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Sundance 2012: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Has Buyers Roaring

Benh Zeitlin's debut film prompts a standing ovation and interest from Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics and The Weinstein Co.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Sales activity Friday has centered on the documentary slates, but the narrative film side is about to catch up.

Of the day’s narrative premieres, one in particular is drawing significant interest. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild played the Eccles Theatre at 12:15 pm and prompted a standing ovation from a moved and startled crowd. Since then, several buyers, including Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus and The Weinstein Co., have been circling. This makes sense, as the visionary film, strange and beautiful, will require an experienced touch to translate its appeal to a larger audience. WME Global is handling sales on the film.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2012

Made with non-professional actors, Beasts centers on Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives with her tough-love father at the edge of the water in southernmost Louisiana as mildly apocalyptic events cause the seas to rise, her father to become ill and giant, prehistoric creatures to thaw from the ice caps. As they struggle to survive with a handful of their neighbors who also refuse to leave their water-drenched home (called the Bathtub), Hushpuppy is forced to discover just how strong she is and how important it is to hold on to what made you.

Two high-profile premieres, Celeste and Jesse Forever and Red Lights, are still unspooling Friday night, and Amy Berg’s documentary West of Memphis played the MARC late afternoon to an enthusiastic response. Given its timely subject matter and the fact that the film is likely to make more news by presenting new evidence in the case of the West Memphis 3, a distribution deal is extremely likely.

Also screening Friday were the NEXT section film I Am Not a Hipster from filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, the narrative competition drama Simon Killer from writer-director Antonio Campos and Rory Kennedy’s documentary Ethel. The competition dramas Wish You Were Here and Hello I Must Be Going had their premieres opening night.

Katie Aselton’s new Park City at Midnight film, Black Rock, isn’t set to have its premiere until Saturday late night, but several buyers are already kicking the tires, Lionsgate, CBS Films and Goldwyn Films among them.

STORY: Celeste and Jesse Forever: Sundance Film Review

Friday has thus far seen lots of activity on the documentary front. Sony Pictures Classics grabbed North American rights to Malik Bendjelloul's Searching For Sugar Man, which was one of the festival’s opening night films Thursday. A source put the sale price in the mid-six figures. Magnolia Pictures picked up another opening night film, Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles, for somewhere in the mid-six-figure range. Both docs are playing in competition — Sugar Man in world docs, Versailles in U.S.

On Tuesday, HBO Documentary Films announced its acquisition of broadcast rights to ME @ THE ZOO, another U.S. competition doc. All three documentary sales were repped by Josh Braun and David Koh of Submarine Entertainment.

Saturday’s big unveilings include Arbitrage and Lay the Favorite.

Email: Jay.Fernandez@THR.com; Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @Writer730; @DanielNMiller