PARK CITY, Utah — A group of star-driven dramas and comedies, plus a half-dozen documentaries, have caught the fancy of buyers at the Sundance Film Festival, with distributors ponying up nearly $25 million in the last few days for movies they hope will return their investment in spades.
Fox Searchlight paid close to $10 million for a Steve Carell movie, and Sony shelled out almost $4 million on a Jane Austen-themed comedy. Relativity Media spent $4 million for a Joseph Gordon-Levitt porn comedy and the Weinstein Co. put up about $2 million for a well-received drama, "Fruitvale."
The distributors are seeking the lightning that struck several Sundance movies last year, including "Arbitrage," which has tallied a combined $20 million at the box office and video on demand, and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which has garnered $11 million in theaters and picked up best picture and best director Oscar nominations.
But often, Sundance movies leave their buyers in the red. In recent years, distributors have paid $8 million or more on buzzy festival titles such as "Hamlet 2," "Son of Rambow" and "The Spitfire Grill," only to see those movies fizzle at the box office.
After sitting out the deal-making for the fest's first five days, Fox Searchlight instantly became the biggest spender in Park City, agreeing to buy world rights for "The Way, Way Back," the directorial debut for "The Descendants" writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
A family dramedy, "Way Back" centers on a 14-year-old boy named Duncan (Liam James) whose mother (Toni Collette) is dating a car salesman (Carell). Miserable under the same roof with the bickering couple in a Massachusetts beach house, Duncan strikes up a summer vacation friendship with the manager of a local water park (Sam Rockwell).
Searchlight, which had itself contemplated financing and producing the script at an earlier stage of the project with director Shawn Levy ("A Night at the Museum") penciled in to direct, has a history with many of the people who made the film. ("The Way, Way Back" also was briefly set up at Mandate Pictures, which wanted "The Family Stone's" Tom Bezucha to direct and Zac Efron to play the role that eventually went to Rockwell.)
Fox Searchlight produced and released "The Descendants" last year, and bought "Little Miss Sunshine," which also starred Carell and Collette, at Sundance in 2006. The company bested several other distributors, including Focus Features and Lionsgate, who were interested in "The Way, Way Back."
"It was a long journey on this one," said Faxon, who wrote the script with Rash eight years ago. "At a lot of different points there were different directors attached to make it, so it's great to be able to see it all the way through. It's even more satisfying that we got to do it ourselves."
Searchlight wasn't the only distributor opening its wallet at the festival this week. On Monday, Sony Pictures Classics teamed up with sister unit Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group to buy world rights for "Austenland" — the directorial debut of "Napoleon Dynamite" co-writer Jerusha Hess that's produced by "Twilight" novelist Stephenie Meyer — for nearly $4 million.
Starring Keri Russell as Jane, a woman obsessed with Jane Austen, the drawing-room comedy follows Jane as she visits an Austen fantasy camp in England where she becomes entangled with several paramours. When it was announced Monday night, the deal surprised some competing buyers, who had pegged the likely price at much lower.
Meyer told The Times that she thought the story would resonate not just with film fans but also with avid readers.
"I think this is a movie that's interesting for people of all ages who know what it's like to be obsessed with an author," said Meyer, who has of course been the object of such an obsession. "I count myself among them."
Relativity Media, meanwhile, has bought rights to Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut "Don Jon's Addiction" for at least $4 million. The film revolves around a slickster porn addict who tries to change his ways.
And Weinstein Co., has paid $2 million for rights to "Fruitvale." Ryan Coogler's drama centers on a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was shot at a BART stop on New Year's 2009. The film has received strong reviews at the festival.
On the documentary side, Weinstein Co. label Radius bought backup-singer doc "Twenty Feet from Stardom," IFC/Sundance Selects has picked up outdoor adventure "The Summit" and U.S. foreign-policy film "Dirty Wars," and HBO Documentary Films has acquired political-music doc "Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer." "Blackfish," a documentary about killer whales in captivity, sold to Magnolia and CNN Films, while the "History of the Eagles: Part 1" sold to Showtime.
The abortion documentary "After Tiller" and the Jeremy Lin sports film "Linsanity" are among those still in play.
Among the scripted features still seeking distribution at Sundance is the well-received "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater's third film in the tale of a lovelorn pair in Europe played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. As of Tuesday afternoon, buyers ranging from Lionsgate/Summit to IFC were interested in the film, which has received some of the best reviews of the festival.
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