'Hamlet 2' focus of $10 million sale

4:00 AM PST 01/22/2008 by Steven Zeitchik, Gregg Goldstein

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PARK CITY -- It was just past 6:30 Tuesday morning at the Marriott Summit Watch when the Focus Features executives who were negotiating to buy "Hamlet 2" had to pause. The Oscar nominations were about to be announced, and the execs needed to see how their movies fared. They gathered around a television to watch "Atonement" land seven nominations.

It was at that moment that "Hamlet" producers became convinced that they had made the right choice in agreeing to a deal in principle with Focus several hours earlier.

On its face, Focus, a division known for prestige fare, was not the most immediately obvious company to take the satiric comedy project into the market.

But the unit had distributed several niche comedies with solid results. Producers saw that if this company was successful in turning specialty fare into hits and award winners, they felt a lot better about selling it to them.

And so was sealed one of the biggest sales in Sundance history, a $10 million deal that by some calculations is the second-highest sum ever paid for a Sundance movie, after "Little Miss Sunshine." Even more remarkable, the sellers drew that price without the interest of Sundance heavyweight Fox Searchlight, which did not put in a bid for the movie.

The evening leading up to the dawn sale followed a pattern now common in big Park City deals.

The movie -- featuring British comedian Steve Coogan as a high school teacher trying to save a drama program by penning and staging a ludicrous sequel to "Hamlet" involving time travel -- has a manic energy that combines pop culture references, slapstick humor and droll asides.

After a screening at the smaller and usually documentary-heavy Library (the film was a late entrant to the festival), parties retired to a postscreening dinner at Main Street eatery Jean Louis. Execs from a number of companies, including the Weinstein Co., huddled with the sales agent team and producers. Director Andy Fleming was willing to make some cuts, a stipulation that encouraged buyers who sometimes fear that a seller might be too married to the project as it appears at a festival.

The bidders soon stole off to the CAA condo with CAA reps and producers, while stars Coogan and Elisabeth Shue and Fleming stayed to mingle at the afterparty. After nearly 10 hours of negotiations, a deal closed at about 8 a.m.

But the strangest turns came long before the movie arrived in Park City.

Although he describes his departure from New Line as amicable, and was open to further edits with a distributor's input, Fleming said he wanted to make the project without creative interference. "I didn't want anyone to say. 'Steve can't flash his balls under his caftan,' or push for PG-13 cuts," he said.

Originally a project in turnaround at New Line, it might never have seen the light of day had one Eric Eisner -- son of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and until then a producer of male-aimed television content -- not come along and decide to develop the Fleming and Pam Brady script as his first feature.

Eric Eisner and his silent partner Leonid Rozhetskin began developing it after Rick Hess at CAA brought Eisner the script, with Eisner agreeing to fully finance the project.

Veteran indie producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa -- perhaps not coincidentally the producers on "Little Miss Sunshine" -- had previously been attached as producers at New Line but stepped aside because of scheduling conflicts and agreed to become executive producers.
Aaron Ryder also joined as a producer.

There were bumps, though. Chief among them were pushes from agencies to cast a more well-known star. Among the possibilities was the noncomedic Greg Kinnear instead of Coogan, who despite being a big television star in the U.K. was not known to U.S. audiences.

The female lead also was to have included not Shue but Dana Delaney ("Desperate Housewives"), a move that would have blunted the self-parody of Shue's character (she plays herself).

The project, shot in New Mexico under the state's generous rebate laws, wound up costing less than $10 million to make (which already would seem to put the sellers in the black, or close to it).

It wrapped only at the end of October, with tweaks in post still being made three days before the premiere. It came in so late that the fest had a separate announcement that it was accepted; it was not on the original slate.

"I still can't really believe that a few weeks ago I was just excited we got it in time," Eisner said Tuesday. "And now here I am on no sleep with this big sale. It's surreal."           
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