Oscar-winner Alex Gibney has taken on organized religion before but his latest documentary, Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, has turned into a head-on collision with church officials. The film bows this weekend in limited theatrical release by HBO, and is the most notable of the weekend’s new specialty releases.

Another high-profile documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, bows from actor/director Ethan Hawke, who met his subject at a dinner party. Sundance Selects will begin its limited release Friday. Both should find solid audiences given their robust festival runs.

Among other new films is David Robert Mitchell’s second teen feature, the smart horror- thriller It Follows. Also opening is Monterey Media’s Like Sunday, Like Rain, featuring Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Cohen Media Group’s French feature, 3 Hearts starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni.

Other limited-release titles opening this SXSW Film Festival weekend include TWC’s Eva, Rialto’s The Tales Of Hoffman and Magnolia Pictures’ musical doc The Wrecking Crew.

Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief
Director-writer: Alex Gibney
Writer: Lawrence Wright (book)
Subjects: Paul Haggis, Lawrence Wright, Mike Rinder, Mary Rathbun, Jason Beghe
Distributor: HBO Docs

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Gibney turns the spotlight on Scientology two years after he went after the Catholic Church in 2012’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God (also an HBO film).

Based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of nearly the same name, Going Clear profiles eight Scientology members, including A-list Hollywood celebrities such as Haggis. The doc details how the church cultivates true believers, their experiences and what they are willing to do in the name of their religion.

The film highlights the church’s origins with founder L. Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer, to its Hollywood prominence. Going Clear‘s core, though, is a series of shocking revelations by former insiders, including high-ranking, recognizable members who describe a systematic history of abuse and betrayal of church officials, including current leadership. Going Clear also moves beyond the book’s allegations to new ones, such as alleged harassment of Nicole Kidman, the former wife of church titan Tom Cruise.

“I was interested in Wright’s book because it was a deep dive into the psychology of blind faith,” said Gibney. “It certainly helped to explain Scientology, but also put in perspective what is going on broadly today, whether it be ISIS, or people’s unyielding belief in politicians or religions.”

Ahead of its Sundance premiere, Scientology began a media assault on Gibney and the film, taking out ads in major newspapers and posting heavily on the Internet. Gibney said the church’s tactics were a step beyond from past forms of what he describes as harassment against perceived enemies. (UPDATE, Friday AM: The Church has refuted Gibney’s claims in a statement from a spokesperson: The ads in both the New York Times and LA Times pointed out that since they have left the Church sources in Mr. Gibney’s film have admitted committing perjury, suborning perjury and lying to the media. but this was not disclosed in the film. This is not a “smear” attempt. The fact is, the statements in the ads were vetted and signed off on by attorneys by both publications.”)

“I was a little bit surprised,” Gibney said. “What surprised me was how frontal [their response] has been. In the past, Scientology would smear its critics behind the scenes…but this was very much out front with full-page ads in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.”

Gibney began working on Going Clear two years ago with HBO, BSkyB and Content Media (which owns half of Gibney’s company Jigsaw). The big-screen version of Going Clear features on-screen interviews with individuals who participated in Wright’s book, including filmmaker Haggis and others.

“I’d say it took a certain amount of work to get some people to appear,” said Gibney. “It’s one thing to be in a book but when your face is out there, you become a much more public figure. And frankly, the film will reach many more people than the book did. So I think there was pause. I think there was also pause because they knew what kind of abuse they would be in for, and now I’ve seen it.”

Going Clear will open theatrically in L.A., New York and San Francisco ahead of its HBO premiere March 29.

Seymour: An Introduction
Director: Ethan Hawke
Subject: Seymour Bernstein
Distributor: Sundance Selects

Seymour Bernstein Seymour An IntroductionHawke met celebrated pianist Bernstein by chance at a dinner party. Their ensuing conversation would cascade into a documentary project, a first for Hawke. The feature – which ran in the Toronto, Telluride and New York festivals – follows Bernstein’s decision to give up a successful concert career to teach music. He shares stories from his colorful life and imparts words of wisdom, and reflections on art, creativity and the search for fulfillment.

The film’s process began after Hawke emailed fellow producer Heather Smith, “saying he had met a piano teacher at a party and asked if she and ‘your boys’ want to talk about it,” said producer Greg Loser of Room 5 Films. “Ethan and [his wife] Ryan laid it out, saying they found this man fascinating. He wasn’t sure at the time what he was after, but we were more than willing to go along.”

Loser and Smith first met Bernstein on the first day of shooting. After seeing Hawke and Bernstein interact, the producing pair were “wide-eyed,” as Loser described it, about their chemistry.

“We shot over a long period of time over 14 month, but not over an incredibly high number of days,” said Loser. “The process of shooting, [strategizing] and editing took about two years.”

Financing came through Ethan and Ryan Hawke’s Under the Influence Productions and private funds, including from friends of Seymour Bernstein.

IFC Films’ Sundance Selects label boarded the project ahead of Telluride. Hawke had spent “a lot of time with the distributor” on the festival circuit with Boyhood, which earned him an Oscar nomination.

“They had time to chat,” said Loser.

Seymour: An Introduction will open in New York at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Friday. It will head to L.A. and Chicago next week.

