Gillian Flynn
February 07, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

It went down just before dawn, about 60 hours into the 11-day 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It was the biggest deal in fest history, and that giant cash register ka-ching! tauntingly echoed throughout Park City, Utah, all week. Leaping to the mic before the midnight premiere of the feature Strangers With Candy, Stephen Colbert gloated about his film selling for $16 million: ”Oh, no…,” he paused. ”That was Hustle & Flow.”

Yup, it was Hustle & Flow, starring Terrence Howard as a pimp who wants to become a rapper, that ignited a bidding war among Paramount, New Line, Miramax, Focus, and Columbia. Producer John Singleton pre- orchestrated the madness: ”The buzz on this picture was created by me,” says the Boyz N the Hood director. ”I showed it to the right people before we even got to Sundance. And that’s why we had so much hype around us.” Paramount ultimately scored the movie for its MTV Films banner with a $16 million deal that includes two forthcoming films from Singleton, each with a price tag of $3.5 million. (Thus, Hustle alone sold for about $9 million, just short of 1999’s reported $10 million payday for the famed flameout Happy, Texas.) Singleton’s producing partner Stephanie Allain says the bustle around Hustle hit its peak early Sunday morning: ”It was like a Pied Piper parade to the lobby of the Marriott. I sat by the fire, watching those guys do their thing, until about 5 a.m. when [the deal closed]. I fell asleep at 6:30 a.m., but by 7:30 my phone was lighting up with calls of congratulations. So I got up and called Paramount and MTV’s publicity people and said, ‘Let’s rock and roll!”’ MTV Films is ready: The studio has some serious swagger after helping Fox Searchlight make last year’s $3 million Sundance acquisition Napoleon Dynamite a $45 million indie smash. Van Toffler, president of MTV and MTV Films, says that success persuaded Singleton to sign. ”He saw what we did with Napoleon,” he says. ”We took a quirky story and made it a cult hit.”

The second-biggest payout went to The Matador — starring Pierce Brosnan as a dysfunctional assassin — which Miramax snapped up for $7.5 million. That buy plus the pre-festival purchase of the horror flick Wolf Creek by the studio’s thriller wing, Dimension, sent a booming message: Miramax was still a player, despite its imminent separation from parent company Disney. ”Every competitor assumed that nobody would want to sell movies to Miramax and counted us out of the bidding,” says Agnes Mentre, head of Miramax acquisitions. ”When we bought Wolf Creek, every competitor freaked out and realized that we’re not dead.” And still very savvy: The two words most often linked to Matador were ”extremely” and ”commercial” — the movie’s marketability was underlined by the lusty mob who chased Brosnan up Main Street.

As of press time, 14 films landed deals, but aside from Hustle, the festival felt ultimately even-keeled. Sundance 2004 featured the flashy debuts of Napoleon, Open Water, and Garden State (which grossed $45 million, $31 million, and $27 million, respectively), as well as Oscar bait like Maria Full of Grace. Conversely, this year’s crop of fictional films was likable, but lacked the manic following of movies past — and was missing obvious award contenders. (As one distributor put it: ”I didn’t see anything people should start preparing their speeches for.”)

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