Sundance buzz: more buys, less $

HOLLYWOOD – Thanks to “Care of the Spitfire Grill” selling for an eye-popping $10 million at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, a new squad of filmmakers is headed to the Park City slopes today ready to yell, “Show me the money!” But veteran acquisition executives caution that the high-altitude marketplace may be flattening.

They argue that since the biggest hits in the specialized arena this past year – “Fargo,” “Lone Star” and “Trainspotting” – did not break the $25 million barrier during their domestic theatrical runs, a redistribution of wealth is at hand, with more films getting acquired at the fest – which runs through Jan. 26 – but for less money than last year. Nevertheless, a handful of projects have acquisition execs champing at the bit.

Those include Jill Sprecher’s “Clockwatchers,” which stars Toni Collette, Parker Posey and Lisa Kudrow; Mark Waters’ adaptation of Wendy Macleod’s play “The House of Yes”; video director Mark Pellington’s adaptation of Dan Wakefield’s novel “Going All the Way”; and Steven Vidler’s “Blackrock,” a raw Aussie film about disenfranchised youth that could be 1997’s thunder from Down Under the way “Shine” was last year.

And critics, too, are ready to embrace or eviscerate the latest offerings from arthouse darlings like David Lynch, Victor Nunez and Robert Downey Sr., whose “Hugo Pool” features a performance by his recently rehabbed son.

Frenzy sought

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, says many filmmakers are hoping that “they can do a deal immediately after the Sundance screening, trying to create a frenzy like ‘Shine’ or ‘Spitfire Grill.’ But last year will never be repeated.” Sony will be showcasing Richard Linklater’s “SubUrbia” and Bart Freundlich’s competition pic “The Myth of Fingerprints.”

Bernard predicts, “There will be an unprecedented number of acquisitions people with money to burn, and they aren’t going to leave empty-handed. We will probably see films get acquired this year that might have been passed over in previous years.”

Many producers have already met with distributors but refused to screen their films in advance of the fest – a marked contrast to last year, when a lot of pics were floating around on videotape. Besides hoping to create a bidding war, some films, like “Going All the Way” and “The House of Yes,” are still being edited, despite an edict from Sundance programming director Geoffrey Gilmore that all competition films must be completed a week before the fest opens.

Last year, the wet print of “Walking and Talking” arrived late for its screening after the film’s New York-based producers James Schamus and Ted Hope were delayed by a Utah blizzard.

Sex is the subtext

The 1997 fest is shaping up as a departure from years past thematically as well. Instead of rural Americana and rough and tumble film noir, sexual politics is the subtext of many of the films scheduled to unspool this year. Male directors like Kevin Smith and Jeremy Horton will weigh in on lesbian subject matter (“Chasing Amy” and “100 Proof”). Director Michael Oblowitz will serve up his take on Jim Thompson’s incest tale, “This World, Then the Fireworks.”

And offscreen, the independent film world is buzzing about director Gregg Araki’s shift in sexual orientation. He will be in Utah to promote his Fine Line Features pic “Nowhere,” his fourth film in five years at the fest, and one that includes the usual gender-bending teen characters that have appeared in pics like “The Doom Generation” and “The Living End.” Araki has often been heralded as one of the most important voices in independent gay cinema. So his involvement with “Nowhere” cast member and “Beverly Hills, 90210” starlet Kathleen Robertson may set tongues wagging – just as Maria Maggenti, the director of “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love,” became a cause celebre when she became involved with a man after the release of her film.

The panel discussion on “Sexual Politics” scheduled for Jan. 23 could prove one of the more diverting moments of the fest, although no panelists have been set.

Teen girls tops

In the dramatic competition section, a number of first-time directors will address the intensity of teenage girl friendships. Both Hannah Weyer’s “Arresting Gina” and Alex Sichel’s “All Over Me,” from Fine Line, touch on that issue. Sichel, 33, wrote the film with her sister Sylvia, and they are one of several sister teams stepping into the limelight at a festival where brother writing-directing duos like Joel and Ethan Coen, Larry and Andy Wachowski (“Bound”), as well as Jonas and Josh Pate (“The Grave”) have basked before.

Director Jill Sprecher co-wrote “Clockwatchers” with her sister Karen. The film promises to do for temp workers what “Party Girl” did for librarians.

“My sister wanted to write something that was small and character-driven,” says Jill Sprecher, an NYU film school grad; her sister is a psychologist. “And I had worked at a small company which got really fun when a new person was hired and things started to disappear from the office.”

Worldwide scope

Instead of the four corners of North America, the strongest examples of regionalism on the docket this year appear in the world section, where American audiences will get a sampling of the much-vaunted renaissance in British regionalism. Peter Cattaneo’s “The Full Monty,” from Fox Searchlight, is set in Yorkshire and turns on the notion of unattractive ex-steelworkers forming a Chippendales-style revue. “Trainspotting’s” Robert Carlyle stars, and the soundtrack features Donna Summer, Gary Glitter and Sister Sledge, as well as Tom Jones covering the Joe Cocker staple “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”

Wales will be well-represented by Marc Evans’ debut “House of America” as well as the ribald yet rollicking “Twin Town,” a Gramercy release. Set in a mining town, Evans’ pic features a family whose father has split and whose drug-addled kids dream of America. Kevin Allen’s “Twin Town” depicts in a darkly comic tone the havoc that two brothers from a trailer park wreak on a town where everyone is involved in each other’s business. With “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald on board as executive producers, “Twin Town” may prove to be the grooviest thing to come out of Swansea since Shirley Bassey.

– Monica Roman in New York contributed to this report.

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