Newcomers and A-listers crowd this weekend’s batch of Specialty film arrivals. Bart Layton is making his narrative feature directorial bow with Sundance’s American Animals, which The Orchard and MoviePass picked up out of the festival. The film, which had its New York premiere this week at Regal Union Square, features a mix of narrative and documentary elements. Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer star in IFC Films feature A Kid Like Jake, which also debuted at Sundance. The title opens in New York exclusively before heading west to L.A. next week. Simon Baker directs and stars in Australia-set surf drama Breath with an exclusive launch at the Angelika in New York. And Cohen Media Group is opening French drama Rodin, hoping to capitalize on counter tentpole programming.

American Animals
Director-writer: Bart Layton
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, Ann Dowd
Distributor: The Orchard/MoviePass Ventures

The Orchard teamed with MoviePass to pick up Sundance NEXT winner American Animals. Deadline reported at the time the deal was worth $3M. The film was the first pick up for MoviePass Ventures.

“We were taken by [filmmaker Bart Layton’s] unique craft and style along with the subject matter,” said Paul Davidson, EVP, Film and TV at The Orchard. “[The film] includes the real guys who perpetrated the heist back in 2004, which is something we haven’t seen before. It’s a super engaging film.”

American Animals centers on two friends from the middle-class suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), is determined to become an artist but feels he lacks the essential ingredient that unites all great artists – suffering. His best friend Warren (Evan Peters) also has been raised to believe that his life will be special. But as they leave the suburbs for universities in the same town, the realities of adult life begin to dawn on them and with that, the realization that their lives may in fact never be important or special in any way. Determined to live lives that are out of the ordinary, they plan the brazen theft of some of the world’s most valuable books from the special collections room of Spencer’s college Library. Enlisting two more friends, accounting major Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness fanatic Chas (Blake Jenner), and taking their cues from heist movies, the gang meticulously plots the theft and subsequent fence of the stolen artworks. Although some of the group begin to have second thoughts, the plan has seemingly taken on a life of its own.

“While at the festival, we had been chatting with the folks at MoviePass and were intrigued with the idea of working with them on a project, so we set out to acquire the film for a summer release,” explained Davidson. “It’s an equal partnership across the board. We will reap the benefits of the release together.”

Davidson said The Orchard will handle the release and marketing of American Animals, while “leveraging” MoviePass’ subscribers to spread the word. Both companies began engagement after acquiring the title.

“From the minute we picked up the film we began the campaign. We’ve built amazing word of mouth around the film. It’s played many major festivals [since Sundance]. We want to make sure the audiences could glean the entertainment value, and we engaged the four original characters with press.”

Following the SXSW screenings, the marketing team created what Davidson described as a “viral game” where audiences could “put themselves in the shoes of the characters.” Participants who were able to ‘crack a code’ were treated to a screening of American Animals in early May.

“From a marketing perspective, we’ve set out to have fun with the concept,” said Davidson. “This is the only heist movie [this summer] that is based on a true story, and we’ve had fun playing off of that.”

The Orchard will open American Animals at Regal Union Square and Lincoln Square in New York as well as the Arclight and Landmark in Los Angeles this weekend. Select Q&As will take place on both coasts. Davidson said the title will head to between 30 – 50 locations in week two and should reach 500 theaters further into June.

A Kid Like Jake
Director: Silas Howard
Writer: Daniel Pearle
Cast: Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, Amy Landecker, Ann Dowd, Leo James Davis, Rhys Bhatia
Distributor: IFC Films

IFC Films had tracked A Kid Like Jake prior to its Sundance premiere in January. The company was attracted to its topical subject as well as the star lineup. “With the talent involved and thematically, it seems like a perfect fit for us,” said IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco. “Jim Parson and Claire Danes give amazing performances. The [storyline] of parents understanding their gender non-conforming child and their honesty about it makes it very accessible for people to see. And [director] Silas Howard is a real talent.”

The film follows Brooklyn parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) who have a four-year-old son, Jake. The kid is bright, precocious, creative—and prefers Disney princesses to toy cars and skirts to jeans. Jake’s “gender expansive” behavior—as local preschool director Judy (Octavia Spencer) dubs it—is no big deal to Alex and Greg. Or so it seems, until the process of navigating New York City’s hyper-competitive private school system opens up a parental quagmire: could Jake’s gender nonconformity be just the thing that gives their child an edge in the admissions game? How young is too young to put a label on a child’s identity? Is this just a phase, or is Jake truly transgender? Split in their opinions on how to handle the situation, Alex and Greg find themselves navigating an emotional and ethical minefield.

