Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Chris Nashawaty
January 24, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

Finally, the checkbooks have been pulled out and the bubbly is being uncorked. After a slow start — at least on the acquisitions front — Sundance ’07 is finally getting festive.

In the opening days of this year’s festival, many gloom-and-doom types were quick to characterize it as a ”down year” in the absence of early big-ticket sales, like last year’s $10 million bidding war sparked by Little Miss Sunshine. But yesterday, the skeptics were silenced.

While there’s yet to be a sale with as many zeroes as Sunshine‘s, the past couple of days have witnessed a flurry of mid-range buys, with Fox Searchlight making the biggest splash. The boutique studio, which proved its Sundance shrewdness a couple of years back with Napoleon Dynamite, reportedly shelled out a combined $9 million for two films.

The first was the blue-collar drama Waitress, directed by the late-indie actress Adrienne Shelly, who was killed in New York City late last year — sadly, before she had a chance to find out that her directorial debut had been accepted to the festival. Needless to say, the film, which stars Shelly, Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Cheryl Hines, and a winning central performance by Felicity‘s Keri Russell, was a sentimental audience favorite before it even unspooled. Searchlight’s second pick-up was the bruise-black thriller Joshua, George Ratliff’s harrowing domestic nightmare about an upper-class Manhattan family ripped apart by a demon-seed child. The film stars Sam Rockwell and The Departed‘s Vera Farmiga.

According to Variety, Warner Independent also got into the buying game, forking over $4 million for Cherie Nowlan’s Australian fractured love story Clubland, while Sony Classics paid $1.8 million for the documentary My Kid Could Paint That — a look at a child art prodigy who some considered to be the next Picasso and others said was just a hoax.

Not all of yesterday’s buzz had to do with commerce, however. Deborah Kempmeier’s Hounddog, a disturbingly bleak (and Elvis-obsessed) southern-gothic drama starring Dakota Fanning, held its premiere Monday night to a packed audience. Fanning’s film had been the center of a storm of controversy before the festival even started due to a scene in which the 12-year-old’s character is raped. Asked if she had any reservations about taking the part, Fanning, showing a maturity beyond her years, recently told The New York Times, ”The bottom line was, I couldn’t not do it. It’s all I could think about.”

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