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Hot Deals In Frozen Park City

With temperatures going south and the wind chill severe enough to rattle the bones, Park City in January is an acquired taste (at least for this New Yorker-former-Floridian). But while the thermometer was dipping and a fresh blanket of snow has fallen (the skiers love it, I guess), talk around town has centered on two things: the shocking death of actor Heath Ledger in New York City yesterday and the sudden emergence of some very hot deals in frozen Park City.

With the first 5 days of the Sundance Film Festival receiving low marks for too many downbeat dramas and unfunny comedies, a few films have begun to break through, creating a momentum that hopefully will continue into the Festival's second half. Film buyers, who have remained rather aloof despite some deals for a few documentary films (see earlier stories), have begun opening up their wallets for a choice few films.
Two films were the first to break the spell of inactivity. The first major announcement was for the film CHOKE, director Clark Gregg's adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Sam Rockwell stars as a sex-addicted con man, with Anjelica Huston already stirring Oscar buzz for her role as his deranged mother. Fox Searchlight, the company behind LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JUNO, has ponied up a reported $5 Million dollars for rights. The second film to generate heat was HENRY POOLE IS HERE, director Mark Pellington’s lighthearted tale of a terminally ill man (played by Luke Wilson), his troubled neighbors and a stain on his wall that looks remarkably like the face of Jesus. The film was sold to Overture Films, with a minimum guarantee of $3.5 million for the rights to release the movie in the United States. It was said that heavyhitters Warner Independent Pictures and Focus Features were also interested, but the pickup ultimately went to the much smaller Overture Films, which plans to release the film later this year.

The biggest sale so far is a historic one.......Focus Features, the specialty division of Universal Pictures behind this year's ATONEMENT, EASTERN PROMISES and LUST CAUTION, beat out other rivals to acquire HAMLET 2, a bawdy romp starring Steve Coogan as a failed actor who stages a musical sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet in the high school where he teaches. The film, directed by Andrew Fleming, also stars Elizabeth Shue, David Arquette and Catherine Keener. The payday was huge. Focus will pay $10 million for all rights. This is just shy of the Sundance record paid for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE in 2006 (that was $10.5 Million). So, this mega-acquisition has reinvigorated the buying impulse here, although it is unclear if any upcoming titles have the commercial potential of HAMLET 2. In contrast, last year's biggest transactgion was for GRACE IS GONE, which The Weinstein Company purchased for $4 Million, and which has made less than $50,000 at the US box office after two months in release (in other words, a dismal showing).

HAMLET 2 already has mythical status here. The film was produced by Eric Eisner, the son of Michael Eisner, the former head of The Walt Disney Company. The film was submitted in an unfinished version to the Sundance programmers after the Festival announced its lineup in November . Apparently, even in a rough cut, the film impressed Sundance honcho Geoffrey Gilmore, to the point that the film was accepted into the Festival, even after the deadline for the printed Festival guides. So HAMLET 2 does not appear in the Festival catalogue nor any of its promotional literature (although it is prominently featured on its website). Well, this mega-deal corrects all that, with the film now heralded as a legendary Sundance "find". The version screened in Park City is not completely finished.....more editing, sound mixing and other post-production is necessary. But that didn't stop Focus Features from flexing its acquisition muscles and giving the Sundance naysayers a second look at what is still coming down the pike in the Festival's remaining 5 days.

Sandy Mandelberger, Sundance fest21 blog Editor


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