It Follows
Director-writer: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary, Leisa Pulido
Distributor: RADiUS

It FollowsDavid Robert Mitchell returns to the Detroit suburbs for his second teen film, Cannes veteran It Follows, switching gears this time from comedy-drama to coming-of-age thriller. The feature centers on 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) who has what is a seemingly innocent sexual encounter with a boy. But the tryst actually ushers in a plague of nightmarish proportions. She can’t shake the sensation that someone, or something, is following her. As the threat closes in, Jay and her friends must somehow escape the horrors that are only a few steps behind.

“I had a recurring nightmare when I was young and that [was the root] of this idea,” said Mitchell. He wrote the script for It Follows not long after premiering his first feature, The Myth Of The American Sleepover in Cannes in 2010. “I was [originally] working on another [follow-up] project, but when that one wasn’t coming together, I moved this one up.”

Mitchell began working with producers Rebecca Green and Laura Smith to find financing. The group compiled a “look book” and sent it out, catching the eye of investors.

“We got some of the money together at the end of 2012 and everything [solidified] by summer of that year,” said Mitchell. “I spent a lot of time in the summer scouting in the Detroit area where I grew up. We didn’t have a big budget so it was important to find locations that had an interesting look and have easy access to.”

Mark Bennett cast over the summer of 2012. The role of Jay, who is in virtually every scene, was a critical addition.

“Maika Monroe had an amazing audition,” Mitchell said. “Everyone on the team knew she was it. We shot 25 days over five weeks with three extra skeleton-crew days. It was a difficult shoot. We had to stretch our dollars as much as humanly possible. Some of the things we were doing were simple, but others were very ambitious and during those times, I think we all felt it.”

Editor Julio Perez began working during the shoot, and was joined afterward by Mitchell.

“I think we locked the film three or four weeks before Cannes, but continued to do sound, score and effects leading up to the premiere,” Mitchell said. “That was the insane part.”

RADiUS began negotiating for It Follows during Cannes and formally acquired it soon after. The film continued to play festivals in Toronto, Sundance, Deauville and others.

Like Sunday, Like Rain
Director-writer: Frank Whaley
Cast: Leighton Meester, Julian Shatkin, Olivia Luccardi, Debra Messing, Billie Joe Armstrong, James McCaffrey, J. Smith-Cameron, Conor Carroll
Distributor: Monterey Media

Sales company Paradigm brought Like Sunday, Like Rain to Monterey Media last summer. The story revolves around Reggie, a 12-year-old cello prodigy who is surrounded by wealth in his Manhattan home. He also lives a solitary life with frequently absent parents and friends. Eleanor, meanwhile, is a 23-year-old musician, recently fired from her waitressing job and having problems with a slacker boyfriend. Eleanor eventually becomes au pair for a skeptical Reggie but music binds them.

“We loved the beauty of the film, particularly in the relationship between Leighton Meester’s character and the young boy,” said Monterey Media managing partner Scott Mansfield. “The film is a wonderful fit for our release schedule [because] we have always been supportive of stories with young actors that are well executed.”

Mansfield said Like Sunday, Like Rain brings “multiple opportunities for marketing” with the art-house crowd a main target. Social-media powerhouses Meester, Debra Messing and  Billie Joe Armstrong also are helping on getting the film in front of a broader audience.

“We are marketing a combination of traditional art-house outreach with an emphasis on newspaper ads wherever possible as this audience is still very engaged with the newspaper,” Mansfield said. “[Also] our social-media outreach is quite significant via Twitter, Facebook and the strong media presence of Leighton, Debra and Billie Joe, complimented by radio as well.”

Monterey Media will open Like Sunday, Like Rain exclusively in New York Friday followed by Los Angeles March 20. Added Mansfield: “[There will be a] platform roll out to about 30 cities over March and April. VOD will be toward the end of April.”

3 Hearts
Director-writer: Benoît Jacquot
Writer: Julien Boivent
Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, André Marcon, Patrick Mille, Cédric Vieira
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

3 Hearts movie poster3 Hearts opened the 20th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York last Friday ahead of its U.S. theatrical roll out beginning Friday.

A love triangle is at the core of the appropriately titled film. One night in rural France Poelvoorde’s character meets Sylvie, played by Gainsbourg, after missing his train to Paris. They are drawn together and wander the streets until dawn. They plan to meet in Paris, but there is a mishap. Sylvie soon reunites with her ex and leaves France. Marc, meanwhile, returns to the small French town and falls in love – and unbeknownst to him – marries Sylvie sister. When Sylvie returns to France, the spark between Marc and Sylvie reignites.

3 Hearts is a departure for Jacquot. The writer-director wanted to write a more contemporary film after several costume dramas. And unlike most of his films, which typically are tied to female characters, this one is focused on the male lead in the triangle.

“Having already acquired and released Benoît Jacquot’s previous film, Farewell My Queen (nearly $1.6M domestic), and based on the script and stellar cast, we decided to make a pre-emptive bid to pre-buy 3 Hearts when the film was still in pre-production,” said the distributor’s Charles Cohen. “We screened the film in Paris for the first time just before Cannes last year. It’s an engrossing romance for smart, foreign-film audiences.”

Cohen Media will open 3 Hearts exclusively at Lincoln Plaza in New York this weekend, followed by a traditional platform release.