Exec traded in Sundance for Oz to work on 'Eucalyptus'

PARK CITY — After Fox Searchlight snapped up the indie breakouts “Garden State” and “Napoleon Dynamite” here last year, one question on every Sundancer’s lips this time around is: Where in the world is Peter Rice?

The wunderkind Searchlight head — with whom Harvey Weinstein wanted to work on “Garden’s” release — is in Oz to supervise “Eucalyptus” as it preps for an early February start.

“It’s a big film, with big stars,” said a Searchlight spokesman of “Eucalyptus,” which stars Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush. She added that Rice’s trip Down Under was expected and that the pic is a top priority.

Still, Sundance has attracted an inordinate number of the industry’s high fliers this year, from Tom Freston to Gareth Wigan and Scott Stuber, and Rice’s absence on the scene has been notable. After all, “Napoleon” and “State” have made companies rethink their business plans.

But Searchlight’s structure is unique in the indie world in that it has a team of vets that can make big buys on the fly even without Rice around.

“We are fully capable of buying on our own (without Rice), if either of us is really passionate” about a film, said Searchlight distribution topper Stephen Gilula. Marketing head Nancy Utley “and I operate as a team. And we want to be in the $7 million or $8 million or $9 million bidding range.”

Sans Rice, Searchlight still has 10 execs on hand here, including Fox senior veep of acquisitions Tony Safford and Searchlight exec veep Claudia Lewis, in addition to Utley.

But after last year, in which it was so active, Searchlight’s name hasn’t come up on too many rumored lists of bidders. Gilula explains that the company, which has “Sideways” vying for an Oscar as best pic, has the luxury of buying only when it wants to.

“A film really has to fit the particular profile and particular personality” of a company, he said. “There’s no pressure or compulsion to buy something every year.”

Searchlight execs did, however, say they had been interested in Pierce Brosnan starrer “The Matador,” which sold to Miramax.

Searchlight was one of the fest’s few distribs not to go get its wallet out after screening Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow.” As the execs from rival studios huddled together with looks of anxiety, strategizing after the film unspooled, Gilula was seen casually walking out of the theater.

Though Searchlight has a very hot hand, its forte has not been in releasing such urban-skewed film fare when it’s R-rated. The company’s DMX starrer “Never Die Alone” was one of its few missteps.

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