Sundance catches ‘Fish,’ ‘Martha’

“Go Fish” (described as a lesbian “She’s Gotta Have It”) and “Martha & Ethel” (a documentary about two nannies) share the honor of being the first films picked up for distribution since the Sundance Film Festival got under way here Thursday.

The Samuel Goldwyn Co. acquired worldwide rights to “Go Fish” on Saturday night and plans to release the film in the second quarter. The day before, Sony Pictures Classics nabbed all North American, Australian and U.K. rights to Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger’s “nanniementary,” and the studio plans a release later in the year.

Both films are in competition, one for the docu prize, the other for the Mercedes Benz feature prize. And both distributors hope to use the media glare of Park City to promote pix that offer genuine marketing challenges.

Islet Films’ John Pierson said the reason he went with Goldwyn is that the company came to the fest the first day, saw the film and demonstrated the kind of commitment the film needs.

Tom Rothman, production prexy for the Samuel Goldwyn Co., feels Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner’s “Go Fish” has the potential to play beyond its core audience because it’s a comedy about the universal pitfalls of relationships. The film already has become one of the festival’s hotter tickets.

“Everyone told us ‘The Wedding Banquet’ had no crossover potential,” Rothman said. “People said the same thing about ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’

“This is a marketing challenge we have faced before. Our company has been in the forefront of cutting-edge films, including many gay and lesbian films like ‘Longtime Companion’ and ‘Prick Up Your Ears.’ You promote the film to its core audience, then you hope the film’s universal appeal, and word of mouth, brings in the rest.”

“Go Fish” is Goldwyn’s third film in the festival. “Suture,” a black-and-white meditation on identity, will be competing with “Go Fish” for the feature prize. It opens March 4 in the U.S. “Golden Gate,” the Joan Chen/Matt Dillon feature, premieres here Wednesday night. And “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” a non-competition film, hits theaters April 8, the 20th anniversary of the reclusive pianist’s final performance.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Martha & Ethel” was the first film at the festival picked up for distribution. And SPC co-prez Marcie Bloom believes the documentary, about two nannies and their lifetimes spent in service to the two filmmakers’ families, can translate to a larger audience then most docus generate.

Bloom saw the film for the first time last Friday and was so moved that she signed it the same day.

She told Daily Variety, “The film is uncommonly honest and has the effect of ‘pushing buttons,’ regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, where and how you were raised, and whether or not you’re a parent, because we were all once children.” Furthermore, Bloom suggests that at a time when child care is a hot topic of debate, this film provides an intriguing window into what child care is all about.

Both filmmakers had different experiences with their surrogate parents, and during the course of the film, the viewer gets to see them resolve emotional baggage they have carried with them since childhood.

Producer/director Jyll Johnstone was one of five siblings that nanny Martha Kniefel raised after she emigrated from Germany in 1936. Martha was a strict disciplinarian who began working for Johnstone’s family on the Upper East Side of New York in 1941. She retired in 1971 and moved to Queens.

Ethel came from a black sharecropper family in rural South Carolina. She left her home in the 1930s and moved to Manhattan, where she had a variety of jobs before becoming a nanny. Ethel stuck with the Ettinger family through divorce, relocations and deaths. Today, she still lives with Mrs. Ettinger in Greenwich, Conn.

“In many ways, I feel very Southern — my mannerisms, my values,” Ettinger said. “And Jyll has a lot of German characteristics and values. In the film, you can see the effect that these women had on our families and us.”

“Go Fish” and “Martha & Ethel” will probably be platform releases, expanding to other major markets after New York and L.A. Sony hopes its doc will join the ranks of such successes as “Paris Is Burning,””Roger & Me” and “The Thin Blue Line.”

Bloom feels that if print press and chat shows get behind “Martha & Ethel,” it could become a breakout film. When asked whether she’s ready to prattle about her strict German nanny in such a forum, director Johnstone responded, “I’m not ready for ‘Oprah,’ but I am thrilled we have a distributor.”

The majority of the premieres to date, including Mike Newell’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Iain Softley’s “Backbeat” (the story of Stu Sutcliffe and John Lennon), and Daniel Algrant’s “Naked in New York” have all been well-received, especially Algrent’s romantic comedy.

Many who caught the premiere Saturday night felt this first feature marked the arrival of a clever new voice that will play well at the box office. Particularly fun was the number of star turns in the film, among them novelist William Styron, playwright Ariel Dorfman, Eric Bogosian, columnist Bruce Feirstein, screenwriter Richard Price, Quentin Crisp and director Arthur Penn, who was also in the audience.

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