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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

End of story: a record deal

'Little Miss Sunshine' -- the little movie that could -- winds up going for $10.5 million.

January 23, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

PARK CITY, Utah — The weather was bitterly cold, the hour was late and there wasn't a parking spot to be found. Still, the night belonged to "Little Miss Sunshine" and nothing could keep the parade of top independent studio executives from the Riverhorse Cafe on Friday, there to woo filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the pair behind Sundance Film Festival's first clear sensation. The suitors lined up: David Linde from Focus Features. Then John Lesher of Paramount Classics. Next was Harvey Weinstein. Finally, as it neared midnight, Fox Searchlight's Peter Rice arrived in the crowded upstairs room.

By the end of a marathon and often combative negotiating session that lasted until 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Fox Searchlight had won -- buying "Little Miss Sunshine" for $10.5 million, the biggest deal for a single film in the festival's history.

In paying a record amount for "Little Miss Sunshine's" worldwide rights (the previous high point was $10.25 million, set by 1999's "Happy, Texas"), Fox Searchlight got what it believes could be its next "Garden State" or "Napoleon Dynamite" -- an inventive, Sundance-flavored comedy that could appeal well beyond the art-house circuit.

Fox Searchlight is so confident in the film's prospects, it plans to release "Little Miss Sunshine" in midsummer, up against the sequel to "X-Men," among others.

"It's an incredibly appealing movie with a big heart and big comic set pieces," says Rice, who was among the three Fox Searchlight execs up all night hammering out the deal. "It's both that funny and delivers real emotional moments."

The sale also capped an improbable story of perseverance, and the film's difficult journey is a reminder of just how hard it remains to produce highbrow art movies, even as an array of those very films -- from "Crash" to "Brokeback Mountain" -- are dominating the awards season and generating impressive box-office grosses.

There is no small irony in "Little Miss Sunshine's" story. Focus Features had dropped the film several years back, only to become one of the most aggressive bidders after it attracted a standing-room-only audience in the 1,270-seat Eccles Center theater Friday night.

Do-it-yourself production

The film took five years to make, and it came together only after one of its producers, Marc Turtletaub, decided to cover the $8 million budget himself. By some measures, the production suffered nearly as many detours as does the film's eccentric family, which is racing from New Mexico to Southern California so that a 7-year-old girl named Olive can enter a beauty pageant.

"There's an old saw that making movies is about overcoming obstacles," says David T. Friendly, Turtletaub's producing partner. "And sometimes, the best things happen after the longest fight."

The film begins after the failed suicide attempt of Proust scholar Frank (Steve Carell), who moves in with his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) and her family as part of his recovery from depression. Sheryl is married to third-rate motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear), with whom she is raising morose, uncommunicative teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) and pudgy, awkward but seemingly unstoppable daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin).

With their money running low but desperate to make the beauty pageant's deadline, the family packs into its unreliable Volkswagen bus, with its bawdy, drug-addled but doting grandpa (Alan Arkin) riding in the back.

The VW's grinding clutch is hardly the only trouble arising during the frantic drive; the family also must grapple with its own mounting interpersonal strife.

For all of its charm, though, "Little Miss Sunshine" languished after producers Friendly and Turtletaub bought its script in 2001 for $150,000.

The movie was written by Michael Arndt, who at one time was actor Matthew Broderick's personal assistant. (One top screenwriter -- "Chinatown's" Robert Towne -- was so impressed by the script that he hired Arndt to adapt Glen David Gold's novel "Carter Beats the Devil.")

After many other studios passed, "Little Miss Sunshine" eventually was sold to USA Films. But within days of the 2002 deal, USA Films dumped its chairman, Scott Greenstein, and was merged with the production and sales company Good Machine to become Focus Features.

The Focus production model is based largely on selling off a film's foreign rights, and Focus management wanted at least some of "Little Miss Sunshine's" cast to have strong international appeal. Directors Dayton and Faris (who are married) and Focus had countless discussions about the budget and various casting combinations.

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