Low-budget British film takes Cannes market by storm Fox Searchlight wins a bidding battle for 'Waking Ned,' which has been compared to 'Full Monty' and 'Local Hero.'; Film


Cannes, France - The battle to buy the first commercial discovery of the 1998 Cannes International Film Festival began quietly enough.

Before its first screening last Monday afternoon, no one had seen "Waking Ned," a comedy made with no movie stars by British first-time writer-director, Kirk Jones. Jones, 33, had just driven the print down from London - a 15-hour trip - because plane tickets were too expensive.

"Cannes is so much about hype, but we just [sneaked] in the back door," Jones said of his film. Sneaked in, that is, and took the place by storm.

On Tuesday, just 20 hours after distributors got their first look, Fox Searchlight bought the comedy, which chronicles what happens to a tiny Irish village when one of its residents wins the lottery. Sources said Fox paid more than $4 million for the rights to distribute the film.

"I'm wearing a big smile," said Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight. "I couldn't be more happy."

That the deal was done in less than a day shows how swiftly business gets done at the 51st Cannes film festival, where fierce rivalries force almost instantaneous decisions. That the battle was so pitched says something, moreover, about this year's festival, which has featured few "audience pleasers" that have not yet been bought by distributors.

So "Waking Ned," which is not officially connected to the festival but is screening at the film market, was a welcome surprise. Especially after word got around that it could be another "Full Monty" - the British blockbuster, made for less than $4 million, that has grossed $247 million to date for Fox Searchlight.

Fox's victory - won after a grueling, late-night competition during which several distributors made entreaties via cellular phones - did not come easy.

Sources said Fox beat out four other major distributors, one of which offered to pay $1 million over and above the price of the film just to secure exclusive negotiating rights. Artisan Entertainment was among those who lost out, having at one point put in a bid of $3.5 million, sources said.

Law, who first read the script two years ago, liked it very much but ultimately didn't buy it because, he said, "it had an underlying sweetness that I thought resembled too much another film we were making - which turned out to be 'The Full Monty.' "

By coincidence, Law said, he found out that the film was screening for the first time here and made a point of showing up. He wasn't alone. Acquisitions folks from Trimark, Miramax, Fine Line and Polygram were also there.

The minute that first screening ended, the hustle began.

Distributors beat a hasty path for the Noga Hilton, the headquarters of the Overseas Film Group, which was selling the film. But the company's chairman, Robert Little, was out.

Little's cellular phone soon started ringing incessantly. Amir Malin, the co-president of Artisan, had three scouts at the screening, and on the basis of their enthusiasm, he tracked Little down.

"They told me it was like 'Local Hero,' " he said, referring to the 1983 Bill Forsyth film about an American oil company hoping to locate a big operation in a small Scottish town. Malin made his offer that night. But Little had promised other distributors not to commit to any company before a second screening on Tuesday.

Law and his colleagues at Fox Searchlight were also calling. They finally reached Little while he was eating dinner at the pricey hillside restaurant Colombe D'Or.

"We called him every 10 minutes, though when his main course arrived, he wisely turned [his phone] off," Law said. The calls, Little recalled, "continued until 2:30 in the morning."

By sunrise Tuesday, when people began gathering for breakfast in the cafes along the Croissette, there was a healthy buzz about "Waking Ned." Fox Searchlight had some advantages going into the negotiations, its track record with "Full Monty" among them.

Nevertheless, Law said, anxiety about the possibility of losing the film kept him awake all night. "I went to bed at 3 a.m. and lay there until 6, when I got up and ordered breakfast."

Tuesday's screening began at 11:30 a.m. Half an hour after it ended, the deal was done.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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