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Sundance Market Explodes with ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ and ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’

Sundance Market Explodes with 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' and 'Diary of a Teenage Girl'

Sure, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics are the last studio specialty houses still standing. And yes, they’ve landed some of the most commercially viable titles of the Sundance 2015 Film Festival.

BUT. Distributors are paying prices that haven’t been seen in a few years for such $7 million buys as Open Road’s “Dope.” Why the heated market? More players and newbies willing to pay sky-high prices to eager to enter the market.

While early reports were hyperbolic, Fox Searchlight is partnering with producer Indian Paintbrush in the mid-seven figures, they say, to nail down worldwide rights to the Sundance competition entry from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Sunday debut “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Adapted by Jesse Andrews from his 2012 young adult bestseller, the Pittsburgh movie brought the Eccles to laughter and tears, as an awkward young teen (breakout narrator-star Thomas Mann) is initially forced by his mother (“Nashville”‘s Connie Britton) to “hang out” with a high school acquaintance (Brit Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with Stage Four leukemia. 

Their budding friendship pulls him out of his carefully non-committal clique-avoidance, and forces him to engage with and even confront his schoolmates as he rides a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions.

Structured as a diaristic account of a thankfully non-romantic relationship, the boy and his African-American buddy Earl (local Pittsburgh discovery RJ Cyler) reveal that they have been making short film pastiches of popular films and agree to make one for her. Like Searchlight’s hit “Juno” ($231 million worldwide) and Marielle Heller’s Sundance competition title “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (which was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics), this movie relies on animation (perhaps too much so) and a cleverly unreliable narrator (Mann). This hits the younger smart moviegoer sweet spot that Searchlight knows how to tap. 

At once a coming-of-age dramedy and effective four-hankie tearjerker, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is blessed by excellent casting, not only of the younger roles but cool grownups, including the girl’s mother (Molly Shannon), the boys’ tattooed history teacher (Jon Bernthal) and diffident foodie stay-at-home Dad (Nick Offerman). 

The filmmakers managed to lure Brian Eno, whose score plays a significant role. Searchlight and other bidders were well aware that this crowd-pleaser not only brought the Eccles audience to repeated tears but a sustained five-minute standing ovation.

Clearly adapting a popular novel can work. Another model was “The Fault in Our Stars,” which was also about teenagers dealing with death, and scored more than $300 million worldwide. Sundance hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is also based on a graphic novel. These films are able to retain an authentic writer’s voice and strong POV. Approached by producer Dan Fogelman, Andews had never written a script and had to acquire Final Draft, he told the crowd at the Eccles. “Terminal illness is so hard for adults to process,” Andrews said at the Sundance Q & A. “And for adolescents it’s impossible.”

Marking its first Sundance (less pricey) buy, IFC scooped up sexy comedy “D Train,” starring James Marsden and Jack Black. And newcomer Alchemy (the retitled Millennium Entertainment) is acquiring Nicole Kidman vehicle “Strangerland” for a reported $1.5 million for multi-platform release. 

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