Snow biz abuzz as fest fare wide open

PARK CITY, Utah — It’s quiet in Park City, the kind of quiet that comes before a blizzard — or before a stampede of SUV-driving Hollywood types invade the town for the Sundance Film Festival.

With the local forecasts not calling for snow any time before Sunday, guess what’s going to hit first?

Late Thursday, as festgoers wielded cell phones and began to devise plans to hunt for content to fill pipelines both digital and traditional, the heat of indie deal-making that Sundance generates had already begun.

John Wells, one of television’s most prolific producers, writers and directors, has formed a unique pact with Christine Vachon’s Gotham-based Killer Films.

Wells, currently exec producing “ER,” “The West Wing” and “Third Watch,” said, “Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler are doing extraordinary work in motion pictures, and I am delighted to be able to invest in their futures.”

Vachon is in Park City with Rob Schmidt’s “Crime and Punishment in Suburbia,” which she produced and MGM/UA will release. Speaking of the new pact, she enthused, “Wells will afford us the kind of freedom and independence we needed. Our companies are dissimilar enough and similar enough. It’s an amazing marriage!”

Vachon is the producing force behind Fox Searchlight’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” and Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine.”

The John Wells Prods.-Killer Films pact was brokered by CAA’s Kevin Huvane, John Ptak and Joe Rosenberg (who rep both Wells and Killer); Tom Hansen closed Wells’ deal, while John Sloss of Sloss Law closed Killer’s.

In Park City, locals are not only eagerly awaiting the white stuff but also the green in festgoers’ wallets. Many attendees arrived Thursday in time for the opening night festivities in Salt Lake, but uncertain as to what the hot ticket will be.

“Probably the films that we are all zeroing in on will be disappointing,” predicted USA Films prexy Russell Schwartz to Daily Variety, “while the ones that are below our radars will be huge successes.”

This year’s fest may spawn a feeding frenzy among execs, as so little of the available product has been aggressively screened prior to Sundance — contrary to years past, when some felt all the good stuff was already spoken for before anyone even hit town.

Loaded with cash and needing to fill the pipeline fast, the dot-com tyros are sending crews to Utah with instructions to close that gap, which may mean the “legitimate” buyers will be outbid and even outspent by the upstarts in some areas, most likely including shorts.

All this static notwithstanding, buzz has already started building around a few projects.

Of the films unspooling in the premiere section, talk is centering on “What’s Cookin,’ ” which opened the fest Thursday night; “Love and Sex,” Valerie Breiman’s romantic fable, starring Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau; and “Happy Accidents,” Brad Anderson’s follow-up to “Next Stop Wonderland.”

The midnight screening of “Psycho Beach Party” has generated buzz, as it inhabits last year’s “Blair Witch Project” screening time and it’s a spoof of beach party movies in the John Waters vein. UTA reps the film.

The documentary division, one of the fest’s strongest, has people already humming about “Dark Days,” “Legacy” and “Well-Founded Fear.”

In the American Spectrum section, acquisitions execs say they have been tracking “Intern” and “Panic.”

Much cluck about ‘Chuck’

In the competition section, Miguel Arteta’s very inside-Hollywood black comedy “Chuck and Buck” is on many acquisitions execs’ radars: Arteta, who recently signed with WMA, previously helmed “Star Maps,” and this time he has a cast topped by Paul and Chris Weitz, the helmer and producer, respectively, of “American Pie.”

“Everything Put Together,” “The Tao of Steve,” “Urbania” and “You Can Count on Me” are also enjoying a high profile.

“Urbania,” directed by Jon Shear, stars Alan Cumming, Dan Futterman and Matt Keeslar. It is said to be a cutting-edge smart young urban movie and UTA, which reps the film, has high hopes.

The World Cinema section may hold the most surprises, with some execs and managers predicting that more than a few pics will sell. Among the earlier films generating heat are “Saving Grace,” “New Waterford Girl” and “Human Resources.”

But the pics to which everyone seems to be scrambling for tickets are already sold, including Paramount Classics’ “The Virgin Suicides,” Lions Gate’s “American Psycho” and “The Big Kahuna” and New Line’s “The Boiler Room.”

One final hot ticket is “Rated X,” the Emilio Estevez-directed story of San Francisco porn pioneers the Mitchell brothers. Although Showtime will broadcast, theatrical rights are up for grabs. The film may create what all the frenzied execs say they are going to avoid this year — a bidding war.

Effecting a pact

In a deal finalized Thursday, indie production company GreenStreet Films and effects house the Orphanage have entered into a strategic alliance whereby the latter will provide digital post-production and effects for GreenStreet films.

Pact is said to be worth about $15 million-$20 million.

The Orphanage created effects for such pics as “Star Wars — Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” “Men in Black,” “Star Trek: First Contact” and “Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

GreenStreet was behind such pics as “Illuminata,” “I’m Not Rappaport,” “A Price Above Rubies” and the forthcoming Griffin Dunne-helmed film “Famous.”

DirecTV goes indie

DirecTV, one of the leading digital service providers, has come aboard as a Sundance corporate sponsor and is embracing the indie scene with open arms.

New to Sundance this year is the sponsorship of Hollywood Video’s First Rites program, which will provide a distribution outlet for a first-time festival filmmaker.

The program is unique: Through it, 10 independent films per month are made available exclusively at Hollywood Video stores. The film chosen at Sundance will be slated for a summer release at the nationwide video chain.

First Rites is also a sponsor of the Interactive Lounge, where festival filmmakers can deliver screening cassettes of their films for consideration from Jan. 22-27. The winner will be announced Jan. 29.

(Cynthia Loggia contributed to this report.)

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