Theannual Sundance Film Festival buying spree got off to an unexpectedly briskstart this year with five films finding at least North American distributionfor a collective price tag upwards of $18m. And that was after just three full andfrenetic screening days in Park City.

Thekey acquisitions so far are:

- Garden State, Zach Braff's directorial debut romantic comedy starring Braff andNatalie Portman, was such a hot item that its sale marked an unprecedentedjoint venture between Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight Pictures, whereby thecompanies each paid $2.5m. They will share in worldwide revenues, although it isstill unclear how it will be distributed.

- Focus Features quickly took Walter Salles'Spanish-language The Motorcycle Diaries off the table within hours of its Saturday evening world premiere,paying $4m for North American rights - an unusually high figure for a subtitledfilm.

- Fox Searchlight also bought worldwide rights to lowbudget comedy Napoleon Dynamitefor a price officially put at $3m with a high upside potential for thefilm-makers.

- Sony Pictures Classics paid an estimated $2m forStacey Peralta's surfing documentary Riding Giants, continuing a relationship with the film-maker begunon Dogtown And Z-Boys.

- Lions Gate Films has bought worldwide distributionrights to Chris Kentis' deep sea thriller Open Water for a price in the $2m region. The film played inthe American Spectrum section of the festival.

In atwist on previous years where bragging rights belonged to the biggest spenders,this year buyers and sellers were attempting to play down prices, wary of themedia backlash that such auctions has generated in the past. As a result, theprices above could vary substantially from the true financial commitments made.

Other films sparking earlyinterest three days into the film festival include HBO Films' Maria Full OfGrace, a gut-wrenching story of drugsmuggling in the Spanish language, which is likely to be released in the US byFine Line Features under their existing put deal with HBO Films even thoughforeign-language films are understood to be excluded from the arrangement.

November, the latest micro-budget production from New Yorkbased film-making collective InDigEnt, was being circled by several buyersincluding Sony Pictures Classics which handled the last film from director GregHarrison.

Films which buyers arekeenly anticipating this week include We Don't Talk Anymore starring Naomi Watts and Mark Ruffalo and TheWoodsman with Kevin Bacon.

The collaboration betweenFox Searchlight and Miramax on Garden State represents a renewed association between the twostudios which first co-produced Master And Commander: The Far Side Of TheWorld.

"We had a great experienceworking with Jim Gianopolus, Tom Rothman and all of Fox on Master AndCommander, and it is exciting thatwe can now work with the studio on an independent level as well," said Miramaxco-chairman Harvey Weinstein in a statement. "Peter Rice is someone I haverespected for years and I am pleased to be working with him and Fox Searchlighton distributing Garden State, afilm that we are both very passionate about."

The two companies arecurrently discussing which will distribute the film in which territory. "Wehope this partnership will lead to further collaborations," added Searchlightpresident Rice.

Garden State is a romantic comedy about a man who returns to hishometown for the first time in ten years to attend the funeral of hisclinically depressed mother, a journey of self-discovery that reconnects himwith the world he left behind. Co-starring with Braff (star of hit US TV show Scrubs) and Portman are Peter Sarsgaard, Jean Smart, MethodMan, Ian Holm and Ron Leibman. The film was produced by Gary Gilbert and DanHalsted of Camelot Pictures and executive produced by former Jersey Filmspartners Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher.

The negotiations werehandled by Miramax executives Agnes Mentre, David Miercort, Arianna Bocco andErica Steinberg and Searchlight executives Joseph DeMarco and Tony Safford.Sales were handled by Andrew Hurwitz of the law firm Epstein, Levinsohn,Bodine, Hurwitz and Weinstein. CAA represented Braff, Portman, Sarsgaard andthe film's producers.

Motorcycle Diaries was sold by Alison Thompson of Pathe Internationaland Grame Mason of financing/production company FilmFour, working with Salles'agent John Lesher of Endeavor.

"We've followed this moviesince its inception and are tremendously proud to be involved with Walter andhis team and working again with Gael Garcia Bernal," said Focus co-presidentDavid Linde, referring to Bernal-starrer Y Tu Mama Tambien.

"Thisis a film that was done with such passion and collective heart that I can onlybe so happy that a company that shares those principles will be distributingthe film," said Salles.

Thefilm, which is executive produced by Sundance's own Robert Redford andco-produced by his Southfork Pictures, follows the motorcycle trip across SouthAmerica which Che Guevara and a friend took in their early twenties in 1952.Focus plans to release the film in the fourth quarter of 2004 in time forawards season.

Napoleon Dynamite was sold by Sundance fixture John Sloss of CineticMedia to Searchlight. The film is an eccentric comedy set in an Idaho highschool and was directed and co-written by Jared Hess.

Lions Gate's deal on Open Water marked the first film boughtby the company since the acquisition of Artisan Entertainment. The deal wasclosed with the film's production company Plunge Pictures and Lions Gate isplanning a summer 2004 theatrical release.

"Chris Kentis and[producer] Laura Lau have crafted an unbelievably intense tale of fear andsurvival set in the vast, creepy expanse of the open ocean," said LionsGate Films Releasing president Tom Ortenberg. "We are thrilled to becharged with bringing this superior, bone-chilling tale I would describe as BlairWitch meets Jaws, to a wide audience this summer, continuing to buildour leadership in the horror/thriller genre, and letting audiences know that itwon't be safe to go back in the water."

The deal was closed byOrtenberg, Peter Block, Jason Constantine and Nick Meyer on behalf of LionsGate with Ronna Wallace, Sue Bodine and Andrea Cannistraci for the film-makers.Lions Gate Films International is handling international sales.

Based on the true story oftwo married scuba divers left behind by a careless boat crew, the film focuseson the shark-infested journey that followed, as the drifting couple face theirmost primitive fears as they fiercely struggle to survive.

Sony Pictures Classicsbought Riding Giants, which was the festival's opening night film, fromStudioCanal which had financed it. The film follows the lives and histories ofbig wave surfers.

"We are delighted to becontinuing our long-standing relationship with Sony Pictures Classics," saidMuriel Sauvay and John Kochman of Studiocanal, who, with Andrew Hurwitz again,brokered the deal on behalf of Studiocanal. "Sony Pictures Classics' unwaveringcommitment to Stacy Peralta and his singular talent makes Riding Giants a perfect fit for all concerned."

There was talk over theweekend that the acquisitions would be used to fill release slots in the summermonths which last year proved unexpectedly lucrative for Sundance 2003 titles Thirteen and American Splendor.