September 9, 2008 / 3:28 PM / 9 years ago

Fox Searchlight wins "Wrestler" bidding war

<p>U.S. director Darren Aronofsky (R) holds the Golden Lion prize for best movie "The Wrestler" next to Mickey Rourke during a photocall at the 65th edition of the Venice Film Festival September 6, 2008. Rourke stars in the Aronofsky movie. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse</p>

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - Arthouse studio Fox Searchlight has acquired U.S. rights to Darren Aronofsky’s acclaimed Mickey Rourke drama “The Wrestler,” days after it won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

The deal, reported to be in the $3.5 million-$4 million range, was sealed at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film screened for eager buyers.

The News Corp-owned studio plans a December release that will seek to capitalize on the momentum of both Toronto and Venice, where “Wrestler” won the Golden Lion award on Saturday.

An all-night negotiating session that included Overture, Senator and Lionsgate came to a head around 5 a.m. Monday, as it became clear that filmmakers wanted to go in the Searchlight direction. The deal was finally closed at about 11 a.m.

After a relatively quiet year, the studio behind such recent hits as “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine” now has two significant acquisitions that it didn’t have just several weeks ago. The other is Danny Boyle’s gritty but moving “Slumdog Millionaire,” a coming-of-age tale involving a competition on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

The film, which Searchlight is distributing in a partnership with Warner Bros. coincidentally premiered opposite “The Wrestler” on Sunday.

These two, as well as another Toronto crowd-pleaser, “The Secret Life of Bees,” ensure that Fox Searchlight should become a major player in the fall box office race and the awards competition.

While lauding Fox Searchlight’s two acquisitions, several executives in Toronto raised questions about the speed with which it can ramp up both release and awards campaigns. Searchlight has a lighter schedule this year in general, but putting together three time-intensive marketing and awards drives in one season would tax the staff of any boutique operation.

On the other hand, Searchlight has experience juggling multiple winners -- in 2006, for example, it shepherded “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Last King of Scotland” to major Oscar wins.

Meanwhile, Searchlight is planning a very limited start for “Slumdog” in November -- with the option of expanding up to 1,000 screens quickly if the film immediately catches on.

The backstory to the “Slumdog” acquisition is almost as colorful as the plot of the movie itself.

It started as a Warner Independent Pictures project, but its future was thrown into question when the specialty firm was shut down by its Time Warner parent this year. Fearful that his passion project would fall between the cracks, Boyle and his producers sprang into action. The director apparently reached out to News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin, with whom Boyle had a relationship through such films as “The Beach” and “A Life Less Ordinary.”

The deal for the film is unusual: Fox Searchlight did not buy out Warner’s position in the movie but instead will split the financial upside 50-50; Searchlight will release the film and will make all strategic decisions.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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