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Tuesday January 20th, 2004
The Sundance luvvies gussied themselves into a spending frenzy in the first weekend of Sundance Film Festival 2004.
Nearly all of the specialty movie world's big guns were there -- including Miramax Films, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics and Lions Gate Films - to snap up some high-profile indie features.

While Miramax and Fox Searchlight made the unusual move of teaming to acquire 'Garden State', the directorial debut of Zach Braff (Scrubs) the latter studio also picked up Jared Hess' 'Napoleon Dynamite'.

Elsewhere, Sony Classics caught Stacy Peralta's surfing documentary 'Riding Giants', Focus rode off with Walter Salles' 'Motorcycle Diaries' and Lions Gate snagged the deep sea thriller 'Open Water'.

The moves reflected a Sundance that is heavily front-loaded with top titles unspooling early and selling quickly, making for a first weekend of wheeling and dealing that festival veterans said was unprecedented.

Indie watchers added that the pickups also revealed a healthy dose of advance strategizing by the heavy hitters, who arrived prepared to make surgical strikes. 'The festival is totally front-loaded', one indie acquisitions veteran said of the fest, which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday. '(The festival might as well be) done on Wednesday morning. I could leave tomorrow easily'.

Other titles with deals in the works, according to sources, were Joshua Marston's 'Maria Full of Grace', the Courteney Cox starrer 'November' from indie banner InDigEnt and the rock documentary 'Dig!'

The deal for 'Garden State' marked an uncommon agreement with two specialty arms partnering on the release of a film they didn't produce. Just as major studios regularly share the risks on big-budget productions, the two indies adopted the formula for their purposes in a deal rumored to be worth roughly $5 million.

The romantic dramedy 'Garden', about a young man who returns to New Jersey for his mother's funeral after a decade away, had distributors in the hunt immediately after its Friday premiere went over like gangbusters at the 1,500-seat Eccles Theater.

At a private dinner for the film later that evening in Deer Valley, Creative Artists Agency execs were sequestered in an upstairs room weighing offers from Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Fine Line Features, sources said. Once Fine Line dropped out in the wee hours of Sunday, Miramax's Harvey Weinstein and Fox Searchlight's Peter Rice agreed to pick up the film together.

Miramax and Fox Searchlight said that the companies will share equally in the film's worldwide revenue, and the two companies are discussing which entity will distribute in which territory worldwide.

Fox Searchlight additionally closed a deal for worldwide rights on 'Napoleon Dynamite', the directorial debut of Jared Hess, 24. Set in rural Idaho, 'Napoleon' follows the exploits of off-the-wall Napoleon Dynamite and his dysfunctional family. Sources said the deal was for more than $3 million.

Another project that rode a wave of positive buzz to a distribution deal was Peralta's surfing documentary 'Riding Giants', which opened Sundance on Thursday. 'Giants' is skateboarding luminary Peralta's follow-up to his 2001 Sundance docu 'Dogtown and Z-Boys'. Like 'Dogtown', 'Giants' found a home at Sony Pictures Classics, which beat out Fox Searchlight, sources said.

'It's just the kind of story that almost anyone can respond to', said Matt Jacobson, vp at Quicksilver Entertainment, which partly financed 'Giants'. 'And documentaries are really in fashion right now -- which helped draw attention, along with the opening-night slot'.

Sources said that the asking price for 'Giants' had hit the $2 million-plus mark.

Focus nabbed 'Motorcycle Diaries', which stars 'Y Tu Mama Tambien's' Gael Garcia Bernal. The Spanish-language film is based on the journals of Alberto Granado, who set out on a road trip in the early 1950s with Ernesto Guevara, the man who would later become politico 'El Che'. Focus was said to have ponied up close to $4 million for the picture, sources said. Sundance maven Robert Redford was an executive producer.

Meanwhile, Lions Gate is planning a summer release for 'Open Water'. The film is based on the true story of two married scuba divers who are left behind by a careless boat crew, and must embark on a shark-infested journey and a struggle to survive. It stars Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein and Estelle Lau.

Said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing: '(Director) Chris Kentis and (producer) Laura Lau have crafted an unbelievably intense tale of fear and survival set in the vast, creepy expanse of the open ocean'.

The company earlier picked up another Sundance title, the horror thriller 'Saw' out of the Park City at Midnight section.

"Well duh, it's like, a Garden dude, and I'm like in a state!"

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