Cameron's underwater survival drama gets funding

Sanctum” has found its sea legs. Wayfare Entertainment has committed to finance the $30 million 3-D underwater survival drama that will shoot with James Cameron’s “Avatar” cameras and 3-D technology.

Pic is expected to begin lensing in Australia late this year.

Alister Grierson (“Kokoda”) will direct from the script penned by Andrew Wight and John Garvin. Wight, who has collaborated with Cameron on such docus as “Aliens of the Deep” and “Ghosts of the Abyss,” is the producer. Cameron is executive producer, along with Wayfare principals Ben Browning, Michael Maher and Peter Rawlinson.

FilmNation’s Glen Basner is handling offshore sales, and CAA, which put together the package for the filmmakers, will sell domestic. FilmNation’s Aaron Ryder is co-producer.

“Sanctum” is a fictional drama inspired by Wight’s near-death experience when he led an expedition of 15 divers into a remote underwater cave system below Australia’s Nullarbor Plain, and then watched a freak storm collapse the cave entrance. It became a two-day battle to survive until all 15 were rescued, an ordeal recounted in the 1989 docu “Nullarbor Dreaming.”

In “Sanctum,” a hard-edged father and his teen son lead a diving team, and the true character of the divers surfaces when they are faced with adversity.

“As one who was nearly killed in that cave collapse, I thought there was great stuff in how people react in crisis, and become heroes or cowards,” Wight told Daily Variety. “Jim and I spoke about all this while working on these 3-D adventure projects, and we had a burning desire to make a gritty film about what it’s like to be on an expedition and have it all go horribly wrong. We wanted to show that the 3-D equipment and technology can be used to tell a story in a modest budget independent film.”

“Sanctum” was originally developed at Rogue, then came loose when Universal sold Focus Features’ genre arm to Relativity. CAA is shopping domestic rights at a potentially fortuitous time by following the out-of-left-field success of the Peter Jackson-produced “District 9.”

Like “District 9,” “Sanctum” is also a modestly budgeted drama with a director new to Hollywood, godfathered by an iconic filmmaker using his facilities. “Sanctum” is an example of Cameron’s post-“Avatar” desire to generate films to feed exhibitors’ growing appetite for 3-D titles.

Gotham-based Wayfare is funded by hedge funds and institutional investment companies, according to Browning. Wayfare is prepping for production on the Focus Features adaptation of the Ned Vizzini novel “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” with the “Half Nelson” team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Wayfare is also packaging an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book,” with a script by Neil Jordan.

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