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Indies Featuring Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey Crowd the Early Summer Box Office

Slew of indie films debut this week and next, hoping to provide counter-programming to "Iron Man 3"

Summer means popcorn movies, superheroes and sequels at the box office. But before the season begins, specialty labels jockey to get their films into prime counter-programming position, and this week a slew of high-profile indie movies with name stars is rolling out.

Zac Efron, Colin Firth, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon make their debut in small films over the next few days. Their backers are all hoping their movies become the one that parents hit after they drop their kids off at "Iron Man 3."

"This is a great weekend to start a platform release," Exhibitor Relations Vice-President and Senior Analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. "If you can get out there, score a high per-screen average and generate some heat, then you're positioned to be the alternative play, because not everybody's going to get in to see 'Iron Man'."

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The formula can work. Focus Features debuted "Moonrise Kingdom" in May last year and the quirky comedy played through the summer and wound up making $45 million domestically.

The downside for the distributors in such a crowded market is that they can't all connect and some will get lost in the summer shuffle. It's even more complicated this year, because so many films are rolling out in early summer. Another crop of specialty releases will open next week, along with "Iron Man 3," the summer season's first major release. 

Sony Classics gets the specialty ball rolling with its Wednesday limited release of the R-rated “At Any Price” (right), starring Efron, Dennis Quaid and Kim Dickens. Ramin Bahrani wrote the screenplay and directed the film, in which a farming family's business is threatened by an unexpected crisis, testing the relationship between a father and his rebellious son. It opens in two theaters in New York and two in L.A.

Cinedigm is rolling out  “Arthur Newman,” an R-rated romantic comedy starring Firth, Emily Blunt and Anne Heche on 250 screens Friday. It’s the story of a man who fakes his own death and assumes a new identity in order to escape his life, who moves in with a woman who is also trying to leave her past behind.

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Roadside Attractions' "Mud" will get some extra attention this week, given the recent legal troubles of one of its stars, Witherspoon. The PG-13 rated film, which stars McConaughey and was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, premiered last year at Cannes. It’s a drama about a fugitive who is helped by two teenagers as he tries to makes his way back to his love. It will be on 363 screens in the top 90 markets.

“Kon Tiki,” the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from Norway, dramatizes Thor Heyerdahl’s 4,000-mile raft trip across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. The Weinstein Co. is opening it on two screens Friday (photo, top).

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IFC Films will debut the latest effort from director Mira Nair (“Amelia”), thriller “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” on three screens Friday. Hudson, Sutherland and Liev Schreiber star in the R-rated film, which follows a young Pakistani man (Riz Ahmed) chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis and the call of his family's homeland.

Variance Films is debuting "An Oversimplification of Her Beauty," a drama from writer-director Terence Nance, in two New York theaters Friday. The tale of a quixotic artist who hypothesizes about why he feels bad when a mystery girl stands him up stars Alisa Becher, Jc Cain and Dexter Jones.

Also opening Friday are "Tai Chi Hero," a 3D martial arts movie from Hong Kong distributed by Well Go USA, Paladin's "Midnight Children," Drafthouse Films' "Graceland" and the drama "King's Faith" from Walking Giant.

There are two movies opening wide this weekend, "Big Wedding" and "Pain & Gain."

"Pain & Gain" is an R-rated action film from Paramount that is directed by Michael Bay and stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony Mackie and Rebel Wilson.

"Big Wedding" is an older-skewing R-rated romantic comedy written and directed by Justin Zackham ("The Bucket List") from Lionsgate. The ensemble cast includes Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried, Robin Williams and Topher Grace.

There are eight more specialty releases next week. Among them are Millennium Entertainment's R-rated thriller “The Iceman,” starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder and James Franco, and "Love Is All You Need," a romantic comedy from Sony Classics starring Pierce Brosnan.