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U.K. co-productions storm Sundance

British films seek North American distribution

In 1994, Polygram took two British movies to Sundance. Company toppers were convinced that one, a pop biopic, had the potential to become a global hit, while the other, an unfashionable romantic comedy with a clumsy title, was just an amusing bit of fluff.

As it turned out, “Backbeat” barely raised a pulse among the Park City crowd. Instead, fest auds went crazy for “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” And so began the British film renaissance.

While Sundance may be the mecca for American indie cinema, it’s pretty important for the Brits as well. And this year’s fest welcomes more films from Blighty than ever, accompanied by filmmakers who are grateful for Sundance’s hip cachet.

Brit helmer Pete Travis will unveil his apartheid thriller “Endgame” at Sundance. A former social worker who came to filmmaking in his mid-20s financing his short films with meager earnings as a dispatch rider before getting his break in TV, Travis sees his Sundance invite as the fulfillment of a dream.

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“It means a lot to me personally, because Sundance has always been the spiritual home of independent film,” he says. “When you’re scraping together £2,000 with your friends so you can make a short and your voice can be heard, Sundance always seemed like the place you’d want to end up. Making political films is very difficult, so it’s extraordinary for our film to be supported like this.”

Though Travis is an established helmer who already has a studio pic under his belt (“Vantage Point”), newer filmmakers view the Sundance trek as an opportunity to be discovered Stateside.

“Sundance was, and still is, an amazing launchpad,” attests producer Paul Trijbits, who, while at the U.K. Film Council, helped finance Paul Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday” and was present when it hit the fest in 2002, inked a deal with Paramount Classics and gave Greengrass a career liftoff.

And, beyond exposure for filmmakers, says Trijbits, “Sundance is still fundamentally a place to get a North American sale.”

London-based sales agent Sam Horley agrees. She sold Brit horror pic “Donkey Punch” at Sundance last year. “It was fantastic, the screening was absolutely rammed,” she remembers.

“Magnolia went nuts for it, and we had an offer on the table by 3 a.m.”

This year, Horley’s company, Salt, is handling Midnight entry “White Lightnin’ ” at the fest.

Trijbits returns with World Competition entry “Five Minutes of Heaven.” The pic, like “Bloody Sunday,” explores the Northern Irish plight and was made for TV in the U.K. but for theatrical release elsewhere. “For ‘Five Minutes of Heaven,’ Sundance is the perfect way of marking the true theatrical heart of the film,” Trijbits adds.

“Five Minutes” helmer Oliver Hirschbiegel, of course, is not a Brit. But then, nor is Trijbits. It’s typical of the British film industry, which is willing and eager to tap the talents of a German director, a Dutch producer or anyone else who wants to come and join the party.

The multinational nature of the Brit biz is very much in evidence at Sundance 2009. The lineup of British films includes “An Education,” helmed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig; “Unmade Beds,” by Argentine Alexis Dos Santos; “In the Loop,” by Armando Iannucci, Scottish-born of an Italian father; and “Bronson,” directed by another Dane, Nicolas Winding Refn.

Then there’s “Sergio,” a doc by Greg Barker, an American filmmaker who lives in London; and two American-based movies by British directors, Dominic Murphy’s “White Lightnin’ ” and David Mackenzie’s “Spread.”

Duncan Jones, a commercials director whose debut movie “Moon” premieres at Sundance, is British –though as the son of rock god David Bowie, he had a globe-trotting upbringing that took him from Switzerland to Berlin to Scotland to New York.

“Moon” is set, as the title suggests, on the moon, and stars Sam Rockwell, for whom Jones specifically created the whole project. The project, which was prebought by Sony for English-speaking territories, thus floats clear of any simple national pigeonhole.

“I feel British, and I feel patriotic when I see British films doing well, but it’s difficult in the film industry if you get boxed into being seen as a ‘British’ filmmaker. ‘Moon’ is a human story with universal themes,” says Jones, citing Christopher Nolan as a role model.

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