Tales of romance, geeks, surfers sell at Sundance

Monday, January 19th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) _ Distributors pulled out their checkbooks at the Sundance Film Festival, whose first weekend closed with deals on some of the event's hot movies.

Miramax and Fox Searchlight teamed to buy ``Garden State,'' a romantic comedy that is one of 16 films in Sundance's dramatic competition.

Fox Searchlight bought a second dramatic-competition entry, the teen-geek tale ``Napoleon Dynamite,'' while Lions Gate bought the ocean thriller ``Open Water,'' based on a true story about married scuba divers mistakenly left behind in shark-infested waters by a careless boat crew.

Sony Pictures Classics picked up the festival's opening-night film, the surfing documentary ``Riding Giants.'' Focus Features bought ``The Motorcycle Diaries,'' chronicling Che Guevara's biker odyssey through South America with a friend in the early 1950s.

The Miramax and Fox Searchlight partnership is unusual, since distributors scouting film festivals generally go it alone when buying a movie. Studios often team up to minimize their risk by co-financing big-budget films, and the Miramax-Fox Searchlight deal was the indie equivalent.

20th Century Fox, the parent company of Fox Searchlight, and Miramax recently joined forces on ``Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.''

``We had worked with Fox at the bigger studio level, so it made sense to get involved at the independent level,'' said Miramax spokesman Paul Pflug.

``Garden State'' was written and directed by Zach Braff of TV's ``Scrubs.'' Braff also stars as a man who returns home for his mother's funeral and breaks free of a lifetime of medication-induced passivity, striking up a relationship with a quirky young woman (Natalie Portman). The film co-stars Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm.

``Napoleon Dynamite,'' an early crowd-pleaser at the festival which runs through Sunday, was directed by Jared Hess and follows the trials and triumphs of a high-school dork (Jon Heder) with bushy red hair.

``Open Water'' stars Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis and was written and directed by Chris Kentis.

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, called ``Open Water'' a blend of ```Blair Witch' meets `Jaws.'''

Lions Gate plans to put the movie into wide release this summer.