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Sundance deals all about talent

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Distributors steered clear of most films up for sale at the recent Sundance Film Festival, but the talent on display generated excitement, with agencies pouncing on actors, directors and writers.

Many of the fest's top winners also topped the agency lists. WMA signed writer-director Courtney Hunt, whose illegal immigration drama "Frozen River" won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, and her film's star, Melissa Leo ("21 Grams," NBC's "Homicide"), who was repped by Don Buchwald and Associates. Hunt's feature debut also scored a distribution deal from Sony Pictures Classics.

WMA also picked up writer-director Andrew MacLean, whose Alaskan thriller "Sikumi" (On the Ice) won the jury prize in short filmmaking. The Inupiaq filmmaker recently helmed the full-length docu "When the Season Is Good: Artists of Arctic Alaska."

Russian writer-director Anna Melikyan won the world cinema directing award for her romantic fable "Mermaid," then won representation from Endeavor, which is selling the film. Her Central Partnership Sales House production, a follow-up to her 2004 comedy "Mars," will be screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.

And while Andrew Fleming's comedy "Hamlet 2" didn't win any awards, it won the unofficial $10 million grand prize from Focus Features for the biggest acquisition of the year. Skylar Astin garnered some of the film's biggest laughs as an overly dramatic drama student, earning him a deal with UTA in his feature debut.

"He's the only actor I've ever taken tips from," star Steve Coogan said of the classically trained 21-year-old actor, who now appears on Broadway in the Tony-winning "Spring Awakening."

Outside the winners' circle, critical acclaim also swayed reps on the hunt. Writer-producer-director Ole Bornedal's Danish noir thriller "Just Another Love Story" helped him get signed by Endeavor, which is repping sales of his film. Bornedal made his English-language debut with "Nightwatch," a remake of his Danish thriller, starring Ewan McGregor.

Along with Astin, UTA added another up-and-coming actor to its roster: Peruvian-born actor Jason Day. He starred in the Sundance Spanish-language road movie "Mancora" after a recent lead role in the biggest Peruvian boxoffice hit ever, the comedy "Manana Te Cuento."



The agency also signed triple-threat David Michod, the Australian filmmaker who wrote two Sundance shorts ("Spider," which received an honorable awards mention, and "I Love Sarah Jane") and wrote and directed a third ("Crossbow"). Michod is now finishing another short and prepping his debut feature, the high-octane crime drama "Animal Kingdom," which he wrote and will helm in Melbourne.

WMA kept busy with several other deals as well. Stephen Walker, director of the Fox Searchlight senior citizen rockumentary "Young@Heart," has joined their team. His feature has been selected as the closing-night film of the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.

Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, directors of the Israeli love story "Strangers," are the latest Sundance team to join WMA. The feature was based on their 2004 short, winner of the Sundance Online Film Festival Viewers Award.

Management agencies also scouted for talent. The Collective signed the writing-directing-acting-producing duo the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan. Their feature debut, "Goliath," a comedy about one man's search for a cat, received serious distributor interest. The firm also signed helmer Calvin Reeder, who gained attention after his short hitchhiking film "Rambler" premiered in the slot before Quentin Tarantino's "Hell Ride."

And several other potential signings are brewing. Although audiences were divided about Ben Kingsley's performance in the Dramatic Audience Award winner "The Wackness" (another SPC pickup), most were wowed by 21-year-old lead actor Josh Peck. The newly svelte star of Nickelodeon's "Drake & Josh" shined as a streetwise but sensitive pot dealer in mid-'90s Manhattan. Right now, UTA and CAA are vying for the attention of Peck, who was last repped by ICM. CAA has one potential advantage, having followed Peck around Sundance while repping "Wackness" sales.

Gregg Goldstein reported from New York. Leslie Simmons reported from Los Angeles.