Sundance Fest: The Studios’ Stalking-Horse

When David Koepp, the screenwriter who penned “Jurassic Park” and “The Paper,” wanted to make the transition from writing to directing studio films, he financed and directed his own 13-minute short called “Suspicious.” On the basis of that short, which has earned a coveted slot at next week’s Sundance Film Festival, Amblin Entertainment has agreed to let Koepp direct his script, called “The Trigger.” By now it’s an old saw that

By now it’s an old saw that Sundance is mobbed by young Hollywood agents who fancy themselves “cutting-edge.” But what’s still a topic of debate is whether a Sundance appearance has much commercial benefit for a director’s career.

The major studios and mini-majors are increasingly using Sundance as a college draft for directors and not just for negative pickups. “I’m not at the festival for acquisitions,” says New Line Cinema president of production Mike De Luca. “I go to the festival to see whom I should be hiring for directing assignments.”

This year’s festival, which opens Jan. 19, is playing a pivotal role for cub helmer Tom De Cerchio. De Cerchio, a 34-year-old unproduced screenwriter, landed the directing assignment for Warner Bros./Morgan Creek’s “Ace Ventura Goes to Africa” on the basis of his short, “Nunzio’s Second Cousin,” which also is playing in the Park City, Utah, fest. He plans on using the heat he will get during the 10-day cinematic Saturnalia to set up his second feature, “Weaponsville” – a “Dr. Strangelove”-type comedy about gun control.

“Without Sundance and Ace,’ I would have had to raise $1 million and make ‘Weaponsville’ independently,” says De Cerchio, a former advertising executive. “Now I think I’ll wait and see what happens up there. I should be able to attract enough interest to make this movie for $5 million to $8 million.” De Cerchio and Koepp only have shorts playing in the festival, but the box office and profitability of some recent Sundance titles indicates that Sundance product is becoming more commercially viable.

The total box office of the five most talked-about films in competition from 1993 was less than $3 million. By contrast, 1994’s “Clerks” and “Fresh” have already generated $10 million – combined – in their domestic runs. And while in past years commercial films like “House Party” premiered there, Sundance alumni prior to 1989 did not tackle big-budget studio films.

Things changed that year when Michael Lehmann, the director of the dark comedy “Heathers,” chose not to continue pumping out small movies and accepted the directing assignment on the ill-fated big budget action pic, “Hudson Hawk.”

The list of commercially viable directors has grown:

* Paul Anderson’s first film, “Shopping,” premiered at last year’s fest; he is now directing New Line’s $20 million “Mortal Kombat.” De Luca saw “Shopping” and made a deal with the director after one breakfast.

* Likewise for Danny Cannon’s “Young Americans,” a Sundance selection last year, but Cinergi is bankrolling the director’s sophomore effort, “Judge Dredd,” to the tune of $80 million.

* Iain Softley’s “Backbeat” also preemed at Sundance last year; the director is now shooting MGM/UA’s $20 million “Hackers.”

This shift from being a place to discover films to a place for commerce is evidenced by the 25 out of 104 films that went into the festival with their distribution already in place this year. Some critics have accused the festival of becoming more commercial as a result, but the festival still operates on two tracks: the accessible films with a commercial life and the films that challenge and surprise.

“Up until several years ago, there was no such thing as a ‘mainstream independent film’ like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ which delivers critically and commercially,” says Sundance director of programming Geoffrey Gilmore. “The opportunity to make those movies did not exist in the past, and filmmakers were forced to choose between being marginal or working with a studio. Increasingly, you will see films with distribution or directors with studio deals at the festival; that is an indication of the festival reaching maturity. But we are not leaving behind what the festival always has been, which is a discovery of new talent and new work playing in competition.”

Meanwhile, a number of offshore films promise to be hot tickets this year. The list includes Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” – which rocked the U.K. box office during its opening weekend – and Benjamin Ross’ “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” which is a joint British, German and French production. If anyone believes Sundance has gone totally mainstream, all they need do is sit through Ross’ tale of a young London genius who has an obsession with toxic substances.

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