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Derby winners break out at Sundance

January 24, 2006 |  1:25 pm

The Sundance Film Festival awards won't be bestowed until Sunday, but already some real winners have emerged, if measured in buzz or acquisition payouts.

Science of Sleep

Fox Searchlight spent a record $10.5 million for the dysfunctional-family comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear. Warner Independent pledged $6 million for Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep," starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg in a sci-fi love fantasy full of wacky dream sequences and a TV show inside Bernal's head. "Friends with Money" already had a distribution deal before unspooling as the festival's premier screening, but it generated great buzz that suggests Jennifer Aniston might make it in movies, after all.

Sundance is where the gold derby often begins for many films aiming for major critics' awards, Globes and Oscars. In 2001, "In the Bedroom" first gained kudos notice up there in the snowy Utah Mountains, winning special jury prizes for Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, then sprinted off to loftier trophies in the Oscar race where it nabbed six nominations, including bids for Spacek, Wilkinson and best picture. Special jury prize documentary champs "The Times of Harvey Milk" and "When We Were Kings" won their bouts at the Academy Awards.

Even lots of festival losers prove to be winners at other awards after gaining critical acclaim at Sundance — like "Gods and Monsters," which earned an Academy Award for screenwriter Bill Condon. "Shine" wasn't even shown in competition, but when it became a breakout hit at the fest, it snagged a distribution deal for $2.5 million and a best actor Oscar and Golden Globe for Geoffrey Rush.

Last year "Hustle & Flow" entered Sundance without a distribution deal, but ended up claiming an Audience Award plus a $9 million partnership with Paramount Classics. "The Squid and the Whale" garnered Sundance awards for both writing and directing. Recently, it was voted best screenplay by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Photo: "The Science of Sleep" has a bizarre, surreal perspective similar to Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
(Partizan Films)