Fox Searchlight Has $10 Million Dollar Deal with Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance Film Festival The desire of independent films is growing in high. The distributors and acquisitions departments are in full force in Park City with check books in hand and set for finding the next big March of The Penguins.
A race is on the way for buyers who are traversing the theatres, streets and parties to find the right film for the right company/studio. It is a frenzy of demanding intensity as the factors of appealing, entertaining, high-quality movies with recognizable stars and indie credibility will make buyer bring out the check books in Park City. What makes this process even more intense are the other new horizon in releasing issues are coming to play with the demands of Google, Netflix and now Starbucks. The Park City feeding frenzy of acquisitions seems inevitable, however, as hungry buyers circle a slew of indie projects that no one has seen. They are all chasing the same Holy Grail. This year, lawyer John Sloss, UTA and publicity firm mPRm worked on the media magic on Little Miss Sunshine, which was acquired for a $10 Million dollar price tag and marking the first big buy at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight acquired worldwide rights to "Little Miss Sunshine," the charming comedy debut from husband-and-wife rookie filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Sources placed the deal at more than $10 million, the record set by Miramax Films' purchase of "Happy, Texas" in 1999. The price may have been a bit high, largely because it stars funny man Steve Carell, just off the sleeper hit "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." The fact that its rookie filmmakers, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, are hot video directors help garner the big price tag for this independent film. The pictures with the greatest heat are inevitably those with stars -- most of which are in the fest's 17-film Premiere film section. Three-time Sundance player Finn Taylor came to the festival bringing the comedy The Darwin Awards, a CAA package starring Winona Ryder, Joseph Fiennes and Metallica. Now the film is going home with a deal with Bauer Martinez Distribution, the recently formed U.S. film distributor headed by Philippe Martinez. The Darwin Awards is a crowd-pleasing comedy by filmmaker Finn Taylor “Cherish” that stars Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder and an all-star ensemble cast including Wilmer Valderrama, Judah Friedlander, Brad Hunt, Ty Burrell, Lukas Haas, Juliette Lewis, Julianna Margulies, Tim Blake Nelson and the late Chris Penn. Jane Sindell, Johnny Wow and Jason Blum are the film's producers. BMD acquired distribution rights in the U.S. and Canada. As the Sundance market has heated up over the past decade, more and more money has flowed toward production of movies designed from the beginning to sell at festivals. The major talent agencies -- CAA, ICM, UTA and WMA -- are increasingly involved in setting up films, often packaged with their own clients, for eventual sale to indie distributors. William Morris Agency helped more than 25 projects get made last year. Six of these films made the cut at Sundance this year. Selling these projects has become an art in itself. Rather than boasting one lonely producer's rep like Jeff Dowd or a lawyer like Cinetic Media's John Sloss, who now has a deep bench of lawyers working for him, these projects have phalanxes of reps involved in the deals. Their worst fear is that a movie will get overlooked by the critics and press who can position a film for would-be buyers. But the films that garner the most Sundance hype are not always the most successful. Conversely, some of the Sundance selections make their mark only after the festival is over. Last year, for example, "March of the Penguins" barely registered on the Sundance radar until Warner Independent Pictures swiftly closed a deal with 50-50 partner National Geographic Films to acquire the French-language nature docu and re-edited it into an English-language version; it then grossed more than $77 million. Several smaller acquisitions from Sundance 2005 -- from Samuel Goldwyn Films' "The Squid and the Whale" to Sony Pictures Classics' "Junebug" performed surprisingly well thanks to rave reviews. Warner Independent Pictures negotiated the acquisition of Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep," which was produced by George Bermann and Frederic Junqua, purchasing all rights in the US, Canada and the UK. The film is written and directed by. Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou Miou, Aurelia Petit and Sacha Bourdo. Warner Independent Pictures plans to release the film in the second half of 2006. Warner Independent Pictures jumped into the big-buy arena Monday with its $6 million acquisition of the film. ThinkFilm acquired all worldwide rights to first-time feature director Ryan Fleck's drama "Half Nelson" during the Sundance Festival. The film, which premiered in the festival's Dramatic Competition section, stars Ryan Gosling as an idealistic young junior high school teacher in New York who befriends a young girl (newcomer Shareeka Epps) after she discovers his crack addiction. It was purchased for just under $1 million plus a hefty percentage of the gross for the filmmakers, according to sources close to the negotiations. The film is slated for a late summer or early fall theatrical release TF1 International announced the acquisition of international rights excluding English-speaking territories to Christopher Quinn’s “God Grew Tired of Us” which has its World at the Sundance Film Festival where it is part of the