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‘Sunshine’ burns up Sundance film festival

The film, which stars Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear, sold for over $10 million
/ Source: Reuters

The Sundance Film Festival entered its second week Monday with more stars and parties than ever before, but only one big movie sale and the lack of action had industry tongues wagging, “I told you so.”

The film that was sold — “Little Miss Sunshine” — went for a hefty price, more than $10 million, which when all the contract details are known may surpass the festival’s record film sale of $10.25 million spent for “Happy, Texas” in 1999.

But while people were busy congratulating the “Miss Sunshine” filmmakers, who had spent years getting their project developed, some festival watchers cautioned not to expect many more sales of such magnitude.

They say that the lack of acquisitions highlighted what many festival watchers expected: the 2006 film slate was much less mainstream than in recent years.

Sundance, which is the top U.S. showcase for independent movies and a launching pad for art-house titles, has always focused on filmmaking outside the commercial mainstream.

Before the opening, festival director Geoffrey Gilmore told Reuters: “It’s a festival that feels more independent, that feels less mainstream.” The lack of dealmaking has surprised few of the distributors that come here looking for movies.

“Sunshine” was the only movie, so far, that ran counter to that expectation. The 20th Century Fox specialty division Fox Searchlight bought it for the eye-popping sum that topped $10 million plus extra money based on the film’s potential box office performance.

The offbeat comedy stars Steve Carell, star of NBC’s “The Office” and the recent hit film “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” along with Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, and tells of a family trying to get their 7-year-old into a beauty pageant. It premiered to a packed house on Friday, won a standing ovation and sparked a bidding war that lasted until Saturday morning.

While the price tag seems high, it is in keeping with a trend that started last year when the sums independent films fetched from distributors began to rise. Industry players here cite many reasons for the uptick, ranging from higher production costs to the potential of some of the more commercial-oriented films.

Good times rollMovies seeking to appeal to art-house audiences like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crash,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” are major players in this year’s Oscars race. “Brokeback,” the story of a romance between two cowboys, is climbing at the box office, having so far grossed $42 million.

As a result, more money has flowed to small, independent-style films,

Fox Searchlight head Peter Rice told Reuters that this year, more than ever, he can look at his rival distributors and know that each one is well-funded.

Among the films getting good buzz at Sundance are “Thank You for Smoking,” a comedy about a man promoting tobacco sales, which Fox Searchlight will distribute, “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Illusionist,” starring Edward Norton as a magician who uses his tricks to battle an Austrian prince for the woman he loves.

Sundance also spotlights documentaries, and one hot title is “Wordplay,” about New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz. Its filmmakers were in talks about a sale but had not closed a deal as of Monday morning.

Music documentaries such as “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s “Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out” also found rabid fans.

Meanwhile, Hollywood’s stars have come out in droves to promote their films and pick up many of the gift bags that are handed out.

At Self magazine’s Ultimate Luxury Lounge & Spa, Lucy Liu and Paris Hilton picked up new BlackBerry 8700c wireless devices and were able to download customized workout routines at Podfitness.com.