Coin-tight distribs bid adieu to bidding wars

Niche acquisitions shrink as economics, low quality hit biz

NEW YORK — Are the days of festival bidding wars over? Several indie players seem to think so.

The trend toward caution among specialty distribs began at last year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival, where many pics failed to meet buyers’ expectations. It continued through this year’s Sundance and Cannes fests — and may well endure through Toronto 2001.

But unlike two years ago, when companies such as Fine Line, Artisan, Sony Pictures Classics, Lions Gate, Paramount Classics, USA Films, Screen Gems and Fox Searchlight could emerge from a fest with as many as three films in tow, now these companies operate with modified modus operandi.

Narrowing focus

“The market has gotten very specific,” notes Good Machine partner David Linde, who will be selling a handful of films at the fest. “People are coming in and evaluating it very much from a numbers basis.”

Most acquisition execs say they are content to leave a fest empty-handed, opting to pursue pics on their own time. Many also will wait until after a fest because they know prices will tumble.

“The people prepared to pay the big numbers have slates of productions,” says Bob Aaronson, Fireworks Pictures VP of acquisitions and co-productions, “so they are not so dependent on acquiring something at a certain festival.”

The reasons for the trend have less to do with the economy than with a shift in the specialty landscape. Companies are: getting involved with films earlier, often at script stage; developing more of their own material; using fests as sites to launch completed films; and acquiring pics year-round.

Some acquisitions execs lament that so few specialty pics of resonance are getting made each year — a problem that was exacerbated over the past nine months by the threat of strikes, which caused in-demand actors to commit to larger-budgeted films.

“There are lots of people looking to buy movies now,” says Fox Searchlight topper Peter Rice, whose company was active at Sundance. “If they can find a movie that they think can honestly work in the commercial marketplace, they will buy it.”

Sony Pictures’ co-president Michael Barker is a bit more skeptical: “I can’t say I feel a great amount of excitement this year; I don’t think we will find a lot of films there. The really good films have been few and far between. Everyone has the same frustration– it has to do with quality.”

Not surprisingly, the most anticipated projects at this years’ Toronto fest come from established directors, including Bart Freundlich (“World Traveler”), Fred Schepisi (“Last Orders”), Mike Figgis (“Hotel”), Rose Troche (“The Safety of Objects”), Ken Loach (“The Navigators”), Carlos Saura (“Bunuel and King Solomon’s Table”), and Gregor Jordan (“Buffalo Soldiers”).

But there’s more change in the air. At Cannes and elsewhere, Miramax Films has shown that it is back in the specialty business. Meanwhile, specialty distributors such as Lot 47 Films, IFC Films and Fireworks Pictures have been making more noise, nabbing films on which larger shingles have passed.

Add to the field a re-energized United Artists, with former October topper Bingham Ray at the helm. “If I see a film at a festival and the festival happens to be Toronto,” says Ray, “I am going to chase it. I realized at Cannes that my instincts as a buyer hadn’t faded.”

Ray adds: “Still, you don’t want to throw a lot of money out there just to show everyone you’re there.”

Another issue concerns a pic’s theatrical viability, particularly with cable TV outlet more aggressively pursuing original pics.

“The cost of doing business at the theatrical market has made sane people out of the most insane,” says Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale. “Pay TV is not a dirty word anymore. Sometimes you read things or see things and you still think it’s better for HBO and Showtime.”

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