Focus Features, the newly formed specialised arm of Universal Pictures, has acquired worldwide rights to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's long-awaited English-language debut 21 Grams. The hotly contested deal, closed today (Monday), marks the first time that Focus has acquired worldwide rights to a film since it was founded earlier this year from the merger of USA Films and Good Machine. Other companies bidding for the rights to the films included Miramax Films and New Regency Productions.

21 Grams is produced by Ted Hope with Inarritu. Hope is the former partner in Good Machine who left to become an independent producer when Universal bought the company in May. He is reunited with his old partners David Linde and James Schamus, who now run Focus, and who struck a three-year, first-look agreement to distribute Hope's films at the time. Focus International will handle international sales on the film whose budget is estimated at $20m.

21 Grams, which is Gonzalez Inarritu's second feature after the critical and commercial hit Amores Perros in 1999, has Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn and Naomi Watts attached to star. It was represented by LA agency Endeavor, whose John Lesher is Gonzalez Inarritu's US rep. The script was sent out to prospective financiers on red paper last week (so as not to copy it) and an accompanying letter warned that if the recipient showed the script to territorial buyers, he or she would immediately be out of the running.

Amores Perros writer Guillermo Arriaga has written the film which again revolves around a road accident and the impact it has on various individuals. Central to the drama is a man who gets a heart transplant and what ensues after he finds out the identity of his anonymous donor. The title is based on a belief that the soul weighs exactly 21 grams and that when a person dies, his or her body will weigh less that amount.

Pre production is slated to begin in August with principal photography starting in November. Brigitte Broch, who shared an Oscar with Catherine Martin for Moulin Rouge this year, will handle the art direction and set decoration. The Mexico City-based German national also worked on Amores Perros and other Mexican films.

Since he has based himself in Los Angeles, Gonzalez has made an acclaimed short titled Powder Keg for a series of BMW website ads. Prior to making Amores Perros which grossed more than $5m in the US alone, Gonzalez was a popular radio deejay and TV commercials director in Mexico.