IFC Films is looking to the art house filmgoer to be its core audience in its opening weekend, though it also sees the title appealing to other groups, including educators as well as “any group dealing with non-conforming gender roles.” Said Bocco: “There are a lot of audiences that will relate to this. I don’t think you have to be a parent to find the film special. I have personally never seen a film like this before. It deals with the subject so honestly.”

Parsons and Danes have been doing an extensive amount of press leading up to its release. The New York premiere of the film, organized by premiere host Darin Pfeiffer in New York last week, brought out an extensive number of press and photographers with principal cast in attendance.

“The cast and Silas have been amazing,” said Bocco. “We’ve also been doing [extensive] reach through grassroots [word of mouth].”

IFC Films will open A Kid Like Jake exclusively at IFC Center in New York Friday. It will head to Los Angeles the following weekend and will go day and date June 8.

Breath
Director-writer: Simon Baker
Writers: Tim Winton (novel), Gerard Lee
Cast: Simon Baker, Ben Spence, Samson Coulter, Elizabeth Debicki
Distributor: FilmRise

Producer Mark Johnson was working on 2010 feature Don’t Be Afraid Of the Dark in Melbourne when he noticed ads on buses for the new novel Breath by Australian author Tim Winton. Johnson read the book and in his words “fell in love with it.”

“[Winton] has great reverence for Australia’s land and water,” said Johnson. “I talked to his agent about the book and then I met him in Portland while he was on a book tour — and we hit it off. He said, Take the rights.” Johnson noted that though the book is set in Australia, Winton said that it could take place anywhere. Johnson decided to keep in in Oz.

“I think we’ve been true to keeping it as Australian as possible,” added Johnson. “The American in the movie, Elizabeth Debicki, is actually Australian.”

Breath follows two teenage boys, Pikelet and Loonie (newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence), growing up in a remote corner of the Western Australian coast. Hungry for discovery, the pair form an unlikely friendship with Sando (Simon Baker), a mysterious older surfer and adventurer who pushes the boys to take risks that will have a lasting and profound impact on their lives.

Getting the project underway, Johnson reached out to his friend Simon Baker, with whom he had worked on the TV’s The Guardian. Baker read a draft of the title and came on to further develop the script.

“We proceeded to show it to Australian directors, but for one reason or another, they didn’t get involved,” said Johnson. “But Simon spoke with such passion about it that I said, ‘You should direct it.’” Though Baker did agree, this set the project back by a couple years due to his obligations to his series The Mentalist. Baker was also set for the role of Sando.

“The other key was finding the two 16-year-old boys,” said Johnson, adding that the idea was to find “two surfers who could act” rather than find two actors and teach them to surf. “This took us some time,” he said.

Australian sources including Screen Australia, Screen West and the state of Western Australia provided slightly over half of the budget. Noted Johnson: “I cannot speak enough about Australia’s government support of the arts. This could have only worked [with them].”

Shooting took place over 30 days in spring, 2016. At the same time Johnson was working on Breath, he was commuting to Toronto as producer on Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.

Breath premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and FilmRise came on earlier this year. “We loved their enthusiasm,” said Johnson. “It’s a difficult one because some people liked the movie but thought it was ‘really Australian.’” Johnson noted that Australia has ‘embraced’ the film since its bow there, doing over $2.5M USD since opening earlier in May.

Stateside, Breath will open at the Angelika in New York Friday, followed by L.A. and other select cities June 8 with a further roll out planned in the coming weeks.

Rodin
Director-writer: Jacques Doillon
Cast: Izïa Higelin, Séverine Caneele, Vincent Lindon
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group picked up rights to Jacques Doillon’s feature Rodin in the script stage directly from the project’s French producers. The company eyed the story about the iconic French artist as an “art-house friendly story” that fit its roster mantra.

Set in Paris in 1880, the film revolves around 40-year-old Rodin (Vincent Lindon), who receives his first state commission — “The Gates of Hell,” which includes “The Kiss” and “The Thinker,” two of his most famous creations. Constantly working, he shares his life with partner Rose (Séverine Caneele) and his mistress, the young Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin), the gifted student who becomes his assistant and a talented sculptor in her own right. Following their painful break up, Rodin continues to work relentlessly while facing both the rejection and enthusiasm provoked by the sensuality and originality of his sculptures. Rodin’s statue of Balzac, long in the making and rejected during his lifetime, will become the starting point of modern sculpture.

“We are aiming at older audiences looking for something a little more challenging than the usual summer studio blockbusters and tent poles,” noted Cohen Media Group chief Charles Cohen. “[This is] a good weekend for a film like this, with limited foreign language films set to release.”

Cohen added that the company has had success “counter-programming” against summer studio fare in the past, though, “finding the right weekend can be tricky.”

Beyond its exclusive start at the Quad Cinema in New York and Laemmle Royal in New York this weekend, the title will roll out on a week by week basis.