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''The Spitfire Grill'' has a lot to prove in the box office

Sundance fan favorite was sold to Castle Rock for a record $10 million

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With Dole-appropriate levels of sex — and financed by a Catholic charity — The Spitfire Grill doesn’t seem the sort of film that would inspire controversy. Opening nationally Sept. 6, it’s the tearful tale of a young ex-con (Alison Elliott) trying to start life over in a tight-knit Maine town. What is shocking is this: At the Sundance Film Festival, where potential distributors saw the movie in January, Castle Rock Pictures bought it for a baffling $10 million, tripling the record ever paid for an independent film. ”It’s a nine-hankie movie,” says Bingham Ray, comanaging executive of October Films, which briefly pursued Spitfire. ”But it went for 10 times what I thought it would.” Even Shine, the festival’s most sought-after film, fetched only $2.5 million from Fine Line.

The boffo price tag is only one wrinkle in the strange story of Spitfire, which was produced to raise funds for the Sacred Heart League, a Mississippi-based charity. In 1994, Roger Courts, the league’s head fund-raiser, formed a for-profit production company called Gregory Productions, Inc., with the intention of making a film that would ”present the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Surprisingly, his next step was to hire writer-director Lee David Zlotoff, creator of ABC’s MacGyver. ”I’m Jewish,” says Zlotoff. ”I told them if they really wanted to do a religious movie, don’t hire me. All they wanted was that it be a character-driven drama about the human spirit.”

The 36-day shoot began in April 1995 in Vermont. ”It was so low budget,” says Ellen Burstyn, who plays a crusty cafe owner. ”At one point they were going to take away my [character’s] dog because they couldn’t afford it.”

Still, the final $6.1 million cost was sumptuous for Sundance. John Pierson, author of the independent-film memoir Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, theorizes that it was ”perhaps the highest-budgeted film ever in Sundance’s dramatic competition.” While the edgy, no-budget crowd at Sundance was sarcastically speculating that the movie would be marketed with plastic dashboard Jesuses — kitsch statuettes made popular by the Sacred Heart League — the film got standing ovations at screenings and won the festival’s Audience award. Marci Liroff, Spitfire‘s casting director and co-producer, says a Castle Rock executive ”sneaked into a press screening, saw the film, and went apes—. She ran out in tears, called everybody back at Castle Rock, and said, ‘You have to buy this film.”’

The next day, after Castle Rock president Martin Shafer, chairman Alan Horn, and partner Rob Reiner screened the film in L.A., the studio made its $10 million offer. The deal astounded Sundancers, particularly Trimark Pictures execs, who’d thought they had a deal to buy Spitfire for just $1 million. After the Castle Rock deal was announced, Trimark sued Gregory Productions for $20 million (Gregory settled the suit by agreeing to donate an undisclosed sum, in Trimark’s name, to buy land for an elementary school in northern Mississippi). Even Liroff thinks the studio could have bought Spitfire for less. ”But I’m glad they didn’t,” she says.