Product hungry distribs find Sundance a sellers' market

PARK CITY — A confluence of factors has made this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which ended Jan. 20, one of the most active markets in memory for specialty pics.

By late last week, 13 pics had been acquired, with at least another dozen in play with distribs. Total number of acquisitions last year, including pics bought well after the fest, was 12-15.

“It’s hard to classify the movies being sold because they’re all over the map,” says Greg Williams, CEO of distrib Lot 47. “But I think the big story is the number of distribs that have been buying. It’s great for everyone in the indie distribution market to see this kind of activity.”

Digitally shot pics were in abundance, and many see the $5 million acquisition of Gary Winick’s “Tadpole” as auguring well for the future of digital production and filmmaking.

The active dealmaking has taken nearly everyone by surprise, and stands in stark contrast to last year’s tepid market, when caution was the word and bidding wars seemed a thing of the past.

Insiders attribute this year’s hyperactive market to last year’s threat of WGA and SAG strikes, which crippled specialty production; a derailed Toronto Intl. Film Festival, due to the events of Sept. 11; the emergence of several new and hungry distribs; and an appetite among distributors and audiences for product sharply different than that released by the majors.

Major linkage

Other factors include an increased perception among distribs, particularly those linked to majors, that shelling out seven figures for a pic, especially one with a few stars in it, is a safe bet given the increased potential revenue streams from ancillary markets such as cable, video and DVD.

Several observers note that while the pics that were picked up ranged from the arty to the commercial, most of those acquired featured at least one name actor.

Bingham Ray, who heads United Artists Pictures, says the pics last year were of slightly higher quality, but there were more available this year, and distribs were hungrier.

Feeding frenzy

And a lot of companies were present and buying.

Lot 47 Films acquired domestic rights to Alexandre Rockwell’s “Thirteen Moons,” which screened at Slamdance; United Artists took English-speaking rights to Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity”; ThinkFilm nabbed North American rights to the Robert Redford-produced “Love in the Time of Money,” directed by Peter Mattei, and also clinched deals for Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” with Matt Damon; plus Palm Pictures bought North American rights to Julio Medem’s “Sex and Lucia.”

Other distribs to make a splash were Fox Searchlight, which caught Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl” and John Malkovich’s directing debut, “The Dancer Upstairs”; and Lions Gate, which took Lucky McKee’s “May” and Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intacto.”

Fine Line bought “Cherish,” helmed by Finn Taylor; Sony Pictures Classics took Todd Louiso’s “Love Liza,” a buzz pic of the fest; and UA nabbed Miller’s “Personal Velocity.”

Cinetic Media’s John Sloss, who by late last week sold four of the six pics he was repping at Sundance, explains: “Last year, especially the year end, was bullish for specialized films, and that, when coupled with the production slowdown following the aborted strikes and 9/11, created a real appetite for product.”

Paul Webster, prexy of FilmFour, says: “I think it’s something to do with the fact that there is such a polarization between studio fare and the indie market. The perception is that you need alternative product out there. And here at Sundance there have been some genuinely excellent films.”

Webster also points to the pics’ high-profile talent.

“Name players like Jennifer Aniston and Matt Damon are more and more willing to take a risk on these kinds of movies,” he says. “Aniston’s ‘The Good Girl’ is a tweener — it’s somewhere between commercial and indie. What we’re seeing is the star system bringing its power to bear on the indie community.”

But the market may simply have escalated, as Lot 47’s prexy Jeff Lipsky says, “in a case of monkey see, monkey do.”

Lipsky called Miramax’s purchase of Winick’s “Tadpole,” produced for roughly $500,000, a “warning shot.”

“When that happens, there’s a frenzy,” Lipsky says. “When someone makes a dramatic buy at a great price, you see a lot of distribs feeling that they need to buy.”

Miramax already had nabbed “Blue Car,” helmed and penned by Karen Moncrieff, for $1 million-$2 million, and remained an active presence in Park City through the fest. Late last week, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein slipped into town, reportedly screening several pics, including Victor Nunez’s “Coastlines,” still up for grabs.

Concludes attorney Steven Beer, who repped four films at the fest, including “Paradox Lake” and “Face”: “What we’ve learned from this festival is that many companies believe that a modest, well-focused theatrical release can still generate considerable revenue streams.”

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