Documentary Competition. The film is produced by Quinn and Molly Bradford; executive produced by Brad Pitt, Adam Schlesinger and Jack Schneider and narrated by Nicole Kidman. “God Grew Tired Of Us” follows three “Lost Boys of Sudan” over four years as they leave Africa for New York City and attempt to make sense of their new country. After the initial culture shock, they begin to lead “normal” lives yet they remain deeply committed, both spiritually and economically, to those lost boys left behind and to their struggling homeland. The deal was negotiated by Head of Acquisitions Sara May and legal Caroline Dubourg on behalf of TF1 International and by CAA on behalf of the filmmakers. Miramax Films has nabbed North American rights to Patrick Stettner's mystery-thriller "The Night Listener" from Hart Sharp Entertainment and IFC Films for more than $3 million plus box-office bonuses. According to a source close to the deal, interest from buyers started slowly after the Saturday evening premiere of the film, which stars Robin Williams and Toni Collette. The initial screening, which Williams wasn't able to attend because he was filming in Canada, met with lukewarm reaction; observers reported a better reaction to the second screening at Sundance. The Miramax team met with Stettner and Maupin to discuss such details as how the film might be best marketed and when it would be released. According to several sources within the acquisitions community, Lionsgate and Sony Pictures Classics also expressed interest in the film, though execs at Lionsgate and SPC denied they made offers. The deal was negotiated by Miramax exec vp business affairs Michael Luisi, Miramax acquisition execs Kristin Jones and Peter Lawson, Hart Sharp's Mike Hogan and Robert Kessel and UTA. IFC Films has purchased rights on the acquisition for North American in all media to Patrick Creadon's crowd-pleasing Sundance Documentary Competition entry "Wordplay." Fantastic PR came with this film through David Magdel & Associates, which brought the buyers on the alert with this film. The Weinstein Co., with whom IFC has partnership, controls home video rights through its deal with Genius Products. The "Wordplay" sale, for about $1 million, also became a flashpoint in an intense seller's market as disgruntled competitors were left behind. At the Cinetic Media party Monday, Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill complained to Cinetic's John Sloss, who was handling the sale, that he was spreading false rumours about WIP's "Wordplay" bid to drive up the price. That was not the case, Sloss told Gill. "Wordplay" is directed by Creadon and produced by O'Malley, who got a kick out of meeting the line-up of interested distributors. IFC Films won the project over competitors Picturehouse, WIP and SPC by dint of the company's sheer enthusiasm -- and willingness to write a $1 million check. IFC also spent money on "Factotum" in the earlier part of the Festival and has plans to release the film this year. In other acquisitions deals, the Independent Film Channel sold U.K. broadcast rights to Kirby Dick's MPAA ratings board docu "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" to the BBC. Other films said to be attracting attention from buyers are "Right at Your Door" "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" and to "The Illusionist," starring Edward Norton as a magician, "Sherrybaby," headlining Maggie Gyllenhaal; "Stephanie Daley," featuring Tilda Swinton The filmmakers are hoping to sell the film as a wide-release picture. "Man Push Cart" was acquired by Films Philos and sales company WIDE Entertainment. "Stay" Picked Up by Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films. Foreign-language fare like the South African fable "Son of Man" may not be first priority as the first part of Sundance is front-loaded with star-driven product, but should be sot after at some point in time. The hungriest distributors looking to make a statement with a high-profile Sundance buy are the newest. Former Endeavor agent John Lesher is ramping up his Paramount specialty division, which just added former Miramax acquisitions vet Amy Israel. But they will be hampered in their Sundance bidding because they do not yet have a marketing team in place. (Lesher is said to be on the verge of closing a deal for a marketing chief; Fox Searchlight's Meg Colligan will move to the Paramount lot to run PR for the division.) Ruth Vitale, who scored Paramount's "Hustle & Flow" buy, last year when she was co-head of Paramount Classics, is expected to take an aggressive posture as president of First Look Pictures. Bauer Martinez, which bought "Harsh Times" in Toronto, will be a new player on the block with something to prove. Both New Line Cinema, which will close the fest with "Alpha Dog," starring Justin Timberlake, and Bob Birney’s Picturehouse will be on the hunt for projects. So will the Weinstein Co., which is flush with fresh funding. Harvey Weinstein will pass through the festival for one day, he said, to support the company's Bruce Willis-Josh Hartnett starrer "Lucky Number Slevin," from "Gangster No. 1" director Paul McGuigan. But if lured into a major bidding war, it's unlikely that Weinstein will be able to resist. Now Sundance is truly a buyers market set in the history books of acquisitions for years to come. As the vision that was created 22 years ago for this Film Festival has made American Independent Films a major player in the theatre screens of tomorrow. Robert Redford has made a difference to independent films and filmmakers in sharing their stories to the masses. For more information on the Sundance Film Festival visit their website at www.sundance.org Keiko Beatie