Sundance: Why 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' Didn't Sell to the Highest Bidder

'Me and Earl' stars Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler
AP Images/Invision

Multiple buyers offered $12 million-plus for the coming-of-age tearjerker, but the filmmakers went with Fox Searchlight's lower bid.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Take note, indie film executives: The highest bid isn't always the winning bid. Consider, for example, Fox Searchlight's Jan. 26 acquisition of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl at the Sundance Film Festival.

Multiple buyers offered $12 million-plus for the coming-of-age tearjerker, an astronomical figure that would have made the film the biggest Sundance sale ever.

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But the filmmakers went with Searchlight's lower bid, which sources peg at mid-seven figures for worldwide rights. The reason, says an insider, is that Searchlight crafted "a really creative deal." A Searchlight source concurs that the deal was unique, describing it as a "partnership" with the film's financier Indian Paintbrush that has a different structure from an outright buy and could be more beneficial to the filmmakers in success.

After premiering in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Eccles theater Jan. 25 and drawing a five-minute standing ovation, Me and Earl set off a frenzy among buyers at an already feverish Sundance market. At the afterparty on Main Street, the buzz became deafening, with WME Global's Graham Taylor, who repped the Alfonso Gomez-Rejon-directed film, fielding offers of up to $7 million from five bidders. By 7 p.m., eight bidders were vying, including Focus Features, CBS Films, Lionsgate, A24, Miramax and The Weinstein Co. (Harvey Weinstein watched the film on a screener in L.A., where he was throwing a SAG Awards party.)

 

 

At that point, the top offer was $8 million, but bids escalated even higher, with buyers dubbing it The Fault in Our Stars with better reviews. THR critic John DeFore called it "film-geek friendly but thoroughly accessible and very funny," adding that it "has the makings of a mainstream hit."

Once Searchlight's offer was determined to be the most interesting, dealmaking then continued throughout the night.

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Technically, Me and Earl didn't set a Sundance record, despite numerous outlets citing the $12 million figure as the final price tag. That distinction belongs to several films that have fetched $10 million, including Hamlet 2, which Focus Features bought for $10 million during the festival's 2008 incarnation. It's not even clear if Me and Earl marks this year's high. Dope, Rick Famuyiwa's coming-of-age urban dramedy set in Inglewood, Calif., sold to Open Road and Sony for $7 million after a bidding war. And on Jan. 27, Searchlight seemingly outdid the Me and Earl deal by paying $9 million for the love drama Brooklyn. That deal encompassed only U.S. rights and some non-English territories.

Still, the filmmakers aren't complaining. "[The Searchlight deal] was for a lot of money while preserving real upside if the movie works out," says the insider. And its chances are good. After all, Searchlight sibling Fox expertly handled Fault, another movie about a terminally ill teenage girl, which had a worldwide haul that topped $300 million.

Updated Jan. 28 4:15 PM ET: Focus Features, not Fox Searchlight, bought Hamlet 2.

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