25 January, 2012

Sundance Behind Closed Doors

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Far from the red carpet glamour, the throngs trying to party crash on Main Street, the critics and programmers waiting on lines, there is another Sundance Film Festival taking place behind closed doors. While the Festival does not have an official market, as do such other events as Berlin and Cannes, there is definitely market business going on in private hotel suites and luxurious mountaintop villas. These are the precincts where sleep deprived sales agents hawk their wares to domestic distributors and international buyers…a private world of buy and sell that only becomes apparent once news breaks about a deal struck after a long night of push/pull. A year after one of the most hectic Sundances in a decade, the stage is set for a repeat performance, although the pace so far has not been as frenetic. Much of this has to do with the continuing economic doldrums (even Hollywood box office was off over 5%) and the not so spectacular performance of last year’s festival faves (including such films as MARGIN CALL, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, CRAZY IN LOVE, OUR IDIOT BROTHER and THE DETAILS). However, expectations are high for what seems to be another slate with potential.

The usual American buyers are here at the Sundance Film Festival in force, including such companies as Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, Magnolia, IFC Films, Music Box, Strand Releasing, Zeitgeist Films and Roadside Attractions. They are being joined by Sundance newcomers Film District, CBS Films, Open Road Films, LD Distribution, Adopt Films, Angle Films, Big Air Studios, Drafthouse Films, OWN Documentary Film Club and several scouts for new companies yet to be named. This influx of new buyers is being stimulated by the increased potential of VOD and digital download for indie product. Last year’s MARGIN CALL made as much money via VOD platforms as it did in theaters. Armed with that maturing revenue stream, buyers are more confident about buying films that will attract younger audiences who are more invested in new technology streams. Buyers from most European countries are also here in force, as they see films that they may eventually purchase at the European Film Market in Berlin next month.

Star-heavy projects always attract attention and this year buyers may circle around such films as ARBITRAGE (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon), LAY THE FAVORITE (Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones), RED LIGHTS (Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy), PREDISPOSED (Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo) and THE WORDS (Bradley Cooper, Olivia Wilde). A lot depends on these films’ reception here and so far none of the above has exactly caught fire. The key mantra is to be aggressive but not spend too much because that zealousness to overspend can bite you in the ass if the film underperforms. Sundance is strewn with the corpses of films that were bought for ridiculous sums with great flourish that tanked at the box office. These days, buyers are more cautious from the outset.

The other two genres generating strong interest are an unusual strong slate of comedies (such as BACHELORETTE, CELESE AND JESSE FOREVER, LIBERAL ARTS, FOR A GOOD TIME CALL…., SLEEPWALK WITH ME, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED and THE COMEDY) and the horror/gore/sci fi films that make up the Midnight section. What company would not want to buy the next PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or THE DEVIL INSIDE, two micro-budget films that scored millions at the box office. This year, interest is settling in for the genre titles EXCISION, THE PACT, BLACK ROCK and VHS. Most of the deals already announced are for comedy and genre titles, a trend that could continue through the end of the Festival. Many of the more serious dramas or hard-hitting documentaries are being well received critically but may find it more difficult to find traditional theatrical releases. Asking prices from sales agents is said to be more modest than in year’s past, but many films will have to wait months to find out what kind of releases they will receive. In the meantime, the tension mounts and the negotiating behind closed doors continues, as Sundance moves into its prime time. For information on these and other films, visit:

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