On paper, the micro-budget comedy "Waking Ned Devine" was a giant gamble.

Director Kirk Jones had never directed a theatrical film. The stars were relatively unknown, and the subject matter the winning of an Irish lottery was about as accessible to U.S. audiences as the Isle of Man, where the film was going to be made.

And yet, making independent films has always been a crazy, roll-of-the-dice kind of business. And with "Ned," the backers appear to have found a winner.

The film cost only $3.5 million to make and has already generated about $1.5 million domestically despite being in just 49 theaters nationwide. The 91-minute film has an impressive $12,000 per-screen average.

"It probably will be an Academy Award contender," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., a company that charts box-office grosses. "That means it will bring in $25 million plus, domestically."

Lindsay Law, president of the film's distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures, said he couldn't predict the ultimate domestic gross.

"It could be $18 million or $25 million or $40 million," he said. "There are so many factors, like how many top 10 lists it makes." Domestic gross, of course, is only part of the equation. The film, expected to be very popular among European audiences, could make several times its U.S. gross overseas.

The fact that "Ned" got made at all, and that Fox Searchlight and other major distributors were willing to back it, owes a lot to a Fox Searchlight film from last year "The Full Monty." That cost $3.5 million to make and brought in more than $45 million in the United States (and more than $300 million when overseas returns were added).

It also set off a major competition among the studios to find more such gems in the rough.

Still, getting "Ned Devine" on the screen wasn't easy. It originally was scheduled to get underway in 1994, with Nigel Hawthorne as the star. But Hawthorne, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in "The Madness of King George," dropped out. The project seemed doomed.

Enter Los Angeles-based Overseas Filmgroup Inc., an independent film distribution company. Francesca Barra, the company's European acquisitions chief, became an advocate for this wacky tale about a group of Irish villagers who pretend a dead lottery winner is still alive in order to share in the winnings.

"We fell in love with the screenplay," said Robert Little, Overseas' co-chief executive officer. "But it was much more risky getting the financing without Hawthorne."

Little and his staff spent nearly a year cobbling a financial package that would get the cameras rolling on the Isle of Man, whose film office gave tax breaks to the investors. Other backers included France's Mainstream SA and Canal Plus and two British movie companies, First Independent Films and Bonaparte Films Ltd.

"It's a little like a Rubic's Cube," Little said. "It was tough."

The film, which stars Ian Bannen, David Kelly and Fionnula Flanagan, was made in five weeks.

In a fierce bidding war that followed a screening at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Fox Searchlight beat out Miramax Films, October Films, Artisan and Trimark.

Law said he was impressed by the reaction he observed during the Cannes screening.

"I was attracted to the story and what I felt about the characters," he said. "It was like eating mashed potatoes. It felt good all over. People laughed and cheered and I thought that all audiences might respond this way."

Fox aggressively went after "Ned Devine" minutes after the screening ended. "One of our competitors offered Robbie (Robert Little) $1 million to negotiate exclusively with just them for a few hours," Law said. "He turned them down."

Law said Fox's plan to market the film impressed Little. "We waxed rhapsodic about it," he said. "But we had a solid campaign on how to take it out. The comparison to 'Full Monty' came to mind, and we wanted it."

Dave Davis, an analyst at Houlihan, Lokey, Howard and Zukin, said getting Fox Searchlight behind "Ned Devine" was a plus for the film and its backers.

"Fox can bring the same marketing expertise to 'Ned Devine' as it had with 'Full Monty,' Davis said. "It's win-win."

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