M'max, Fox joint procurement sets tone for active fest

This article was updated at 6:30 p.m.

PARK CITY — A blizzard of major sales swept through the Sundance Film Festival Sunday, providing unprecedented opening-weekend acquisition action.

Also unprecedented is the uniquely structured deal cooked up by indie competitors Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight, who paid $5 million to jointly acquire worldwide rights to Zach Braff’s “Garden State.”

The romantic comedy, which stars director Zach Braff with Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm, concerns a young man who falls in love after returning to his hometown for his mother’s funeral. Jersey Films exec produced the pic, with Pam Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert and Dan Halsted. Distribs will split revenues 50-50; details of who will handle which territories are to be determined, based on each company’s resources in various markets.

“We had a great experience working with Jim Gianopolis, Tom Rothman and all of Fox on ‘Master And Commander,’ and it is exciting that we can now work with the studio on an independent level as well,” said Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein.

Fox Searchlight took the title of most voracious weekend buyer in Park City, closing a second deal Sunday afternoon for world rights to “Napoleon Dynamite,” a dramatic competition entry inspired by Salt Lake City-based writer-director Jared Hess’ adolescent experiences in rural Idaho.

Produced by Jeremy Coon, Sean Covel and Chris Wyatt, the quirky comedy was the subject of bids from most of the key specialty distribs, including Miramax, Fine Line and Warner Independent Pictures. John Sloss of Cinetic Media brokered the deal, calling it “a creative deal with significant incentives” and placing a $3 million pricetag on the sale.

Focus Features, meanwhile, snapped up North American rights to Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” for between $3 million and $4 million. Exec produced by fest founder Robert Redford, pic had its world premiere Saturday night in Park City.

Film stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna in a recounting of the odyssey undertaken by the young Che Guevara as a 23-year-old med student with his friend Granado in 1952. Focus co-prexy David Linde said Universal Pictures’ specialty division will release the pic in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Stacy Peralta’s surf doc and Sundance opener “Riding Giants” closed a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics. The distributor also handled Peralta’s previous doc, “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” which charted the rise of skateboarding culture and won the directing and audience award at Sundance in 2001.

“We are delighted to be continuing our long-standing relationship with Sony Pictures Classics,” said Muriel Sauvay and John Kochman of StudioCanal, who, with Andrew Hurwitz of Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz and Weinstein, brokered the deal on behalf of StudioCanal. “Sony Pictures Classics’ unwavering commitment to Stacy Peralta and his singular talent makes ‘Riding Giants’ a perfect fit for all concerned.”

Lions Gate also bought its first pic of the fest, taking American Spectrum selection “Open Water” off the table with a $2.5 million bid for worldwide rights. Written and directed by Chris Kentis, the deep-sea suspenser is the story of a scuba-diving couple who find themselves stranded in a shark-infested ocean.

“Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have crafted an unbelievably intense tale of fear and survival set in the vast, creepy expanse of the open ocean,” said Lions Gate Films Releasing president Tom Ortenberg. A summer theatrical release is planned.

Fine Line Features was also expected to confirm its intention to take North American rights on HBO Films’ Spanish-language “Maria Full of Grace.” While HBO’s deal with Fine Line covers only English-language titles, the distrib is understood to have right of first refusal on the cabler’s foreign language product. A suspenseful drama about a Colombian drug mule, “Maria Full of Grace” received a strong reception at its premiere screening Sunday that placed it at the forefront of competition titles viewed to date.

Also likely to sell in the coming days is Greg Harrison’s “November,” a psychological thriller from InDigEnt starring Courteney Cox.

When Sundance released its schedule earlier this month, buyers noted that the festival seemed to be front-loaded, with almost all of the buzz titles programmed during the festival’s opening weekend. With so many key deals wrapped in the opening days, the field may now remain more open for second-string specialty distribs to fill their buying quotas.

While the first Sundance sales were brewing, festgoers had plenty to discuss thanks to Peter Biskind’s just-published “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film.” While no one is eager to be seen with the book in public, the only people who don’t have a copy in their condos are those who finished it before they got on a plane.

One place you won’t find the Biskind tome is in Dolly’s Books on Main Street. Is there a Park City boycott on the book, which is unstinting in its criticism of Redford and Miramax Films chieftain Harvey Weinstein?

“We’re sold out,” said a Dolly’s clerk. “We won’t get more until Wednesday.”

The festival runs through Jan. 25.

(David Rooney contributed to this report.)

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