The weather was bitterly cold, the hour was late and there wasn’t a parking spot to be found. Still, the night belonged to “Little Miss Sunshine” and nothing could keep the parade of top independent studio executives from the Riverhorse Cafe on Friday, there to woo filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the pair behind Sundance Film Festival’s first clear sensation. The suitors lined up: David Linde from Focus Features. Then John Lesher of Paramount Classics. Next was Harvey Weinstein. Finally, as it neared midnight, Fox Searchlight’s Peter Rice arrived in the crowded upstairs room.
By the end of a marathon and often combative negotiating session that lasted until 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Fox Searchlight had won -- buying “Little Miss Sunshine” for $10.5 million, the biggest deal for a single film in the festival’s history.
In paying a record amount for “Little Miss Sunshine’s” worldwide rights (the previous high point was $10.25 million, set by 1999’s “Happy, Texas”), Fox Searchlight got what it believes could be its next “Garden State” or “Napoleon Dynamite” -- an inventive, Sundance-flavored comedy that could appeal well beyond the art-house circuit.
Fox Searchlight is so confident in the film’s prospects, it plans to release “Little Miss Sunshine” in midsummer, up against the sequel to “X-Men,” among others.
“It’s an incredibly appealing movie with a big heart and big comic set pieces,” says Rice, who was among the three Fox Searchlight execs up all night hammering out the deal. “It’s both that funny and delivers real emotional moments.”
The sale also capped an improbable story of perseverance, and the film’s difficult journey is a reminder of just how hard it remains to produce highbrow art movies, even as an array of those very films -- from “Crash” to “Brokeback Mountain” -- are dominating the awards season and generating impressive box-office grosses.
There is no small irony in “Little Miss Sunshine’s” story. Focus Features had dropped the film several years back, only to become one of the most aggressive bidders after it attracted a standing-room-only audience in the 1,270-seat Eccles Center theater Friday night.
The film took five years to make, and it came together only after one of its producers, Marc Turtletaub, decided to cover the $8 million budget himself. By some measures, the production suffered nearly as many detours as does the film’s eccentric family, which is racing from New Mexico to Southern California so that a 7-year-old girl named Olive can enter a beauty pageant.
“There’s an old saw that making movies is about overcoming obstacles,” says David T. Friendly, Turtletaub’s producing partner. “And sometimes, the best things happen after the longest fight.”
The film begins after the failed suicide attempt of Proust scholar Frank (Steve Carell), who moves in with his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) and her family as part of his recovery from depression. Sheryl is married to third-rate motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear), with whom she is raising morose, uncommunicative teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) and pudgy, awkward but seemingly unstoppable daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin).
With their money running low but desperate to make the beauty pageant’s deadline, the family packs into its unreliable Volkswagen bus, with its bawdy, drug-addled but doting grandpa (Alan Arkin) riding in the back.
The VW’s grinding clutch is hardly the only trouble arising during the frantic drive; the family also must grapple with its own mounting interpersonal strife.
For all of its charm, though, “Little Miss Sunshine” languished after producers Friendly and Turtletaub bought its script in 2001 for $150,000.
The movie was written by Michael Arndt, who at one time was actor Matthew Broderick’s personal assistant. (One top screenwriter -- “Chinatown’s” Robert Towne -- was so impressed by the script that he hired Arndt to adapt Glen David Gold’s novel “Carter Beats the Devil.”)
After many other studios passed, “Little Miss Sunshine” eventually was sold to USA Films. But within days of the 2002 deal, USA Films dumped its chairman, Scott Greenstein, and was merged with the production and sales company Good Machine to become Focus Features.
The Focus production model is based largely on selling off a film’s foreign rights, and Focus management wanted at least some of “Little Miss Sunshine’s” cast to have strong international appeal. Directors Dayton and Faris (who are married) and Focus had countless discussions about the budget and various casting combinations.
At one point, the directors, who had made a hit Smashing Pumpkins music video but hadn’t made a feature film, wanted to cast Laura Linney as Sheryl. Focus wanted to pair Linney with a bigger star in Frank’s role, Bill Murray, but Murray couldn’t be signed. Other casting ideas included Jennifer Aniston or Diane Lane as Sheryl, while Ben Stiller’s and Robin Williams’ names came up for Frank, and Kevin Kline and Alec Baldwin were mentioned for Richard. Focus also asked that Arndt’s script be revised, and “The Weather Man” screenwriter Steve Conrad was hired to rework the story.
“We had to fight about everything we loved about it,” Faris says. But the final straw at Focus, Faris and Dayton say, might have been when the company suggested the film be shot in Canada to save money. (Focus made its “Brokeback Mountain” there for the same reason.) “They were dangling all these stars, saying, ‘If you can get this star, you can make it in America,’ ” Faris says.
Canada felt all wrong to the directors, in part because “Little Miss Sunshine” is a distinctly American road movie and because the country has no fascination with beauty pageants for young girls, which would make casting the contestants difficult.
“That’s when we really started to swerve,” Dayton says.
Finally out of Focus
After more than two years developing the movie, Focus dropped “Little Miss Sunshine.” Its decision would ultimately lead to the second consecutive year in which a former Focus project turned into a Sundance sensation.
At 2005’s festival, “Hustle & Flow,” which had been developed at Focus but was made independently, sold to Paramount Pictures and MTV Films for $9 million.
“Both Ron [Yerxa] and I completely understand that that’s how the process works,” says Albert Berger, who with Yerxa also served among “Little Miss Sunshine’s” producers. Focus executives declined to comment on “Little Miss Sunshine” but noted that “Hustle & Flow” was not a box-office hit.
Turtletaub had made a fortune through his lending company, the Money Store, and he decided to pay for the production himself. In 27 busy days of shooting last summer, “Little Miss Sunshine” was made.
An hour after the movie started its first Sundance screening Friday night, “Little Miss Sunshine’s” sales agent, New York lawyer John Sloss, launched two simultaneous Los Angeles showings for the top executives at New Line Cinema and Paramount Pictures. The most aggressive bidders -- which included Focus -- quickly identified themselves.
Tom Rothman, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox, even reached producer Friendly on his mobile telephone mere minutes after the film’s credits finished at the Eccles theater. Although Rothman hadn’t seen the movie, he’d already spoken with his Fox colleague Rice, and Rothman told Friendly how much he wanted Fox Searchlight to distribute it.
Focus soon fell behind Fox Searchlight as the likeliest purchaser. Besides Focus, Paramount Classics and the newly formed Weinstein Co., the other interested shoppers kicking “Little Miss Sunshine’s” tires included Miramax Films, Summit Entertainment and Warner Independent Pictures.
But it quickly became Fox Searchlight’s movie to lose. After a few hours of on-and-off telephone conversations with Sloss, the company’s bargaining for “Little Miss Sunshine” began in earnest at 3:30 a.m. in Sloss’ Deer Valley condo.
At one point, the condo’s heat went out, and the Fox team of Rice, Tony Safford and Joseph De Marco had to throw logs on the fireplace to keep warm. At another juncture, the Fox executives grew frustrated with the dealmaking and threatened to leave, only to have the talks resume again. Just as the sun came up over the Wasatch Mountains, the parties shook hands, their record-breaking deal done.
Sloss admits it was a grueling night of back-and-forth bargaining as the sides wrestled with the purchase price, profit participation formulas and box-office bonuses.
“It was a complicated deal,” Sloss says. “We knew the film was going to play, so we spent a lot of time designing the deal even before we came out here.” By Saturday afternoon, directors Dayton and Faris were both exhausted and relieved.
“We can use some uplifting moments in these dark times,” Faris says. “I need movies to give me hope.”