'Sunshine' heats up Sundance

This article was updated at 4:51 p.m. on Sunday, 22 Jan. 2006.

Fox specialty arm Fox Searchlight made the first buy of the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, picking up worldwide rights to “Little Miss Sunshine” in a heated bidding war that hit the $10 million mark. Pic comes from husband-and-wife commercials and musicvid directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Distribs immediately began making offers on the ensemble pic — starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell — after its Friday preem went over like gangbusters, capped by a standing ovation. Offers then flooded in to sales rep Cinetic Media from Focus Features, the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Warner Independent Pictures was also in the mix.

People close to the deal said Universal arm Focus dropped out when bidding reached $8 million, while Disney’s Miramax put in a bid in tandem with international sales banner Summit Entertainment for $7 million. Harvey Weinstein, in town to support his company’s “Lucky Number Slevin,” was also interested, offering $6 million, sources close to the deal said.

Bidding went into the wee hours, and people close to the deal said the pact included a provision for the “Sunshine” producers to take in as much of 10% of the pic’s gross — an unusually generous offer, according to indie pros. Searchlight has an impressive track record in handling sophisticated, offbeat comedies, including “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Sideways” and “Garden State.”

After skepticism over the availability of titles with commercial appeal here this year, the “Sunshine” screening left distribs licking their chops. After the film screened, toppers from most of the studio specialty arms, as well as mini-major Lionsgate, huddled with acquisitions teams to map out their plans.

“This is what Sundance is all about,” Searchlight topper Peter Rice said after sealing the pact. “The film got a rapturous response. People broke into applause during the movie, and people were crying and laughing. For first-time directors, the film is made with such an assured hand.”

Rice and the pic’s producers declined to comment on financial terms of the pact.

Move marked a bold return to Sundance for Rice after the honcho skipped the fest last year. Two years ago, the banner picked up both “Garden State” and “Napoleon Dynamite” here.

“Sunshine” — which follows a motley, six-member family trekking to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant to fulfill the wish of a big-dreaming 7-year-old — was penned by Michael Arndt and produced through the Big Beach and Bona Fide Prods. banners by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. Searchlight has pegged a summer rollout for the pic.

In other wheeling and dealing, pacts were unveiled over the weekend by IFC, which picked up North American rights to Bent Hamer’s dark comedy “Factotum,” and Sony Pictures Classics, which closed a deal to nab this year’s Russian Oscar entry “The Italian” for North American distribution.

Starring Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Fisher Stevens and Marisa Tomei, “Factotum” preemed in Cannes. Based on Charles Bukowski’s semiautobiographical novel, pic was written and produced by Hamer with Jim Stark.

SPC’s pickup, which is not a Sundance selection, is the feature debut of helmer Andrei Kravchuk. Pic follows 6-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), who must choose between letting himself be adopted by a foreign family or running away to find the mother who abandoned him.

Pic preemed in Berlin last year.

While “Sunshine” received a bright reception, no other Sundance pic has yet captured acquisitions execs’ imagination.

Buyers said activity probably would pick up today, with a crowded weekend of screenings behind them.

Some of the titles heading into the fest with noticeable buzz drew only so-so responses from buyers, including Robin Williams starrer “The Night Listener,” which made its world preem Saturday night, as well as Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” which first screened on Friday, and Paul Giamatti starrer “The Hawk Is Dying,” which played Saturday.

Hotly tipped Edward Norton starrer “The Illusionist” was set to preem Sunday night. On the docu front, “Wordplay,” about crossword guru Will Shortz, was generating some buzz.

Reflecting the fest’s momentary lull after the blast of “Sunshine,” one pic that drew attention from almost all the major studio subsids hadn’t even begun shooting: International sales banner Wild Bunch arranged an impromptu press conference Sunday morning to announce the next film by “March of the Penguins” helmer Luc Jacquet.

The news brought high-ranking execs from Warner Independent, Sony Classics, Miramax, the Weinstein Co., Focus Features and Searchlight scurrying to a Starbucks on Main Street, where Jacquet addressed the small but high-powered gathering via video conference.

Helmer said the pic, the $13.4 million-budgeted “The Fox and the Child,” will tell the story of a little girl who has a magical encounter with a fox and, as an adult, recounts a magical friendship that took her into a forbidden world. Pic will shoot with a docu crew and a feature unit. “Penguins” producer Bonne Pioche produces.

Jacquet’s “Penguins” sold here last year to Warner Independent.

In other fest news, Sundance honchos Geoffrey Gilmore and Robert Redford announced the launch of a new Sundance Institute Art House Project, with 14 arthouse cinemas around the country to offer screenings of recent films that have played Sundance, along with film classics supported by the institute over the years.

Project is among various activities celebrating the institute’s 25th anni this year and is designed to pay tribute to theaters committed to building auds for indies. Programmers from the 14 sites — none in Gotham or Los Angeles — are attending Sundance, which runs through Sunday, to craft their programs.

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