Studio gauging interest in Sundance docu

In an unusual twist to the acquisition process, Paramount will test screen Sundance Film Festival documentary “Catfish” Tuesday night on the Melrose lot to gauge the reaction of auds before the studio decides whether it will make an offer for the pic.

Par and the pic’s sales reps, CAA, would not comment on the screening.

Producers J.J. Abrams and Jason Blum, both close to Par, approached the studio about teaming on “Catfish” and picking up domestic distribution rights, insiders said. “Catfish,” about a photographer who develops an online relationship with a family who aren’t who they say they are, was one of the most buzzed-about titles at Sundance.

Insiders close to the process made it clear that a deal hasn’t yet been inked for “Catfish.”

It’s unusual but not unprecedented for a fest title to be test-screened with a recruited audience.

When DreamWorks (at the time still married to Par) inked a remake-rights deal for “Paranormal Activity,” Blum made sure to include a clause that stipulated that the film would be test-screened before it was decided whether Par would also theatrically release Oren Peli’s original low-budget ghost pic.

Paramount may have shuttered specialty unit Paramount Vantage as a standalone unit, but it is not out of the festival acquisitions game. Studio has already acquired Sundance entry “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s docu on education produced by Participant Media.

“Catfish” has become the subject of controversy since premiering more than a week ago at Sundance.

Heading into the fest, those involved with the twist-filled docu begged auds not to spoil the movie’s secrets, about how the filmmakers found themselves at the center of an elaborate online con.

But as the fest unfolded, some skeptics began to question whether it was auds who were the ones being misled, charging that the film wasn’t a doc but instead scripted and performed by actors.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman claim to be surprised by the accusations, which have added another layer of intrigue to a film that deals with issues of how people represent themselves in a digital age — but may also be making potential distributors nervous.

“It’s kind of insulting,” Joost told Daily Variety. “If that were true, it would mean that we’re the worst kind of people. I don’t even know how we could have faked this.”

And yet, the rumor became widespread, with conversations about the film on Park City shuttles, Twitter and the Web. Some cite specific details in the film, which strike them as being too perfect not to have been staged, and the fact that cameras seem to be rolling at all times, capturing details that pay off later in the film.

According to the helmers, Sundance staff anticipated such a reaction, programming “Catfish” in the Spotlight category rather than in the docu competition. The film was produced by the “Capturing the Friedmans” team of Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.

Insisting that the only shots they fabricated were computer screens re-creating their online interactions with the “Catfish” family, the helmers hope questions over authenticity won’t impair the film’s release. Similar doubts undermined 2005 Sundance screener “Unknown White Male,” another unlikely story that ultimately proved to be true, though in a post-“Blair Witch Project” world, such ambiguity could just as easily stoke interest in the project.

(Sharon Swart contributed to this report)

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