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Steady pace of deals as Sundance bows

'Beasts,' 'Compliance,' 'Robot' still up for grabs

In the Sundance Film Festival’s opening weekend, deals and offers have blanketed the event, though no one is expecting a blizzard of activity equal to last year’s. Buyers tell Variety that while deals are getting done, last year’s feeding frenzy has given way to caution.

The first deal was struck Friday, when Sony Pictures Classics bought North American rights to “Searching for Sugar Man,” a documentary about unsung 1960s music phenom Rodriguez.

The three most well-received pics thus far — “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Compliance” and “Robot and Frank” — were still up for grabs, with a feverish scramble under way for “Beasts.”

Meanwhile, the elevated genre pic “The Pact” is entertaining offers from several distribs, including Universal, Dark Castle and IFC. The Preferred Content pic produced by Ross Dinerstien is also seeing brisk international action from distribs in the U.K., Spain, Australia and France.

WME Global is selling the story of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who lives in a southern Delta community during quasi-apocalyptic events that cause the seas to rise. Critics, bloggers and audiences were sparking to the magical-realist pic, and as of Sunday afternoon, there were still several buyers in the mix, with Fox Searchlight looking like the strongest contender.

“I’m pretty optimistic. We’re getting great response to our films and figuring out deals with the right partners quickly,” said Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, who has already sold three films. “Talking to buyers and other reps, it feels like a pressure cooker about to blow. There are a ton of films buyers are interested in, but most are waiting for the right price. I would predict a lot of deals in the next 48 hours.”

Other early fest pickups included the following:

• “Black Rock,” the thriller on which David Dinerstein and Mickey Liddell’s LD Distribution was finishing up a North American theatrical distrib deal for something close to seven figures;

• “The Words,” the Bradley Cooper-Zoe Saldana drama that screened for buyers ahead of its closing-night preem and attracted a sight-unseen offer from Open Road, which eventually lost out to CBS Films’ $2 million upfront and $1.5 million P&A commitment offer during an all-night negotiation;

• “The Queen of Versailles,” the docu about a Florida real-estate mogul who sets out to build his family the largest house in the U.S. (and is suing the filmmakers and the Sundance Institute for characterizing him as broke); Magnolia Pictures picked up all North American rights.

Other big premieres at the Eccles Theater included Friday night’s “Red Lights,” whose producers are entertaining three separate offers and expecting others. The psychological thriller stars Cillian Murphy, last year’s Sundance it-girl Elizabeth Olsen (who’s also here with “Liberal Arts”), Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro, who returns to the fest for the first time since “What Just Happened” four years ago.

Major studios haven’t yet been in the buying mix, though bizzers tell Variety that more than one is showing interest in “Filly Brown,” the “Hustle and Flow”-esque story of a young hip-hop artist starring Gina Rodriguez.

“I think buyers are hungry for product but looking to make the right deal,” one studio buyer told Variety. “Everything that has sold has had multiple offers, which shows that it’s an active market — but distribs are cautious after big acquisitions last year did not perform.”

A steady snowfall gummed up the roads and slowed Sundance shuttles to an agonizing crawl — but was a welcome relief for locals, many of whom said they’d been waiting all year for snow.

Tough economic times and deep, slushy snow couldn’t dampen the vibrant party scene, as festivalgoers shivered outside dozens of Main Street bashes on the fest’s opening weekend. The official Sundance kickoff party Thursday night at Legacy Lodge at the foot of the mountain drew a line several hundred people deep, though the industry crowd stayed away, opting instead for intimate filmmaker dinners, private affairs and, much later into the night, Tao, where stars ranging from Chris Hemsworth to Mary J. Blige made the pulsating scene.

A heavy industry crowd turned out Saturday night at the Bing Bar on Main to see rapper Drake do a five-song set that threw the room into a gyrating frenzy — despite being almost two hours later than expected.

“Imagine that, the rapper is late,” said Aziz Ansari, who did a short standup to introduce the hip-hop star.

Besides “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” easily the most admired film of the fest so far, early buzz awards went to “Robot and Frank,” starring Frank Langella as a curmudgeonly retiree whose children buy him a caretaker robot; and “Compliance,” the based-on-a-true-story tale of a man who calls fast-food restaurants posing as a cop to accuse employees of stealing.

As far as the rest of the fest — with more deep snow in the forecast — bizzers and auds were looking most forward to Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” which unspools Sunday night; the young alcoholics drama “Smashed,” starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul and Octavia Spencer, which also preeems Sunday; and “Bachelorette,” the wedding-centric comedy by Leslye Headland that opens Monday at the Eccles.

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