, home movies, photographs or other memorabilia that may have been accumulated by members of the community in the course of its more than 80 years of live performances.

“We are asking members of the community who have been to the Apollo, who may have parents or grandparents or other family members or friends who have done so, to help us find any material – audience footage, photographs, or other memories that we can use in our documentary film,” said Daniels and Procope. “We have established a website for anyone who wants to submit. We will, of course, respect everybody’s ownership of their property.”

The film will tell the story of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.  One of the most famous theaters in the world and a driving force in shaping America’s music and cultural landscape, the Apollo’s impact on the local Harlem community and the legendary musicians who performed at the historic venue is immeasurable.  Its significance as a symbol of all that is great in Harlem, New York, and American culture has transcended its origin as  a place of culture and entertainment. The Apollo today is recognized as an influential center for culture and performing arts with programming across music, comedy, dance, theater and opera.  The Apollo continues to build on its legacy by nurturing emerging voices and presenting ground-breaking artists across genres, both nationally and internationally.

Born out of the Harlem Renaissance, the theater became the most prized venue on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” during the time of racial segregation in the United States. On the entertainment circuit, becoming the Harlem community’s answer to Carnegie Hall, it showcased a stunning list of renowned artists, including Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Gladys Knight, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Billie Holiday.  It was a launch pad for many musical greats, including Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jackson Five.  Today, the Apollo hosts more than 100 performances on its stages annually, including artistic offerings from around the globe, robust education and community programs, and shows by some of the most celebrated contemporary artists in the world, such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Metallica and Sam Smith.

Amateur Night at the Apollo has been running virtually every Wednesday since it premiered in 1934, and to this day remains a centerpiece of the theater’s performance schedule. The theater also continues to serve as a gathering place and focus for African Americans and all New Yorkers at times of cultural and social crisis (the Civil Rights Movement), times of community joy (the election of Barack Obama, the visit of Nelson Mandela), and times of mourning the nation’s greats — including James Brown and Michael Jackson.

The project is being produced by Nigel Sinclair (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”) and Jeanne Elfant Festa (“Foo Fighters: Back and Forth”), the director of features/head of documentaries, at White Horse, who’s producing under her Piper Cub Productions banner.

Long-established documentary financing company Impact Partners, StudioCanal and Universal Music Group are financing the project along with The Chicago Media Project. StudioCanal is handling international distribution. Impact’s Dan Cogan and Geralyn Dreyfous and StudioCanal’s Chairman/CEO Didier Lupfer and EVP of International Production and Acquisitions Ron Halpern are serving as executive producers.  The project will be presented by the Apollo Theater and Bert Marcus Productions.

Also executive producing the film are White Horse Pictures’ Head of Production Nicholas Ferrall, Matt Jackson and CMP co-founders Steve Cohen and Paula Froehle, as well as Ken Pelletier, Dave Knott and Jonelle Procope.

The project is being co-written by Cassidy Hartmann of White Horse Pictures, Mark Monroe and Shola Lynch. Karen Sim will edit the documentary. With a roster of artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater, Universal Music Group will curate the music for the documentary.

“I am honored to be entrusted with the story of this incredible American iconic institution and work with this team. I used to go to The Apollo Theater as a kid and never in a million years would I have imagined I would be back to be doing this – it is very special for me,” said Daniels, whose credits include “Precious,” “The Butler” and Fox’s hit TV series “Empire.”

“We are all honored to be entrusted with this triumphant American story, and so fortunate that Lee Daniels has committed to lead the team. The Apollo has exerted such unprecedented influence and power on American culture, from its beginnings in 1934 to its towering presence in the 21st century. It is a story that will amaze,” said Sinclair.

StudioCanal will distribute the film in its key direct territories, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and Australia, and the company’s international sales team, led by Anna Marsh, will license the picture in the remaining international territories. StudioCanal, Impact Partners and White Horse Pictures jointly represent the US rights.

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