NEWS- <i>Choke</i> job: ATO snags $5 million at Sundance

Brad Henke and Sam Rockwell star in Choke, which producer Temple Fennell, inset, sold at Sundance.

If Utah were any more receptive to ATO Pictures, the Charlottesville-based production company might just have to open up a satellite office in the Beehive State. One year after selling a picture to the indie division of the Fox entertainment behemoth, the moviemaking enterprise founded by Dave Matthews and Coran Capshaw has sold an offbeat comedy called Choke to Fox Searchlight for $5 million.

ATO producer and Charlottesville native Temple Fennell couldn't be happier to be working with Fox Searchlight again.

"This is their sweet spot," Fennell says. "They've done brilliantly with Juno and Little Miss Sunshine– comedies that don't fit into the Hollywood mainstream– and know that they know how to create word of mouth with a movie like Choke."

The movie is an adaptation of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's 2001 novel about a part-time con man who goes to high-end restaurants, intentionally chokes on his food, keeps a list of the people who save him, and then sends letters asking them to help with made-up bills he's having made-up trouble paying.

The narrative also mines comedy from the usually unfunny topics of nursing homes, addiction, and foster parenting.

"We knew that when we took on this script, it would be risky because it's so execution dependent," says Fennell. "If we didn't strike the right tone, it would just be one of these comedies that's clever for clever's sake."

Apparently, Fox Searchlight executives got the joke, because they approached Fennell immediately after the film's January 21 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. As the night wound down, the negotiations revved up.

"The movie ended, and they followed us to the afterparty," says Fennell. "So while everyone else is celebrating with mojitos, I'm there with my club soda trying to get this deal done."

One year ago, ATO sold its horror flick Joshua to Fox Searchlight Pictures for $4 million. Choke brought a million dollars more.

"Once we knew we were close, we did something that they call 'getting into a room,'" says Fennell. "That's when you lock yourself up in a condo and don't leave until it's done. There were about 20 different terms to be worked out, and at 5:30 in the morning we had a deal."

That's not all Fennell brought back to Charlottesville. A jury that included the likes of Oscar winners Quentin Tarantino and Marcia Gay Harden gave Choke the ensemble acting award for a cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Joel Grey, and the film's director, TV actor Clark Gregg, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation.

According to producer Barry Sisson, who heads up another Charlottesville-based film company, Cavalier Films, Sundance success is hard-fought. Sisson says the buzz he saw for Choke this year was not unlike what he saw for his own company's film The Station Agent when it won awards and a distribution deal with Miramax in 2003.

"It's a good, marketable film," he says of Choke. "I think they're very happy with what they've done with this one."

But ATO execs know firsthand that a Sundance deal does not a hit make. After Fox Searchlight bought the rights to Joshua in 2006, the film grossed just $478,492 in theaters. 

Why does Fennell think Fox Searchlight was so ready to get back into business with ATO after last year's disappointment?

"I'm not sure putting  Joshua on the same opening weekend as Harry Potter was the smartest distribution strategy," he says, "but it didn't have anything to do with the way we made the movie. It's actually doing quite well on DVD now."

Indeed, in its first 12 days on rental shelves, Joshua the disc has grossed $5.5 million.

Sisson vainly tried to get his company latest movie, an ensemble family drama called Familiar Strangers, into this year's festival, but he says his failure is not the end of the line for the film.

"It has a broad appeal, and they tend to go for edgier stuff at Sundance. I just didn't think a lot of the films I saw were on par with ours," he says. "We're looking into other festivals now, especially the Los Angeles Film Festival."

Still, despite the fact that he didn't have a horse in the running this time, the Park City-based Festival was a productive one for Sisson.

"It's always great for scouting new talent," he says. "Besides, anytime I can watch four movies a day, I'm in heaven."