'Once' over for Searchlight

Grabs rights to Irish musical pic

Fox Searchlight has acquired North American rights to Irish screenwriter-director John Carney's "Once," a popular and critical hit at January's Sundance Film Festival, Searchlight COO Nancy Utley said Friday.

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

Carney shot the $100,000 musical love story on the streets of Dublin with hand-held digital cameras, natural light and live sound. "Once" illustrates 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 sing, play and interact, the camera reveals depths of emotion that they would not reveal through speech.

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

"Once" marks Searchlight's fourth Sundance pickup; during the festival the specialty distributor acquired world rights (minus Canada) to the thriller "Joshua" and world rights to late screenwriter-director Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress," and partnered with the Weinstein Co. to purchase global rights to the Mexican border drama "La Misma Luna."

"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 vp acquisitions Tony Safford and executive vp business affairs Stephen Plum, and Patrick Wachsberger, president and CEO at Summit Entertainment, along with Andrew Matosich, executive vp and general counsel at Summit.

Gregg Goldstein in New York contributed to this report.