Arts & Entertainment

Sundance 2015: Media outlets wrongly report record-breaking deal

RJ Cyler, left, and Thomas Mann star in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which became a hot property at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
RJ Cyler, left, and Thomas Mann star in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which became a hot property at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Fox Searchlight

The earliest media reports about the sale of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” at the Sundance Film Festival said that Fox Searchlight was buying the drama for a record festival price of $12 million.

It was a startling headline, repeated by many media outlets, including KPCC on Monday morning. As sometimes happens around secret negotiations, however, that $12 million figure was nearly three times the actual sales price, according to three people with direct knowledge of the contract talks. In fact, the total cost to Fox Searchlight was slightly more than $4 million, these sources say.

The previous — and still-standing — record for a Sundance sale is the $10.5-million deal for “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006. That Fox Searchlight bid proved to be a home run, as the Steve Carell comedy grossed more than $100 million worldwide.

Some early reviewers have compared “Me and Earl” to the massive young adult hit “The Fault in Our Stars,” as both films focus on young love and terminal illness. Directed by Alfonso Gómez-Rejón, who has credits on “American Horror Story,” “Me and Earl” is adapted from a book by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay.

The film stars Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke. Mann plays a high school senior named Greg, whose only friend, Earl (Cyler), shares his passion for art films. Greg is forced by his mother to visit a girl named Rachel (Cooke), who has leukemia, and it’s not the first or last meeting.

Reviewing the movie in The Hollywood Reporter, critic John DeFore called the film “a smart-ass charmer, merciless tearjerker and sincere celebration of teenage creativity” that deserved the standing ovation it received in its first screening at the cavernous Eccles Theatre before a sold-out house of 1,270 Sundance patrons on Sunday afternoon.

According to the people familiar with the talks, Fox Searchlight entered into exclusive negotiations with the film’s financier, Indian Paintbrush, on Sunday. Fox and the production company previously partnered on the films “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” all of which were directed by Wes Anderson.

Indian Paintbrush is headed by Steven Rales; Forbes has estimated the businessman’s net worth in excess of $3 billion. Rales did not respond to a call seeking comment. Fox Searchlight declined to comment beyond a press release.

The three people close to the negotiations said that Indian Paintbrush spent about $7 million producing the film, but that rebates reduced the total cost to a little less than $6 million. Fox Searchlight, in exchange for getting worldwide rights to the film, agreed to split the film’s net production budget with Indian Paintbrush and throw in more than $1 million as a bonus that would in part cover the producers' overhead. Before any other company could make a firm offer for “Me and Earl,” the three people said, the deal was closed.

Indian Paintbrush will receive a generous share of the film’s profits if it is financially successful, the three people said. Fox Searchlight has not decided when to release the film, but it is considering an early summer premiere — not unlike the release date for “The Fault in Our Stars.” According to another person who is working on the deal, the other potential bidders included Lionsgate, Focus Features and The Weinstein Co. 

In its release announcing the deal, Fox Searchlight Presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula said, “We are so thrilled to be a part of this film – the movie completely floored us and stole our hearts.  The response at the festival has been extraordinary.  The performances are honest and relatable and the film is smart, funny and original.”

Come summer, young moviegoers will have a chance to see if they agree.