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A Sundance Sale, Revisited: Miguel Arteta Looks Back on the 20th Anniversary of ‘Star Maps’

The director, back at Sundance this year with "Beatriz at Dinner," recalls the festival moment that changed his career forever.

“Star Maps”

Sundance deals accrue such legend that it’s easy to forget the ones that materialize out of nowhere. Such was the case 20 years ago to this day, when Miguel Arteta’s first feature “Star Maps” premiered at the festival and landed a $2.5 million deal with Fox Searchlight.

The movie, which tells the story of a Latin American teen (Douglas Spain) who works as a bisexual hustler while harboring dreams of movie stardom, became an overnight sensation at Sundance — and also turned Arteta into a permanent member of the festival family. Since then he’s returned with “Chuck & Buck” (2000) and with “The Good Girl” (2002); tonight he screens his latest effort, “Beatriz at Dinner” out of competition.

The “Star Maps” deal also marked a historic moment for this site. At roughly a year old, IndieWire was establishing itself as a nimble digital upstart that had accrued popularity at Sundance, where it published a daily print edition. It was there that co-founder Eugene Hernandez landed us our first scoop, not only breaking the news of the Searchlight deal but sitting down with Arteta, his collaborators, and Searchlight executives the very next day. “There are a lot of people all over Latin America who are very happy this morning,” Arteta said at the time.

Incidentally, “Beatriz at Dinner” premieres at Sundance 20 years to the day after that story ran. To commemorate the occasion, Arteta spoke with IndieWire about what the deal meant to him at the time and its reverberations over the next two decades.

I’m assume you were happy with our story.

MIGUEL ARTETA: Not only did you break the story that the movie sold, but the movie sold because of you guys.

How so?

We were in the American Spectrum section. Nobody thought this movie was going to be anything. I hadn’t even talked with my producer, Matthew Greenfield, about if it were to sell, how much we would ask. Or, why would it sell? We got into Sundance and God help us. We got on the plane and I asked him, “What if people want to buy it? What do we ask for?” It played at the Yarrow when it was just a conference room. It didn’t even play properly, the sound didn’t work, and there was just a few people — including one of you guys. I had to stand in front of the projector so they wouldn’t play it without sound. The projectionist was like, “I don’t know what to do.” And the 20-40 people that were there all started cheering until we stopped playing. We went and found somebody who knew how to fix it and play it again. Then you guys ran a story about it that night, saying you liked the movie.

Miguel Arteta

Shutterstock

Three days later, when the screening at the Library happened, there were people lined up around the block. Me and Matthew were walking up to the screening, and we were like, “Surely this is not for us. They must be selling tickets for some hot movie or something.” And it turned out that IndieWire had generated anticipation in those two or three days. The theater was full. Every investor — and every director — was there. That’s why we had that big payout.

I remember it very well — the festival daily was just a one-sheet that you had distributed at places like the hotel. Matthew and I couldn’t believe how effective it had been. Obviously, it changed our lives.

What sort of expectations did you have at the start of the festival?

We were so grateful just to be in the festival. Matthew had been a vegetarian for 15 years, and I had told him if we get into Sundance, you’re gonna have to eat a steak. We got in, and he has been eating meat ever since.

So how did you assemble a team to help with the deal?

Matthew had a friend that he had worked with whose brother was this lawyer, named Jed Alpert. He said, “I think I know how to sell a movie. I’m a lawyer, I can do it.” And we were like, “Wait, will you cost any money?” And he’s like, “Not unless you sell it.” We were completely naïve at this point. We’re like, “Yes, we’re prepared, we have this lawyer.”

How did the situation proceed from there?

We were pretty naïve. And we were tired. Once the sales start to happen, we were doing the deal at this brewery, and Jed kept saying, “I just have to go out for a minute.” He would run down Main Street where his friend was out at dinner. He kept getting advice. Our expectation was like, we hope it sells, but we hadn’t really talked it through. Then they paid $2.5 million for it.

What sort of effect did have on you when you heard that sum?

Well, it was very hard to believe. After the screening at the Library, they took Matthew away. I remember sitting behind these people at the screening and they kept leaving. Later on, I kept saying to Matthew, “They don’t like the film, they don’t like the film.” And he was like, “Dude, I think they’re going out there to make some phone calls. They want to buy it.”

So the moment the screening ended, Matthew said, “I think they want to talk about it. You’re going to have to do a Q&A on your own.” So I did the Q&A. It was very nice, one of those really exciting screenings, everyone was really enthusiastic. Then they put me in a van and took me to the brewery where they were doing this deal. I went to the back. By the time I got there, they had just mentioned the number to Matthew. We were both just flabbergasted. He was like, Claudia Lewis just proposed $2.5 million for our movie.” We were so floored. I said, “Matthew, I need you to come with me to the bathroom.” When I got there, I hit my head against the wall, because I thought I must be dreaming. I literally hit my head against the wall.

At some point, reality must have set in.

