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Park City launch a mixed blessing

To buy or not to buy?

Acquisition execs swear every year they’re not going to get suckered into the high-stakes card game Sundance has become.

And yet every January the pressure mounts and most inevitably succumb, placing big bets on small films.

“People are calling you asking, ‘What did you buy?’ and you feel like a schmuck if you don’t have anything,” sighs one vet indie exec. “We try to go in more cautious every year, but every year people get caught up in it all.”

Last year’s festival in particular should serve notice to buyers not to lay down too many chips. With the major exception of Artisan’s $140 million grosser “The Blair Witch Project,” which the minimajor picked up for $1.1 million, most Sundance pics sputtered commercially.

The fact that “Blair Witch” screened as a “Park City at Midnight” entry hardly served as a harbinger of its sleeper-hit-of-the-year status, nor did it underscore the importance of the Dramatic Competition as the fest’s beacon of emerging talent.

Aside from “Blair Witch” helmers Daniel Myrick and Edwardo Sanchez, fest regulars say that few ’99 pics showcased breakout talent that will define the future of indie film. A handful might have gained career momentum, but for the majority, last year’s festival proved a wash.

“I don’t feel the public discussion and debate about these films,” says Nick Wechsler, head of management at production outfit Industry Entertainment. “There’s so much in the marketplace to distract audiences. They can take a look at a film for one night and move on.”

With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, the mixed-bag roster includes:

Dramatic competition

  • “Three Seasons” separated itself from the pack not only with its $2 million domestic gross but with the spotlight it put on helmer Tony Bui. The film, billed as the first American release to be shot in Vietnam since the war, won the fest’s Grand Jury Prize and audience award. Bui is now set to direct two of his own scripts in 2000, including an adaptation of “The World I Made for Her,” a novel by Thomas Moran. The other project is an original that will fall under Bui’s two-pic deal with USA Films, which released “Seasons.”

  • “Happy, Texas” serves as the key cautionary tale of Sundance 1999. Though details of the acquisition remain murky, Miramax reportedly paid $10 million for Mark Illsey’s comedy starring Steve Zahn, Jeremy Northam and William H. Macy. The buy sent shockwaves through Park City last January, while the pic’s B.O. of $2 million did the same thing in Hollywood.

  • “Guinevere” turned into another rough outing for Miramax. Praise from critics didn’t outweigh the awkwardness of a March-September relationship between characters played by Stephen Rea and Sarah Polley. Pic by writer-director Audrey Wells grossed $668,099.

  • “Joe the King,” semi-autobiographical pic from actor Frank Whaley, hardly cashed in on star wattage of cast members Val Kilmer, Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo. The Trimark release grossed a paltry $60,279.

  • “The Minus Man” seemed a poster child for the 1990s indie aesthetic: sardonic trailer, direction by “Blade Runner” scribe Hampton Fancher and star turn by Janeane Garofalo. Perhaps its slim gross of $370,669 signals that a new film millennium has indeed arrived.

  • “Tumbleweeds” has become best known as a showcase for Oscar hopeful Janet McTeer. But that buzz, and the lift it gave director Gavin O’Connor and screenplay collaborator Angela Shelton can’t obscure the fact that Fine Line reportedly shelled out north of $5 million for the pic, which has logged a limp $1.2 million cume to date. The potential for a strong Oscar showing is some consolation to the Fine Liners.

World premieres

  • Last year’s opening-night feature, “Cookie’s Fortune,” Robert Altman’s latest multi-character work, took in a so-so $10.9 million despite a big-name cast that included Glenn Close, Chris O’Donnell and Liv Tyler. Pic was one of the last efforts by now-defunct indie stalwart October Films, which was absorbed by USA Films last year.

  • “Go” and “Jawbreaker” both presented the same challenge for Sony: how to market films riffing on teen life but also appealing to older, sophisticated auds. Doug Liman’s “Go” had a lot of heat on the heels of his hit “Swingers,” but couldn’t parlay “Pulp Fiction” comparisons into B.O. winnings. Final tally was $16.9 million. “Jawbreaker,” the debut from helmer Darren Stein, mixed older stars like Pam Grier and Carol Kane with young thesps Rose McGowan and Rebecca Gayheart. Cume was $3.1 million.

  • “The Loss of Sexual Innocence” constituted another misstep from Oscar-nommed helmer and writer Mike Figgis since peaking with “Leaving Las Vegas” in 1995. Sony Classics’ “Loss” finished with $311,374. In the interim, Figgis’ helmed another 1999 bomb, “Miss Julie.” That United Artists pic grossed just $13,000.

  • “Sugar Town,” a sendup of the L.A. rock music scene co-directed by Kurt Voss and Allison Anders, eventually cumed just $178,096 after a September release by USA Films.

  • “A Walk on the Moon” from Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Prods. typified Miramax’s recent B.O. woes, grinding out a paltry $4.8 million despite above-average publicity.

North American premieres

  • “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” which made its North American premiere in Park City, underscored the positive value of a Sundance launch. Released by Gramercy Pictures, writer-helmer Guy Richie’s pic made $3.9 million in the U.S.

  • “Hideous Kinky” totaled $1.4 million, giving Stratosphere a modest profit. Post-“Titanic” momentum for “Kinky” star Kate Winslet couldn’t have hurt.

American Spectrum

  • “Twin Falls Idaho” had two heads and long legs. Tale of conjoined twins was the most successful of American Spectrum entries. Released by Sony Classics, dark Michael Polish-helmed drama scored a respectable $1 million despite limited release pattern.

World Cinema

  • “Run Lola Run” gave Sony Classics a rare summer foreign hit. At $7.2 million and still running, pic is one of the most successful German releases. Star Franka Potente and helmer Tom Tykwer both saw their reputations cross the Atlantic. Propulsive electronica-filled soundtrack also helped the film in the U.S. After the success of “Lola,” German production company X-Filme Creative Pool began talks with several European players about a possible entry into theatrical distribution.

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