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Sundance 2012: Fox Searchlight Buys 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Benh Zeitlin’s debut film had its world premiere Friday afternoon at the Eccles Theatre.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

After several days of accelerating heat, U.S. rights to Benh Zeitlin’s debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild have been acquired by Fox Searchlight. Most of the major indie distributors — The Weinstein Co., Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features among them — sought to pick up the gritty, elliptical drama, which had its world premiere Friday at the Eccles Theatre. Oscilloscope and IFC Films also were involved in bidding. Fox Searchlight will release Beasts this year.

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Developed at the Sundance Institute filmmaker labs and cast 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 on the outside of protective levees in southernmost Louisiana. As he becomes sick and tries to prepare her for the end of the universe, mildly apocalyptic events cause the seas to rise, animals and trees to begin dying 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 comprehend her place in the universe.

Zeitlin wrote the film with Lucy Alibar. Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey and Josh Penn produced the project.

The film, which is in the U.S. narrative competition, played to a rapturous response for its unique vision and strange beauty. A charming Q&A afterwards that included Quvenzhane Wallis, the young girl who plays Hushpuppy, added to the goodwill trailing the film.

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Graham Taylor of WME Global negotiated the deal for the filmmakers.

The deal is Searchlight's second high-profile purchase of the festival -- on Monday it acquired worldwide rights to The Surrogate for just under $6 million. The company purchased three titles (Another Earth, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice) and remake rights to another (The Bengali Detective) at last year's festival.

Recent sales include Celeste and Jesse Forever to Sony Pictures Classics for just under $2 million and For a Good Time, Call... to Focus Features for $2-3 million. On Sunday, LD Distribution picked up the thriller Black Rock for just over $1 million, and CBS Films acquired the drama The Words for a combined deal valued at $3.5 million. Competition documentary The Queen of Versailles found a home at Magnolia Pictures on Friday; SPC picked up North American rights to the competition doc Searching for Sugar Man the same day.

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

Twitter: @Writer730@DanielNMiller