Trio of deals wakes up Sundance

'Hamlet 2,' 'Henry Poole' and 'Choke' reap big sales

UPDATED 10:37 p.m. PT Jan. 22

PARK CITY -- After a sleepy first four days of Sundance, the festival sprang to life Tuesday.

Three movies sold for a total of nearly $20 million in the space of just 24 hours, giving renewed hope to those anticipating a frenzied market.

One of the biggest sales in the history of Sundance was sealed at the CAA condo early Tuesday morning, with Focus Features nabbing worldwide rights to the high school satire "Hamlet 2" for about $10 million.

The deal, closed after a night of intense negotiations, was easily the biggest of the fest and rivals "Little Miss Sunshine," "Hustle & Flow" and "Happy, Texas" as the priciest deal in Sundance history.

And late Tuesday night, Paramount Vantage was in final negotiations for worldwide rights (except in the U.K.) to Nanette Burstein's documentary "American Teen." Sources varied widely on the estimated final price for the deal, expected to close by sunrise Wednesday morning, with figures ranging from under $1 million to $2.5 million.

The A&E Indie Films production follows four Midwestern high school seniors: a cheerleader, a hipster, a jock and a band geek.

As one of the few narrative-driven docus, it became a hot commodity during the weekend, with bidding ultimately down to Vantage and Sony Pictures Classics. SPC stuck to its bid Tuesday night, dropping out after the price rose. Vantage might partner with sibling studio MTV Films and the MTV network to market the film to a youth audience. CAA and Cinetic co-repped the deal.

"Hamlet" stars Steve Coogan as an overly dramatic drama teacher who attempts to salvage his high school theater department by staging a controversial sequel to Shakespeare's play.

While Focus is known most for art house fare such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Atonement," the division does have a sturdy reputation releasing comedies, including "Shaun of the Dead" and "Balls of Fury." The nearly dozen execs who helped bid for the project laid out an elaborate marketing plan to the sellers.

Fest watchers have kept a close eye on "Hamlet" negotiations, with the thought that the frenzy could jump-start a lethargic sales market.

Of course, whether the new wave of lucrative deals proves a savvier set of investments than some of last year's ill-advised purchases remains to be seen. As one distribution executive put it, "There are a lot of good films at this festival, but they're films that should be walked to, not run to."

The sale that seemed to kickstart big narrative film acquisitions was Overture Films' Monday pickup of U.S. rights to Mark Pellington's dramedy "Henry Poole Is Here" in the $4 million range. Fox Searchlight and Warner Independent Pictures were among exhibitors who expressed immediate interest after it screened at the Eccles.

"Poole" centers on a man (Luke Wilson) who moves to a new house after he learns he's about to die, only to have a series of life-changing interactions. David Dinerstein of the film's production company, Lakeshore Entertainment, repped the sale on behalf of the filmmakers.

The purchase was the first of the fest for the group of new self-financed distributors who were expected to be among the factors injecting money and energy into the market. It also was a rare case of a big sale where a production outfit repped its own project, bypassing sales agents.

Also Tuesday, Fox Searchlight picked up North American and most worldwide territory rights to Clark Gregg's black comedy "Choke" for $5 million.

Actor-director Gregg's feature debut, which he adapted from "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk's novel, follows a sex addict (Sam Rockwell) who fakes choking in expensive restaurants to worm his way into the lives of their rich patrons. The film played strongly Monday night at the Racquet Club to an audience of buyers ravenous for quality narrative films after many received mixed reactions.

Searchlight and several other specialty divisions approached sellers UTA, attorney Andrew Hurwitz and Wild Bunch immediately after the screening, with the Fox division gaining the inside track.

The deal, which includes most worldwide territories except Iceland, Romania, Turkey, Portugal, the Baltic states, Scandinavia and some other countries, closed after 5 a.m. Tuesday.

The trio of feature deals brought to an end a lull that the fest had fallen into during its opening days, despite big early buzz for several weekend offerings. It also had some distributors hopeful that more big, pricey deals weren't far away.

"I think people finally saw films that didn't have a mixed reaction," said one specialty division buyer. "People also realized they had slates to fill, and it's better to do it with surer bets.