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Fantastic $4 million is yardstick at Sundance

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PARK CITY -- Four million appeared to be the magic number at the Sundance Film Festival as acquisitions heated up Monday.

Three films sold at or near that price: Fox Searchlight took worldwide rights to the late actress-writer-director Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" for slightly less than $4 million and George Ratliff's psychological thriller "Joshua" for $3.7 million, while Warner Independent Pictures put down $4 million for a collection of rights to Cherie Nowlan's Australian romance "Clubland."

"No distributor wants to overlook a potential success like 'Little Miss Sunshine' or 'Half Nelson,' " said William Morris Independent co-head Rena Ronson, who sold "Grace Is Gone" to the Weinstein Co. on Sunday. "They're finding films that either fulfill an economic model that makes sense and/or can garner some kind of award."

Searchlight, which is on an acquisition binge, closed the deal on "Waitress" after the film screened for its second time Monday morning. It was the third and final feature from the filmmaker, who was killed in her New York apartment in early November.

"Waitress" stars Keri Russell in the title role of a poor Southern woman trapped in a bad marriage who finds true love when a new gynecologist comes to town. It was produced by Michael Roiff and executive produced by Todd King, Jeff Rose, Danielle Renfrew and Robert Bauer. Searchlight plans a 2007 release.

The deal was brokered on Fox Searchlight's side by senior vp acquisitions Tony Safford and executive vp business affairs Stephen Plum with the Film Sales Co. president Andrew Herwitz and Irwin Rappaport repping the filmmakers.

Searchlight went on to purchase virtually all worldwide rights minus Canada to Ratliff's "Joshua"; Ratliff helmed the 2001 documentary "Hell House." The film, which debuted Saturday night, tells the tale of a disturbed child who slowly turns the life of his family upside down. Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga and young newcomer Jacob Kogan, "Joshua" triggered interest from multiple parties, but it was Searchlight that came through in the end. "George Ratliff and David Gilbert have created an unbelievably tense and frightful tale," said Searchlight president Rice, who plans a summer release.

Tony Safford, senior vp acquisitions and production at 20th Century Fox, and Stephen Plum, executive vp business affairs, negotiated on behalf of Searchlight, while UTA and attorney Andrew Hurwitz represented the filmmakers.

In one of the biggest sales of the festival, Warner Independent Pictures bought North American, U.K. and German rights to "Clubland," Nowlan's romance that stars Brenda Blethyn as the bawdy matriarch of a dysfunctional family. The film revolves around an unconventional clan that is threatened by the son falling in love with a beautiful girl.

Purchased for $4 million, the film is a rich deal for the filmmakers because most of the world rights are still up for grabs. WIP plans a summer release.

Paul Federbush and Courtney Armstrong negotiated on WIP's behalf. William Morris Independent repped the filmmakers. The sale of further international rights will be handled by executive producer and sales agent Tristan Whalley and Nicki Parfitt of Goalpost Film.

Widely regarded as one of the strongest selections in recent memory, this year's Sundance docus are selling fast. Sony Pictures Classics picked up worldwide rights to the art world docu-mystery "My Kid Could Paint That" for $1.85 million. Amir Bar-Lev's first feature centers on 4-year-old art world darling Marla Olmstead, who gained acclaim and more than $300,000 in sales before a "60 Minutes" profile questioned whether her work was an elaborate hoax. SPC completed the deal around the time of its first screening at the Prospector Square Theatre early Sunday. The film was produced by Bar-Lev and executive produced by John Battsek. Andrew Ruhemann served as co-executive producer and Stephen Dunn as co-producer. Submarine and CAA repped the project.

ThinkFilm made its biggest buy ever, according to head of U.S. theatrical Mark Urman, by spending more than $2.5 million to acquire all North American rights except for TV to David Sington's Apollo space mission docu "In the Shadow of the Moon." The film will be released in conjunction with Discovery Films this year, with a TV premiere on cable's Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater to follow. "It presents a triumphant image of America and its heroes and recaptures a moment in time when the world looked up to us," Urman said. "Boy, do we need that now."

A number of interested parties, including Samuel Goldwyn Films, bid on the $1.4 million film, but one stumbling block for several distributors was that Discovery Films picked up North American television rights and branding rights to the film at the start of the fest, along with an equity interest in North American theatrical distribution.

"Moon" was produced by Dox Prods. in association with Passion Pictures. The film's producer is Duncan Copp with co-producer Chris Riley and executive producers Simon Andreae, John Battsek and Julie Goldman. The deal was negotiated by ThinkFilm's Urman, executive vp acquisitions and business affairs Randy Manis and vp acquisitions Michael Baker with CAA Josh Braun from Submarine and Andreae on behalf of the filmmakers.

Not one but two indies bit into "Teeth," which Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. have decided to distribute worldwide as equal partners, rather than take the risk of releasing it alone. After initially passing on the story of a virginal girl whose vagina turns into a secret weapon, the distributors revisited the project Sunday after a noon screening at the Eccles Theatre, then picked up worldwide rights for $2.5 million.

A Lionsgate executive confirmed that the horror-centric company likely will take the lead on the domestic and home video side, while the Weinstein Co. will handle foreign; they will split the worldwide pot 50-50. The Weinsteins and Lionsgate have a history of releasing controversial product together, including 1999's "Dogma" and 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

By partnering with indie Lionsgate, the Weinstein Co. won't have to deal with the MPAA signatory rules that would require the film to carry a rating, as it would if it went with its traditional distributor, MGM. The Weinsteins intend to release the film in its current form, not cutting any of the profane material that likely would prompt an NC-17 rating.

Outside of the Sundance scene, Time Warner sibling divisions Picturehouse and New Line Cinema partnered to acquire the Slamdance video game docu "The King of Kong" in the high-six figures. Picturehouse is slated to handle North American distribution in mid-2007, with New Line getting remake and international distribution rights.

As the Monday feeding frenzy continued early today, other hot titles were emerging. Patricia Riggen's small-scale "La Misma Luna" (The Same Moon) was drumming up big interest from several distributors, including SPC. Evening screenings of "Son of Rambow," "How She Move" and the controversial Dakota Fanning project "Hounddog" were pulling in interested crowds. "Once," "Delirious," "Snow Angels," "The Ten" and "Chicago 10" are in extended negotiations and might emerge with deals by midweek.

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