Star Maps

“Star Maps”

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I was so confused. What does this mean? Does this mean they’re paying for like, for the prints and the album cover, not the whole number? Matthew’s like, “No, I understand that they’re gonna give us that.” That obviously changed our lives. Over the last four years, I had maxed out 13 credit cards by the time I got to the festival. We had not paid ourselves a cent. We were able to pay all of that back and make more than twice for our investors. Every person that finished before we were shooting got a point, including the kids. Everybody got paid something. It was just incredible and meaningful time for us.

How did the news around that deal impact the life of the movie from that point forward?

It was great. We got a lot of attention. They tried to help us with the movie in a beautiful way. They put a lot of money into getting our names out there. I wish the movie had made more money for them. I don’t remember exactly how much money they made, but they really got it out for us. For a first-time filmmaker, it was an incredible launch.

You didn’t make another movie until “Chuck & Buck” in 2000, but you must have received a lot of offers for your next project in the immediate aftermath of the “Star Maps” deal.

Chuck & Buck

“Chuck & Buck”

That did start to happen. [Searchlight] did a beautiful premiere at the Mann Chinese in L.A., where I got to bring my family, who had been supporting me for so long. It was just an unbelievably proud moment for them. And at that screening at the Mann Chinese, the producer of “Homicide: Life on the Streets” was there and said to me, “I love this movie. Have you ever done television? I want you to come do an episode.” That launched my TV career, which was great. It took me a little while to figure out my next step. They started to offer me projects that I couldn’t relate to, things like “Police Squad: The Movie.” I just kept passing on stuff like that. Matthew and I were like, “We just have to go back to what we love doing.” So we went and did a movie that was the same scale as “Star Maps.” At the time, all the people that had been inviting me were like, “That’s career suicide. You had such a good opportunity in your hands, and you’re doing a movie about a boxer and his a childhood friend? Don’t do that.”

What was your response?

We were like, “We’re gonna do it with Mike White and Chris Weisz.” And they just thought we were just a little bit crazy. We were not running with the same amount of attention for “Star Maps,” but that character just came to me and I was very happy to do it. We went and made that move from our basement again.

Looking back on it, does that still feel like the right next step?

I feel incredibly blessed to have done that. I think “Chuck & Buck” is one of the dearest things I’ve ever been involved with. I love that movie. I love that character. We came back to the festival with it, and we were in competition. It was an amazing year, the year of “You Can Count on Me” and “Girlfight.” We were able sell the movie and it did very well.

Nowadways, it’s commonplace for directors to break out at Sundance and then land big studio projects. What do you make of that trajectory?

The Hollywood machinery can take away from what you do best. We’re storytellers. What you have to do is keep your eye on the prize of telling a story that you can put your heart in, whether it’s big or small. You get lost when you start to say, “I’m gonna do a movie because X, Y, and Z attached are in it.” Or because of the paycheck. If you just stay focused on the story, if you’re only trying to tell stories that in one way or another you can take part in it, it really decides how commercial you can be.

It took me a long time to find a studio movie, because I was trying to find something that I could relate to. It was very odd, because I do a darker kind of humor. I couldn’t believe that the first studio movie that I could put my heart into was basically a children’s story — “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” But it’s a story about learning to appreciate your family — a kid who has a terrible day and then his family has a terrible day, and when they start having a terrible day, he realizes how much he loves them. It was something that made me cry. I realized, “Here it is. I’ve been trying to find a studio movie for years that I can relate to, and I can relate to this.”

How did the experience differ with your latest film, “Beatriz at Dinner”?

“Beatriz at Dinner”

Mike White has written a story that really touches upon the hilarity of the world right now. Over the last 40 or 50 years — ever since the ’60s, when we were at the height of being able to care for each other, when people were at their kindest in this country, we have allowed society and the multinational companies and the government to find a way to erode that kindness. We’re basically being turned into selfish consumers to a point where society is just morally bankrupt. It’s impossible to really care in this world. We’ve made it very difficult to not be greedy. Mike wrote a story that beautifully laments the sadness of allowing things to get to a point where the beautiful feeling we had in the ’60s and early ’70s has been totally squashed, to a point where we need to be very, very, very concerned.

When “Star Maps” came out, part of the conversation around it had to do with the way the Latino experience is underrepresented at the movies. How did that inform your subsequent films, many of which had broader focuses?

I like making stories that point out a minority. We struggle with the same problems as everybody else. “Star Maps” was about that. It was about a very, very messed-up Latin family. And to me, it was about saying, “We have all kinds of problems.” It was kind of like making a colorblind movie in a way. That was not done as much. But I think we’ve come a long way in regards to that. I feel like audiences got more and more divided. It’s hard to make a movie that discusses these kinds of things that reaches all of the audience. When you deal with these kind of topics, you’re preaching to the converted even more. So that’s my concern moving forward.

For “Beatriz at Dinner,” the idea was to make a movie with characters that would present the completely different political discourse that a household is divided into, and do it in a really relatable environment like a dinner party. We started it as something like a comedy of manners, which completely turns into a battle of ideas.

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