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A Bidding War Over an Orphan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The battle to buy the first commercial discovery of the 1998 Cannes International Film Festival began quietly enough.

No one had seen “Waking Ned,” a comedy made with no movie stars by a British first-time writer-director, before its first screening on Monday afternoon. The 33-year-old filmmaker, Kirk Jones, had just driven the print down from London--a 15-hour trip--because plane tickets were too expensive. He didn’t even have any promotional posters.

“Cannes is so much about hype, but we just snuck in the back door,” Jones said of his film. Snuck in, that is, and took the place by storm.

On Tuesday, just 20 hours after distributors got their first look, Fox Searchlight bought the comedy, which chronicles what happens to a tiny Irish village when one of its residents wins the lottery. Sources said Fox paid more than $4 million for the rights to distribute the film in North and South America.

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“I’m wearing a big smile,” said Lindsay Law, the president of Fox Searchlight. “I couldn’t be more happy.”

But the victory--won after a grueling, late-night competition during which several distributors made entreaties via cellular phones--did not come easy.

Sources said Fox beat out four other major distributors, one which offered to pay $1 million over and above the price of the film just to secure exclusive negotiating rights. Artisan Entertainment, the newly renamed company that was Live Entertainment, was among those who lost out, having at one point put in a bid of $3.5 million, sources said. Trimark and October Films also were in the running.

That the deal was done in less than a day shows how swiftly business gets done in Cannes, where fierce rivalries force almost instantaneous decisions. That the battle was so pitched says something, moreover, about this year’s festival, which features few “audience pleasers” that have not already been bought by distributors.

Before the festival began, Miramax bought two popular films in competition here--Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” and Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful.” Similarly, Todd Solondz’s much talked about “Happiness” arrived in Cannes already represented by October.

So “Waking Ned,” which is not officially connected to the festival but is screening at the film market, was a welcome surprise. Especially after word got around that it could be another “Full Monty"--the British blockbuster, made for less than $4 million, that has grossed $247 million to date for Fox Searchlight.

Jones, a commercial director who lives in London, said he based his film on a tiny newspaper clipping about a postmistress in South Wales whose neighbors suspected she had won the lottery.

“She put a sign in her window: ‘No, I have not won.’ I thought the idea of a small community dealing with a winner in their midst was compelling,” Jones said.

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So did Law, who first read the script two years ago, liked it very much but ultimately didn’t buy it because, he said, “it had an underlying sweetness that I thought resembled too much another film we were making--which turned out to be ‘The Full Monty.’ ”

The film was financed, in part, by pre-selling the distribution rights in France and Britain. The film commission from the Isle of Man, where the film was shot, also kicked in some money.

By happenstance, Law said, he found out that the film was screening for the first time here and made a point of showing up. He wasn’t alone. Acquisitions folks from Trimark, Gramercy, Miramax, Fine Line and Polygram were also there.

The minute that first screening ended, the hustle began.

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“You hope you’ll see a movie like this,” Law explained. “Then, you say, ‘If I see this is wonderful, I won’t be the only one.’ Then, you panic.”

Distributors beat a hasty path for the Noga Hilton, the headquarters of the Overseas Film Group, which was selling the film. But the company’s chairman, Robert Little, was out.

Little’s cellular phone soon started ringing incessantly. Amir Malin, the co-president of Artisan, had had three scouts at the screening and on the basis of their enthusiasm, he tracked Little down.

“They told me it was like ‘Local Hero,’ ” he said, referring to the Bill Forsyth film about an American oil company hoping to locate a big operation in a small Scottish town. Malin made his offer that night. But Little had promised other distributors not to commit to any company before Tuesday’s screening.

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Law and his colleagues at Fox Searchlight were also calling. They finally reached Little while he was eating dinner at a pricey hillside restaurant called the Colombe D’Or.

“We called him every 10 minutes, though when his main course arrived, he wisely turned [his phone] off,” Law said. “We said, ‘We’ll pick up your entire dinner bill if you’ll make a deal right now.’ But he honored his agreement and made us wait.”

The calls, Little recalled, “continued until 2:30 in the morning.”

By sunrise Tuesday, when people began gathering for breakfast in the cafes along the Croissette, there was a healthy buzz about “Waking Ned.” The top brass from October Films, who had not been represented on Monday, occupied the entire back row at Tuesday’s screening.

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Fox Searchlight had some advantages going into the negotiations. Its track record with “Full Monty,” Law said, is so well known to British filmmakers that he didn’t even have to bring it up. Moreover, the company has just released “Shooting Fish,” a Stefan Schwartz film whose producer, Richard Holmes, is also a producer of “Waking Ned.”

Nevertheless, Law said, anxiety about the possibility of losing the film kept him awake all night. “I went to bed at 3 a.m. and lay there until 6, when I got up and ordered breakfast.”

Tuesday’s screening began at 11:30 a.m. Half an hour after it ended, the deal was done.

“It’s satisfying,” Little said later at a party, held on a British yacht called the Zaffiro, celebrating the film. “It doesn’t happen with every film.”

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Jones, the filmmaker, said he was thrilled, particularly because his movie is an upbeat tale--a cinematic style that has not been in vogue of late.

“I’d hate for you to think I’m some goody-goody director. I loved ‘Trainspotting,’ but it wasn’t my bag,” he said.

“Part of me wants to go crazy,” he said with controlled enthusiasm. “But I’m very down to earth. As soon as I let it go to my head, I’ll be lost.”


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