A long time in the making, Beasts Of The Southern Wild made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking the top prize amid rumors it would head to Cannes. Sure enough, it did although not in the Official Selection. It won notice there as well, winning one of the festival’s top prizes and it’s hitting theaters this week. Australian feature The Last Ride traveled the festival circuit, but took some time before landing U.S. distribution, though it picked up a high-profile ally here. Take This Waltz is naturally getting attention courtesy of its star Michelle Williams and director Sarah Polley, while Venice-set Unforgivable is also hoping to ride the media wave to solid box office numbers this weekend.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Probably the most celebrated indie of the first half of 2012, Beasts Of The Southern Wild won the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera D’Or in Cannes last month. Not bad for a project with a director making his feature debut and a cast that sported non-pros across the board. The film did have some friends along the way. The San Francisco Film Society awarded the movie two grants that helped the filmmakers in withr post-production, according to producer Michael Gottwald. Grants organization Cinereach also got involved throughout the process. “With our film, it’s not like there were expectations things would go smoothly,” Gottwald said. “During the development period, the challenge was getting things down on paper. The financing partners were aware of this going in.” Court 13, the creative team behind Beasts was a hodgepodge of filmmakers with some to no experience but a keen interest in getting the film done. “They had an interest that lent itself to the film, but not necessarily a skill set,” Gottwald said.

Casting also took a less conventional route although initially the project had some interest in professional actors for the role of Wink who plays the troubled father to young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). But then they decided to go with a local in the Louisiana Bayou where the film is set. “I loved the challenge of working with Dwight (Henry) and I thought he could do it and he could give something to the role because of what he’s been through,” said Gottwald. “We knew it would be a challenge. He was running a bakery at the time, so we had to get around his schedule. I’m sure we could have made our days [much easier] if we had two trained actors in the father/daughter roles. It can be exhausting but I think we came out with something that had value.”

The early work on the script began in the summer and fall of 2008 and Beasts Of The Southern Wild was ready just two days before Sundance. It opened Wednesday at two locations in both New York and Los Angeles and will open in New Orleans (where it had its premiere last week) on July 4th. The film expands July 6th to Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and to additional theaters in the L.A. area.

The Last Ride
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Writers: Mac Gudgeon, Denise Young
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Tom Russell, Anita Hegh
Distributor: Music Box Films

Australian film The Last Ride has traveled the festival circuit for some time. Made in 2009 and starring Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Matrix films) who plays a criminal who travels with his estranged young son across Australia to avoid capture. “It’s a movie we first saw at a festival,” Music Box’s managing director Edward Arentz said. “It played Palm Springs in 2010 and AFM before that.” Arentz said they liked the film but that it “took a little while for our interest to coincide with the sales agents’ and the producers’ interests.” He added, “The director is super talented. He had a short in 2003 (Cracker Bag) that won the Palme d’Or in Cannes.” Arentz said the film could have a broad audience, but may face a struggle with a traditional release in the U.S. “In some respects, it may be too violent for a core art house audience,” he said. “It’s a bleak but beautiful story.”

New Yorkers and Angelenos, however, won’t get first crack at The Last Ride. Chicago will have the film’s first showing this weekend because of strong critical support from a famous local. “Roger Ebert loves the movie which is why Chicago is leading with the release,” said Arentz. “It’s definitely in the day and date with VOD mode. It will be on iTunes, Amazon and various cable outlets beginning this Friday as well.” The Last Ride will open in New York July 6th.

Take This Waltz
Writer-director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Luke Kirby
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Magnolia Pictures caught Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz in Toronto and picked up the feature starring Michelle Williams soon afterward. Polley wrote the story about a woman (Williams) who is torn between the object of her longing (Kirby) and her loyal and affable husband (Rogen). “The film had its U.S. premiere at Tribeca and it played a few other festivals since then,” Magnolia’s Matt Cowal told Deadline. “Michelle Williams and Sarah Polley have been really wonderful doing a lot of publicity for the film.” Magnolia, like other specialty distributors, is hoping to tap into the audience that wants a counterweight to the summer tentpoles, and the Oscar-nominated Williams’ star factor could help. “People who are looking for more sensitive sophisticated fare this summer will be into it,” Cowal said. He added that the film has been available via VOD since May 25th and has “done well” on demand. Distributors routinely decline to provide details on VOD numbers.

Take This Waltz opens exclusively today in New York and will expandto L.A. and other top markets thereafter. “It’s going pretty far out, in most [markets] by the end of July,” said Cowal. “This film is in a unique place to have a nice theatrical life. Sarah is an extremely talented filmmaker and we’re very proud of the film.”

Director: André Téchiné
Writers: André Téchiné, Mehdi Ben Attia, Philippe Dijan (novel)
Cast: André Dussollier, Carole Bouquet, Mélanie Thierry

Strand Releasing has had a long relationship with French director André Téchiné. The filmmaker helped launch the Culver City-based distributor in the mid-’90s with Wild Reeds. “We’ve had a long relationship,” said Strand co-president Marcus Hu. Strand saw Unforgivable in Cannes last year where it played in the Directors Fortnight, and the company said it’s hoping it will mirror some of the past performance on the art circuit of the director’s previous films. They released Téchiné’s The Girl On The Train in 2010, grossing over $200K domestically (with nearly $20K on two screens its opening weekend) though Wild Reeds took in a cool $807K when it opened in the States back in 1995.

“We’re excited about good press coming up,” Strand’s VP, Theatrical Sales & Acquisitions said. “Both Téchiné and [star] Carole Bouquet have done a good amount of press in both the mainstream press and others tied to specific markets. People are really responding to the trailer and the fact that it takes place in Venice is intriguing people. Unforgivable will open in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.