Searchlight’s sunny day

Sundance acqusitions join Oscar nominations

Fox Searchlight execs had every reason to rejoice on Tuesday morning: The company not only snagged Oscar best pic and director nominations for Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” but closed major Sundance deals for Ben Lewin’s “The Surrogate” and Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “I’m on cloud nine thanks to the convergence of a successful showing with the Oscar nominations and then getting the two films we were incredibly passionate about,” Fox Searchlight co-prexy Nancy Utley told Variety, which first reported both Sundance acquisitions. “It’s tremendously gratifying.”

With early reviews hinting at an awards-worthy performance from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” star John Hawkes, Fox Searchlight moved quickly to snap up worldwide rights to “The Surrogate,” entering exclusive negotiations with CAA just hours after the narrative competition title premiered Monday. Those close to the negotiations peg the winning bid at nearly $6 million, not including P&A funds.

Searchlight has never been shy about opening its wallet at Sundance; the company still holds the record for the festival’s highest purchase — $10.5 million for “Little Miss Sunshine,” which went on to gross $100 million worldwide.

“Surrogate” stars Hawkes as a disabled man in an iron lung who decides he wants to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). William H. Macy co-stars in the film, which Rhino Films CEO Stephen Nemeth produced with Judi Levine of Such Much Films.

As for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the fantastical, Louisiana-set drama drew serious interest from a handful of buyers after its Friday morning debut, but Searchlight emerged as the frontrunner on Sunday and managed to fend off the competition.

While Utley left the dealmaking to her experienced acquisitions team, she knows they were “tough” deals to make. “I was just nervously emailing them to check in on the status,” she said. “It felt like a throwback to the old days, where you’d have these auctions at some of the festivals,” Utley added.

“We were looking for a partner who would unleash our film on the world with the same energy and ferocity with which we made it,” said Zeitlin, recently named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch. “Fox Searchlight came to the table with big hearts and fierce resolve. They’re a perfect match for the project.”

“Beasts,” written by Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin, was produced by Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey and Josh Penn. Sale was repped by WME Global, with Fox Searchlight’s acquisitions veep Ray Strache, exec VP of worldwide acquisitions Tony Safford and senior VP of business affairs Megan O’Brien.

Fox Searchlight plans to release both “Surrogate” and “Beasts” later this year.

Fox’s specialty arm was very active at last year’s Sundance, acquiring “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Another Earth” and “The Art of Getting By,” as well as worldwide remake rights to “The Bengali Detective.” Several months after the festival, Searchlight picked up Zal Batmanglij’s Brit Marling starrer “Sound of My Voice,” which is still awaiting release. In addition, the company brought its comedies “Win Win” and “Cedar Rapids” to Park City, where each bowed to enthusiastic response.

While Fox Searchlight had high expectations for “The Tree of Life,” the recognition from the Academy seemed to catch them by surprise.

“We were gathered in a condo just screaming over breakfast,” Utley said. “‘Tree of Life’ was less expected than ‘The Descendants,’ so there was a lot of shouting. We love the movie with all our hearts and were hoping it would be recognized, so it’s great that it was. I think the preferential voting system really works for a film like ‘Tree of Life’ because of the passionate advocates it has. It’s a polarizing film, but the people who love it absolutely adore it, and they put it first on their ballots.”

As for whether Malick will be at the ceremony next month, Utley was noncommittal. “We haven’t discussed that yet, but he’s a genius, and it’s a great feeling being part of having him get recognized.” Sundance deals

In other deals announced Tuesday:

nFocus spent an estimated $2 million for worldwide rights to “For a Good Time, Call… ” directed by Jamie Travis and starring Ari Graynor, Lauren Miller, Mark Webber and Justin Long.

nSony Pictures Classics picked up North American, Latin American and Eastern European territories on “Celeste and Jesse,” the comedy starring Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones that’s directed by Lee Toland Krieger. Sale price was not disclosed.