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Fox Searchlight acquires Carney's 'Once'

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Fox Searchlight has acquired North American rights to Irish writer-director John Carney's "Once," a popular and critical hit at January's Sundance Film Festival, it was announced Friday by Searchlight chief operating officer Nancy Utley.

Summit Entertainment picked up world rights to the Irish musical at Sundance and sold North American rights to Searchlight for just under $1 million, sources said. "Once" took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic.

Carney shot the $100,000 musical love story on the streets of Dublin with hand-held digital cameras, natural light and live sound. The movie shows how a chance meeting on the street between two-like minded musical souls (the Frames lead singer Glen Hansard and musician Marketa Irglova) can lead to surprising growth, warmth and music. As the two performers sing, play and interact, the camera reveals depths of emotion that they would not reveal through speech.

The film didn't sell immediately at the festival because some distributors were afraid that it was too Irish, too local, and too small, sources said. "'Once' swept the entire Searchlight team off its feet," said Utley, who plans to release the film in 2007.

"Once" was produced by Martina Niland and executive produced by David Collins. Dublin-based Samson Films produced and financed the film with assistance from the Irish Film Board and Ireland pub caster RTE.

The deal was brokered by Fox Searchlight senior vice president of acquisitions Tony Safford and executive vice president of business affairs Stephen Plum, and Patrick Wachsberger, CEO and President of Summit Entertainment, along with Andrew Matosich, executive vice president and general counsel at Summit.

Born in Dublin in 1972, Carney began his film career directing videos for the Irish band the Frames, as well as writing, producing, and directing two award-winning short films, "Shining Star" and "Hotel." He followed with the features "November Afternoon" and "Just in Time." After making "November Afternoon" in 1997, Universal Pictures hired Carney to direct "On the Edge" starring Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea. Carney co-wrote and directed three episodes of the hit Radio Telefis Eireann television series "Bachelor's Walk."

"Once" marked a return to Carney's roots as the Frames' bass player in the early '90s. He recruited the group's current lead singer-guitarist, Hansard (Alan Parker's "The Commitments"), and Irglova, who already had collaborated with Hansard on a side project, the album "The Swell Season." With its warm reception, Carney said, "Sundance has made my dreams come true."

Additional reporting by  Gregg Goldstein.