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Sundance Deal Wrap: Mickey Liddell Picks Up ‘Black Rock,’ CBS Gets ‘The Words,’ Breakout ‘Beasts of Southern Wild’ Wins Grant, Heats Up with Searchlight

Sundance Deal Wrap: Mickey Liddell Picks Up 'Black Rock,' CBS Gets 'The Words,' Breakout 'Beasts of Southern Wild' Wins Grant, Heats Up with Searchlight

The Sundance Fest is in full swing, with modest deals under way. The two opening night doc buys from Sony Pictures Classics (“Searching for Sugar Man”) and Magnolia (“The Queen of Versailles”) were both sweet and easy low-bid offers closed on the first night, according to SPC’s Tom Bernard and Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles, respectively. Both companies had tracked the films and were poised to bid after seeing how they played for audiences. Bernard knew that executive producer John Battsek had been following the story of the missing singer Rodriguez. Now Bernard wants Bruce Springsteen to throw a concert for the movie.

But early Sunday two companies eager to make their mark made fiction buys. Mickey Liddell and David Dinerstein’s new LD Entertainment scooped up North American rights to midnight smart-horror flck “Black Rock,” about three women (Katie Aselton, Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell) vacationing on an isolated Maine island, written by Mark Duplass (who also stars in Lynn Shelton’s terrific “Your Sister’s Sister”) and directed by his wife Aselton (“The League”), who also directed and starred in “The Freebie.” The deal closed after it screened Saturday night at 4 AM. Duplass had encouraged Aselton to write and direct her own micro-budget projects and she has taken to it like a duck to water.

Dinerstein says the movie is not your standard horror flick; it’s for smart audiences.

Beleaguered CBS Films, which recently lost its chief Amy Baer and is now steering toward an acquisitions strategy (buying “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” in Toronto for $5 million) acquired U.S. rights to Sundance’s closing night film “The Words,” starring Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana and Jeremy Irons. Cooper had stuck with the project since before he made “The Hangover,” and did not take a huge payday. The movie was made for under $10 million and Parlay Films’ raised $8 million in foreign sales, said producer Tatiana Kelly at a Sunday party at River Horse for Film Independent and Indiewire. With the U.S. deal’s minimum guarantee of $2 million and a P & A commitment (reportedly around $1.5 million) and a good back end, the movie’s already in profit. 

Much as with “Margin Call” last year, Cassian Elwes, one of the film’s sales reps along with CAA, set up an early buyer’s screening on Saturday at the Holiday III. “The Words” will have its world premiere as the closing night film on January 27. CBS Films plans a fall release. Kelly said the filmmakers went for a theatrical release with a modest front end and strong marketing; Terry Press was an asset for CBS in the deal. I’m hearing this from a lot of filmmakers; they still consider theatrical the gold standard for showing their films.

Rookie writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal developed the movie for 11 years, refusing to let it go even though other folks such as Jason Reitman were interested in directing. The movie was nurtured at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and wound up on the annual Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. Cooper wanted to play the role of a writer who, at the peak of his literary success, steals another man’s work–who then turns up (Jeremy Irons). Also starring are Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Zoe Saldana and Ben Barnes.

The breakout film of this festival, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was also boosted by its participation in the Sundance Feature Film Program. Created by a collective of filmmakers using non-actors, the movie paints an audacious portrait of a young girl and her hard-living single father living on the margins of society on a delta island south of New Orleans called “The Bathtub.” They live off the land and the water, in harmony with nature, until the arrival of the Big Storm floods them out. This movie is so outrageous -and the talk of the festival— that the film not only won the Sundance Festival’s first $10,000 Indian Paintbrush producer’s grant, but Fox Searchlight is in talks to acquire it.

That’s called catching the big gold ring.

Buyers are out in force. Two hot titles that debuted Friday night have yet to sell: romantic comedy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” and thriller “Red Lights.” Canvassing the crowd, the men were using words like “sweet” and “nice” and “charming” for “Celeste” while women were more positive, comparing it to “500 Days of Summer” and praising the soundtrack. Rashida Jones wrote and starred in the Lee Toland Krieger film, opposite Will McCormack.

Summit’s two execs Patrick Wachsberger and Rob Friedman, with their Lionsgate merger closed, seemed in excellent spirits as they actively trawled for product. They are now in charge of motion pictures for the merged company.

Also earning a lackluster reaction was “Red Lights,” from the writer-director of “Buried,” Rodrigo Cortes, who prophetically said at the screening, “I don’t think I have ever disappointed 1200 people at the same time.” The slightly ragged movie starts out promisingly as Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy play a team of “X-Files”-like skeptical paranormal detectives primed to seek out fraud and prove a scientific explanation for all phenomena. The film delivers genuine thrills and strong performances from the two leads and Sundance no-show Robert DeNiro as a powerful and dangerous blind telepath (Elizabeth Olsen is just ok in a slight girlfriend role) and could be edited into submission, I think. Both will find buyers. The latter would be a strong VOD title with its name stars.

At the Eccles for “Red Lights” were Bob and Harvey Weinstein and David Glasser, Summit’s Eric Feig and Michael Schaefer, IFC’s Jonathan Sehring, Tony Safford of Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, Howard Cohen and Eric D’Arbeloff of Roadside Attractions and former Film District execs Bob and Jeanne Berney, who are having a relaxed festival with no pressure to buy for anyone. Now that’s the life.

Saturday’s big debut, “Arbitrage,” stars Richard Gere as a hard-driving billionaire hedge fund magnate who must sell his company or lose everything. (Spoiler alert) When his mistress dies in a car accident with him at the wheel, he must decide what doing the right thing really means. The movie written and directed by rookie Nicholas Jarecki lays out fascinating ethical dilemmas; Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling are strong as Gere’s wife and daughter. The film plays well for audiences, but may be too straight down the middle for a wide theatrical release. Again, VOD may be the answer with such a name cast.

It’s not enough to make a merely good solid movie. These days to get a theatrical playoff it needs to have something to make it pop and grab attention. Adults may like “Arbitrage”‘s mature pleasures. But some critics may not. Here’s THR.

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